Landscape of change awaits new Labour leader

Landscape of change awaits new Labour leader

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Keir Starmer is being tipped to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. (Reuters)

The opposition UK Labour Party will announce its new leader on Saturday after a contest that has lasted since January. While the party may subsequently gain a polling boost, the new leader faces a key, unanticipated challenge, in that he or she enters into a political landscape transformed by the last few weeks of coronavirus crisis.

Since the onset of the virus outbreak, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s poll numbers have tracked significantly upwards, like that of many other world leaders, including US President Donald Trump. Last week, Ipsos MORI showed satisfaction with Johnson’s performance was at 52 percent, up a significant 16 percentage points since before the general election in early December, when his approval rating was only 36 percent.

This appears to have stemmed from what US political scientists call the “rally round the flag” effect, rather than having to do with Johnson’s actual performance in handling the crisis. Indeed, the prime minister has received some significant criticism for his actions, including his failure to introduce much wider testing, especially for front-line health workers.

Yet, for now at least, he dominates the political landscape, despite currently being waylaid with coronavirus himself, which adds to the significant challenges facing the new Labour leader. Johnson’s current popularity, ephemeral as it may turn out to be, is only one of the obstacles facing the next opposition leader, which is widely anticipated to be Keir Starmer. The 57-year-old has served in the shadow cabinet for much of the time since he entered Parliament in 2015, before which he served as Director of Public Prosecutions.

While Starmer is the favorite, he is by no means certain of victory. From the Jeremy Corbyn-supporting left of the party, the favored daughter is shadow business minister Rebecca Long- Bailey, while Wigan MP Lisa Nandy has emerged as a thoughtful third candidate in the pack. All three could well hold senior positions in the next shadow cabinet regardless of who wins.

In addition to Johnson’s current popularity, the new leader will also inherit a party still recovering from the scale of December’s election defeat — its worst since the 1930s in terms of seats won. Uppermost here for many Labour supporters is the fact that, aside from Tony Blair’s victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005, the party has not won an election for almost half a century; since Harold Wilson’s last triumph in October 1974.

The scale of the 2019 Tory triumph was underlined by the fact that the party became the first to win an increased number of seats in a fourth straight term of office since the 19th century. This was a personal triumph for Johnson, who reshaped, at least temporarily, the UK electoral map by winning a number of previously longstanding Labour strongholds in the Midlands and North of England. 

So the new Labour chief has a political inheritance as daunting as that facing any opposition leader since at least 1997, when the Conservatives were on the receiving end of the first Blair landslide. Troubling as this may at first appear, time is potentially on his or her side, as the next general election is unlikely to be until at least 2023, possibly 2024.

This is especially important given the more than a decade of unprecedented levels of voter volatility, which has produced a series of electoral “shocks,” from the 2016 Brexit referendum to the aftermath of the 2008-09 international financial crisis and subsequent austerity. As the British Election Survey (BES) — one of the most authoritative surveys of UK voting behavior — has highlighted, traditional partisan voting patterns are quickly eroding, with the UK’s 2015 and 2017 general elections seeing more people change their voting intentions than at any other time in the post-war era.

The new Labour chief has a political inheritance as daunting as that facing any opposition leader since at least 1997.

Andrew Hammond

With UK politics remaining in flux, it is quite possible that the coronavirus crisis could provide another shock to the electoral landscape that might offer a significant opportunity for Labour. For, while Johnson and his government are riding high in the polls for now, there are difficult times ahead, including a looming recession. Some forecasters indicated this week that UK economic output could plunge by as much as 15 percent in the second quarter and unemployment more than double. Nomura, for instance, predicts an unemployment rate of 8 percent in the April-June quarter and a rise to 8.5 percent for the quarter after.

If this happens, and the recession is protracted, the political fortunes of the government are likely to deteriorate at some stage. This will be especially so if its Brexit agenda does not prove as successful as was promised during the election campaign.

Such a change in political fortunes for Johnson would be especially likely if the new Labour leader can seize the agenda in the same way that the party’s other successful opposition chiefs have in the post-war period. Clement Attlee in the 1940s, Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s and Blair in the 1990s all showed that it is possible to storm to power after lengthy periods of Conservative and/or coalition rule with dynamic leadership that reflects the mood of the times.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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