The Party is struggling to channel anti-government discontent
It’s perhaps not surprising that, following the Conservative’s checked victory in Old Bexley and Sidcup yesterday, the main story emerging before and after the result was about the performance of the smaller parties.
The third-placed Reform UK just about managed to hold onto their deposit while the Greens and the Lib Dems both lost money. But as the theory of the so-called progressive alliance goes, these results provide some counter-intuitive optimism for those parties; it is a sign that an increasingly efficient opposition vote could, in turn, create some Tory nerves in the Home Counties and even, at a stretch, in rural Shropshire in a fortnight.
Old Bexley and Sidcup (UK Parliament) by-election result:
CON: 51.5% (-13.1)
LAB: 30.9% (+7.4)
REFUK: 6.6% (+6.6)
GRN: 3.8% (+0.6)
LDEM: 3.0% (-5.3)
— Britain Elects (@BritainElects) December 3, 2021
It may well be that Old Bexley and Sidcup turns out to be the calm before the North Shropshire storm. Yet if Labour’s best weapon is shoring up opposition votes and relying on other parties to inflict real damage to the government, it suggests some key problems for Keir Starmer.
The first is that — in the context of a general election — any strategy dependent on increasing the efficiency of the anti-Conservative vote means the Lib Dems gaining nearly as many seats as Labour. The Lib Dems are in second place in about half the constituencies where there is a large enough latent third-party vote to squeeze. This means that displacing Boris Johnson from Downing Street may well need to be on the back of a yellow wave.
This may not matter if the Labour leader is privately at peace with the idea of cross-party politics. The problem with informal alliances between parties is that they leave much unsaid that could do with being explicit: the fact that post-election negotiations in some form would need to be conducted with smaller parties. If Keir Starmer doesn’t fancy talking about all this, Boris Johnson might. (The attack line is obvious: Keir Starmer will lead a ‘coalition of chaos’).
Perhaps above all else, these marginal gains disguise the simple fact that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has not yet become a catch-all vehicle for anti-government discontent. This is a pre-requisite for any opposition, but particularly one whose central message and energy derives from highlighting and punishing the mistakes of the government. The Lib Dems have a better chance in North Shropshire precisely because they may well be, once again, an inoffensive vehicle for both discontented Tories and tactical voters.
Keir Starmer’s attempt to detoxify the image of his party in opposition has been compared to David Cameron. Starmer may too be looking to replicate David Cameron’s success in entering Downing Street via the rose garden. Yet Cameron was able to secure significant by-election swings by harnessing anti-government discontent while in opposition.
Labour simply is not in a place to secure enough voters to replicate that sort of momentum, and will have to look on as the Liberal Democrats do so instead.
Dr Alan Wager is a Research Associate at The UK in a Changing Europe, based in the Policy Institute at King’s College Londo