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The Implications of a Big Labour Win

Author Larry Smith
Published 04 Apr 2024
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Public Affairs and Policy

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Westminster is waking up to the possibility of a big Labour win. But would a landslide bring the party down?

“It will be strange if there is a landslide”, William Rees-Mogg, the former editor of the Times, wrote on 1st May 1997. Contrary to what is often remembered, such views were common across the political spectrum on the eve of Tony Blair’s victory. Even the Guardian declared Labour’s chances of winning “precarious” in the face of narrowing poll leads.

It seems inevitable then that this week’s major seat-level ‘MRP’ polls predicting a wipeout for the Conservatives will be quickly forgotten if Rishi Sunak narrows the gap closer to the election. Westminster has become addicted to non-stop political drama, and insiders note the relatively young age of this generation of lobby journalists – something that means the political press has a limited memory of the twists and turns that led up to Labour’s ‘97 win.

But say for a moment these polls are at least correct in pointing to a healthy majority for Keir Starmer’s party, as even the Tory-supporting Spectator wondered this week. Would it finally end the political turbulence that has exasperated investors since the Brexit wars? Would developers seeking to deliver Labour’s infrastructure ambitions be able to discount threats of backbench-led NIMBYISM? Would it put to bed lingering concerns you still hear in some boardrooms that Labour will veer to the left once back in power?

Commiserations, you won

Talk to many people in and around Labour and the first reaction you will get to this week’s polls is one big eye roll. Those we speak to campaigning in seats further down the party’s target list speak of a high number of undecided voters on the doorstep, while those in more marginal seats suggest the latest headlines could send some activists off campaigning in unwinnable areas.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that even a significant Labour majority would not magic away the problems the party would face in government. Those familiar with Labour’s transition planning note frontbench teams are increasingly sober about the challenges they will inherit, with university financing, prisons and the state of children’s homes among issues yet to receive meaningful media attention. The party seems particularly stumped on how to handle the crisis in local government financing.

With spending pressures set to persist, such issues cannot be legislated away. Instead, new Labour ministers will require good backbenchers who can help them work with businesses, charities and others to solve challenges at local level. In 1997, the party was fortunate to have a cohort of new MPs who were pillars of their community (teachers, social workers, council leaders) and sought to attract local investors or make a nuisance of themselves to secure local infrastructure projects. How would a much-expanded PLP measure up today?

Meet the new Five Families

At least on the surface, the new generation of Labour candidates have the requisite experience to match their 1997 predecessors. Some local government leaders, such as Andrew Western and Sam Dixon, have already entered Parliament in by-elections, whilst current and former councillors can be found up and down the list of target seats. There are ex-teachers, local journalists, market researchers, solicitors and aid workers alongside the ex-advisers and union reps the party would be expected to field.

This new crop also looks as loyal as their New Labour forebears. Only a handful of names associated with the party’s left – e.g. Ed Miliband’s ex-advisor Miatta Fahnbulleh and ex-Unite Political Director Anneliese Midgley – have made it through selection, and they tend to be experienced political hands. A much-expanded PLP will likely be relied upon not to embarrass the party in day-to-day engagement with stakeholders and to diminish the power of a small band of far-left MPs (the Socialist Campaign Group) who would exercise more influence if Labour were to scrape by with a small majority.  

But the example of the Blair-era PLP shows a big majority does not guarantee plain sailing for the Government’s agenda. Those around the Whips’ Office during the first Blair parliament observe their successors will need to manage large rebellions from early in the life of a new government, as backbenchers would feel they had more room to defy the Whip and act as a de facto opposition. There would also be the more mundane challenge of keeping a large number of MPs motivated and in Westminster, something that consumes a large part of the Whips’ time even with smaller majorities.

Then there is the prospect of new factions, a problem that has bedevilled successive Conservative PMs. A much-enlarged PLP is likely to see more policy-focused caucuses form early in the life of a new government – for instance on net zero, industries such as steel or in support of communities such as coastal regions or rural areas.

But even constructive groups will need careful management to keep a Starmer administration rowing in same direction. And it is already possible to spot groups that could quickly wield outsized influence over areas such as foreign direct investment – a new Labour Friends of Taiwan caucus including backbench campaigners Diana Johnson and Sharon Hodgson is among those to watch closely.

Labour and workers’ rights: a reality check

For the time being, these are nice problems for Labour to have. There is still an election to win, and a balance to be struck within the party on more urgent issues. With Labour having settled – at least for now – its approach to green spending, shadow ministers are preoccupied with bomb-proofing other contentious areas of policy.

Chief among these is Labour’s workers’ rights platform, which has attracted a new wave of scrutiny following comments from the director of the 97 campaign, Peter Mandelson. Party insiders we speak to rate the chances of this platform being watered down quite high, and observe there is the potential for back-room tension given Angela Rayner is responsible for the package. However, they also hear little about the platform on the doorstep and do not regard it as a major electoral liability.

Labour may benefit here from another lack of institutional memory on the part of Britain’s press. Some more seasoned observers note a younger lobby has limited experience of covering industrial relations or labour market policy in the way it did in the 1990s. This may enable Rayner and other frontbenchers to present relatively cosmetic changes to the platform with comparatively little scrutiny. They will certainly need a bit of that luck if they are to emerge with a majority for the record books.  

 

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