After the turbulence of austerity, Brexit, the pandemic and soaring energy bills, the UK seems ready for some ‘boring’. Three years after their humiliating defeat to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, the Labour Party is on the cusp of power. As the Tory government flounders, Sir Kier Starmer’s path to No.10 looks quite solid. The latest YouGov poll gives the Labour Party a 30% lead; not only are they regaining their lost bastions in the North, but causing a stir in the Tory heartlands in the south and in Scotland. With still two years to go until the next general election, will the Labour party maintain its lead or will it fizzle out handing the Tories a fifth straight election victory?
The Labour Party’s hopes were dashed in 2019 as they lost heavily to Boris Johnson; their voters had simply lost trust in them. Sir Kier Stamer lacked the charisma to take on Boris Johnson. Three years later, the jaded Tories kicked out Boris, replacing him with Liz Truss, in a lurch to their traditional values and in a bid to restore discipline and competence. One month later, her tenure has been a trainwreck: she has a lower approval rating than her predecessor as the country grapples with the shock of her mini-budget amid soaring energy bills.
Liz Truss outfoxed her rivals in the Tory party election with the promise to tame rising energy prices and pull Britain out of its economic rut. As the country mourned the demise of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the PM and the Chancellor got on with setting a new economic vision for the country. Their mini budget capped energy bills to a median of 2500 pounds, and cut taxes to their lowest level since the 1970s. These unfunded tax cuts, however, rattled the markets and caused irreversible damage to both the economy and the Tories’ credibility on it.
No sooner was the budget announced, that the market went into a meltdown. Gilt yields surged to 4%, the pound collapsed to a record low against the dollar, and a mortgage crisis seemed imminent; the stock market index tumbled and the S&P downgraded Britain’s creditworthiness to ‘poor’. The biggest jolt was a tax cut given to the richest individuals (abolishing the 45p tax rate). As prices continue to climb, Truss was non-committal on increasing welfare payments with inflation. The Bank of England stepped in to buy bonds to calm the markets; the IMF levied serious criticism of the mini-budget.
The Tory party’s squabbles came out in the open, with talk in the air of another change of guard; her ministers came out in the open attacking government policy. Top Tories gave the party conference a skip. As strikes, protests and a calamitous economy damage the Tories, their opponents in the Labour party smell blood: after a decade in opposition, they are on the threshold of power.
The Labour Party conference was a smooth show, a sharp break from the Corbyn years. Reclaiming the centre ground in politics- with ‘flag and country’ first- Sir Kier Starmer increasingly sounded like the PM-in-waiting; even businesses have warmed up to the idea of a Labour government. Blasting the Tories and refusing a deal with the SNP, Sir Kier Starmer presented an alternative vision for Britain. He outlined his plans to deal with an NHS on crutches, the broken school system and train strikes. Addressing the elephant in the room, he outlined Labour’s plans to take on energy: that a public energy company would be created to make Britain an energy surplus state. He echoed Tony Blair when he said that the Labour Party is once again ‘the political wing of the British people’. Usually beset with internal strife, the Labour Party looks election ready under Sir Kier Starmer. But the challenges remain, and the path to victory is not straight.
The Labour Party cannot simply rely on voters deserting the Tories for them; they should aim to position themselves as a credible alternative, not just a default for angry voters. To do so, they need not look far: Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win an election, presented a new vision for a changing country in 1997; New Labour was the new ‘cool thing’ in the block. What he lacks in charisma, Sir Kier can make up in a grip on policy: the country is ready for a ‘boring leader’.
Secondly, the party has to present itself as the only alternative or it risks losing votes to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens; it also has to strongly refute any deal with the SNP, preventing the Tories from stirring up nationalist sentiment. The party has to be a coalition between Hamstead and Hartlepool, between metropolitan liberals and their traditional working-class base. Their biggest advantage is Liz Truss.
As her premiership flounders, she is unable to shake off criticism like her predecessor, Boris Johnson. His ‘clown’ image endeared him to former Labour voters who describe her as ‘cold’ and ‘incompetent’. Her dismal speaking skills hamper her chances to sell herself to Tory voters, many of whom still yearn for Boris Johnson. Importantly, she leads a divided party to the polls. Often touted as Margaret Thatcher’s natural successor, she lacks Mrs T’s political skills and toughness, which endeared her to voters for a generation.
But with the election still a couple of years away, the true story shall depend on the economy. If the economy regains some steam- not likely at this point- then the election is open. The Labour Party’s once-in-a-generation shot depends on their campaign. They have to run a savvy, unifying campaign outlining a credible vision under Sir Kier Starmer. Whatever happens, one fact is for sure: British politics is up for a major shakeup.
Image by Dave on Flickr