May 12, 2021

Labour is a progressive party — and progressives believe that “things can only get better”. But, as always, the facts of life are conservative — and the most basic fact is that no matter how bad things are now, they can always get worse. And unfortunately for Labour, there are ten ways how:

  1. The Red Wall hasn’t finished falling down

At the last election the Conservatives won fifty seats from Labour across Wales, the Midlands and the North of England. These make up the famous “Red Wall” — or at least that section of it that turned blue.

For what’s less appreciated is just how much of it is still standing. We’re not talking the odd fragment here and there — but a significant proportion of Labour’s remaining MPs.

Up until last week, Hartlepool was number 44 on a list of likely Tory targets for the next general election (i.e. those requiring the smallest swings to turn blue). So, in theory, 43 seats are more winnable than Hartlepool was. Of those, 36 are held by Labour, 28 of them in the North and Midlands.

For what it’s worth, number 43 on the list is Rotherham. In last week’s local elections, the Tories went from zero seats on Rotherham Borough Council to twenty in a single bound. If that’s anything to go by, the fall of the Red Wall is only half-way through.

  1. Millennials might not ride to the rescue

Labour’s first priority shouldn’t be to win back the Red Wall, but to save what’s left of it. And yet unbelievably they’re being distracted from this most basic of tasks by the prospect of gains along the “Blue Wall”: Conservative-held seats in the South where younger, university-educated voters are trending Left.

As Ed West wrote on UnHerd this week, long-term generational shifts should certainly worry the Tories. But Labour ought to worry too. The party’s extreme dependence on younger voters is not a strength, but a vulnerability. Not only do young people have a habit of growing up and changing their minds, there’s a lot the Conservatives could do to win them over.

Take the Government’s housing policy, which is so bad that it serves as a rare example of something that can’t get any worse. Appointing a true reformer to put that right is an open goal for the Tories. Labour should hope they don’t bother.

  1. The Green Party 

Even if the Tories persist in abandoning the young to the Left, there’s no guarantee that the Left means Labour.

Last week, the Green Party demonstrated that it is capable of taking seats off all the main parties. Its biggest breakthrough though came in Bristol, where the Greens took an astonishing thirteen seats from Labour. Sheffield produced another astonishing result, in which the Greens gained five seats and Labour lost its majority.

In a general election, this could mean the Greens breaking out of their Brighton bastion to give Caroline Lucas some company in Parliament. A more dangerous scenario is one in which English Greens follow the lead of their German counterparts to become the middle-class Left-wing party”. This would deny Labour the new “Blue Wall” voters they need to offset their losses elsewhere. A Green surge could prove fatal.

  1. Non-white voters can’t be taken for granted

Labour still dominates the ethnic minority vote. It’s a key reason why the party keeps on piling up massive majorities in the most urban constituencies — especially in London.

But no one likes to be taken for granted; Starmer can’t assume that this will continue.

It is, for instance, going to be increasingly hard to sustain the image of the Tories as an exclusively white party. The Cabinet already includes Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Alok Sharma and Kwasi Kwarteng. By the next election they could be joined by Sajid Javid, James Cleverly and Kemi Badenoch (who would be the first black female MP to achieve Cabinet rank).

An ethnically-diverse Cabinet is not in itself a reason why non-white voters should vote Conservative. But it does explode an “argument” for why they should not — i.e. the insinuation that the Tories are irredeemably racist.

  1. The boundary review

After years of delay, the much-delayed review of constituency boundaries should be finished by July 2023 — after which, in the subsequent general election, the Conservatives will almost certainly gain seats, while Labour and the other opposition parties lose them.

It’s hard to tell how many until we get the new map — but it’s not unreasonable to suppose a Tory gain of ten seats and an opposition loss of about the same number.

That, of course, would increase the government’s notional majority from eighty to a hundred. Good luck overturning that in one go.

  1. A post-Covid boost

Getting the boundary review done by summer 2023 would allow an autumn election in the same year.

And it is highly likely the Government will want to go to the country during a Goldilocks period for the British economy: early enough for the post-Covid boom still to be felt, but late enough to get strategic investments in Red Wall constituencies underway. The Tories, in effect, will only look stronger. Boris Johnson would love to spend the campaign posing in a hard hat, new infrastructure rising up behind him.

  1. A Labour Party civil war

And yet Labour’s real problem might be in the foreground.

The first shots in Labour’s impending civil war were fired over the weekend, as the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle descended into chaos.

But worse could be to come. Compared to Jeremy Corbyn’s first year as leader — in which most of the shadow Cabinet resigned and there was a second leadership contest — Starmer has had an easy ride.

Now, do you suppose that’s because the Corbynites have meekly accepted their fate — or because they’ve been waiting for their moment?

I suspect Starmer is about to find out.

 

  1. A Labour stalemate

There is an alternative to civil war, but it’s worse.

The Corbynites never makes their move; the Starmerites never hit back. So nothing is resolved, nothing decided. Nothing of interest happens at all — or is even said for fear of provoking the other side.

There was talk of appointing Yvette Cooper and Hillary Benn to the shadow cabinet — not unbearably exciting, I’ll grant you — but Starmer couldn’t even make that happen. If nothing else, an Opposition should capture the imagination, but this lot just gather dust.

  1. The threat of Scottish independence

Another nightmare scenario for the Labour Party lurks north of the border: a second referendum on Scottish independence.

The 2014 referendum was a catastrophe for Labour — wiping out its most reliable stronghold. A second referendum would cause further damage. It’s not that there are many Scottish Labour MPs left to lose (it has just one). Rather the danger this time is of an English backlash, which is overwhelmingly likely to benefit the Conservatives. And there’s always the possibility that the Nats will win. Without Scotland’s MPs, the Tories could strengthen their grip on Westminster.

 

  1. Don’t bank on a two-party system

Britain’s two-party system has been in place for so long, we’ve come to see it as a feature of our constitution. But it isn’t.

Just because we’re accustomed to alternating spells of centre-left and centre-right government it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way. In other democracies, one party can hold power, barely interrupted, for decades upon end. Consider Sweden, for instance, or Japan. Britain too could end with a permanent party of government — and it won’t be Labour.

The idea that “the world doesn’t owe you a living” is a Right-wing sentiment that the Left has always resisted. But that doesn’t stop it from being true.