July 13, 2023

Have Labour’s strategists achieved the impossible? Not only is the party 20 points ahead and in with a shot of winning four by-elections, but, perhaps even more impressively, its leader finally appears to be shrugging off his custardy sheen of squareness. According to a recent Politico profile, Keir Starmer has a “dark secret”: he once tried to raise some cash by “illegally” selling ice creams on a lads’ holiday in France. And yet, as Labour starts to behave like a party on the brink of power — optimistically hoping to finalise its policy platform later this month — all might not be as it seems.

Though Starmer appears to be doing well, his lead is soft, with less than a quarter of voters rating him as “good”. This is partly because his success is born of Tory failure rather than any great love for Labour and its policies: there is not much difference between his popularity ratings and Rishi Sunak’s, and only around 40% of voters think the Labour Party has the nation’s best interests at heart.

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This may not matter if Starmer only has to fight the Conservatives, but as he shores up the centre, he is at risk of leaving the party’s Left flank vulnerable to the sort of populist insurgency the Tories have been dealing with for a decade. Labour is headed to power, like the Tories 10 or so years ago, with a centrist vision that leaves their more demanding supporters wanting more.

And so, a populist insurgency today is far more likely to take place on the Left than the Right. This isn’t too surprising: in the current political climate, a party made up of largely disgruntled Tories would struggle to establish a new brand, would still be tainted by an association with the current administration’s failings, and would struggle to pick votes from the Left, where about half the electorate now sits. Equally, it would not enjoy the policy influence that Ukip had in its heyday, when along with the Brexit Party it could knock off five or so points from the Tories’ polling.

Through the 2010s, this meant the difference between being in Downing Street or in opposition. As a result, the Tories were forced to keep them sweet by offering concessions, most obviously the EU referendum. But this kind of strategy would not work today. Given their dire performance in the polls, the Tories are likely to be defeated in the next election regardless of whether they lose votes to the Right. So, even if they do make concessions to an insurgent party, they will be in no position to enact them. Moreover, the Tories will be wary of any Right-wing coalition that might scare off moderate voters in the Lib Dem marginal seats in the south and east of England. In other words, now is evidently not the time for another Right-wing insurgency.

The situation on the Left, however, is very different. To form a government, Labour needs to win big and win across the country: an almost unprecedented electoral task. A Leftist party — perhaps drawn from a few disgruntled MPs, outrider commentators and a celebrity or two — picking up between 5-10% of the vote could cause a huge amount of damage without even winning any seats, especially if it gave the Tories the upper hand in some of the tightest marginals. In this instance, Starmer would be forced onto a civil war footing.

Moreover, there is a clear ideological gap for the Leftist insurgency to occupy. Starmer’s weakness is that on crime, on culture, on social issues and even on economics he is cautious about leaning into populist ideas. Not wanting to scare potential supporters, he talks little of nationalisation, seems sometimes beholden to identity politics and is squeamish about things such as reducing immigration to protect workers. But when it comes to economics, a large proportion of voters sit to the Left of Labour, especially Starmer’s version of it.

If one dares to look beyond Rachel Reeves’s sensible economic credentials, there is real scope for more radical economic policies to capture the public imagination, from ramping up tax rates to imposing rent controls. There is currently mass support for the nationalisation of energy — something that Labour has been careful to step back from — as well as for nationalising trains and water supply. A clear majority of British voters don’t think the rich pay enough tax, and so a cost-of-living response that embraces some form of Universal Basic Income or increases taxes on the very richest would also go down well. Starmer, who knows he must appeal to the middle ground, won’t dare to go down this path — but a firebrand might.

All of which might start to sound a little like Corbynism rehashed, but the difference is that any successful Left-wing populist movement would have to be rooted in a patriotic vision that reflects the views of the British people. It could not be on the side of Stop the War or identity politics but would fly the flag and sing the national anthem. The new party would also embrace the Leftish vision of leaving the EU that appealed to many Brexiteers in left-behind regions: strengthening worker protections, for example, would be a popular policy with even Tory voters opposed to things such as zero-hours contracts and fire and rehire. It could also take a tough, Left-wing stance on crime and immigration, wresting these from the Right by portraying them as issues which protect the poorest.

Could the British Left learn from their European counterparts? Across the Continent, insurgent Leftists have recently achieved success by capitalising on the failure of both Right and Left and focusing instead on populist demands. Support for the centre-Left party Syriza surged in Greece after the financial crisis thanks to their anti-neoliberal, anti-globalist rhetoric; in Spain, while Podemos emerged as an anti-establishment option with Left-wing economics. Though these parties have now started to wane — Syriza trailed nearly 23 points behind the conservative New Democracy party in the country’s elections — this is no reason to discount their initial success (if anything, it’s a lesson in what happens once they start to stray from their initial pledges). A British Left-populist party could follow their example, first by developing a popular alternative to the old-Left establishment, and then by broadening their appeal towards “big-tent” populism.

Of course, electoral success would be harder to replicate here because of our first-past-the-post system — but it’s far from impossible. At the very least, a new party could introduce itself to voters in next year’s general elections, and seek to capitalise on their results in 2025’s locals. There are lots on the Left who seem alienated from Starmer’s centrism, especially those who espoused a sort of soft Corbynism. None yet seem committed to forming a new party, but it might serve them better in the short term than trying to wrestle the levers of Labour from him.

Forming a Left-wing populist party would not be easy. It would face the same hurdles as any other new party — finding the funds, the supporters and the platform to get off the ground. Equally, it would have to find a way to delicately navigate policy traps that the Left has long struggled with, particularly surrounding the issues of immigration and social liberalism. But that doesn’t make it impossible.

Farage and the various parties he led achieved their goal on Brexit because they parasitically latched onto the power of the Tories. Now that host is exhausted, but there is space for a Leftist visionary to take advantage of the rising Labour party. After all, the Conservatives won in 2019 by targeting Leftish voters who had grown tired of Labour, galvanising them both around Brexit and a more interventionist economy. This fell flat in government, but showed how populism could reach new electoral coalitions — especially in disenchanted regions. Arguably, the SNP and Plaid Cymru have already succeeded in advancing some form of Left-wing populism, albeit framed around civic nationalism.

In a time of great political flux, where the main parties have been untethered from popular opinion, the opportunity for radical Left-wing thought has always existed. So far, it is unclear who will seize it, but that doesn’t mean the conditions aren’t ripe for an insurgency. Politics can often act as a pendulum, and while Labour delights in the decline of Britain’s Right, they would do well to keep an eye on the rebirth of the Left.