Victory within reach, but far from certain for Labour

Like the olfactory pleasure emanating from a coffee grinder or bread-maker, there is a brimming, pleasing sense of confidence coming off the Labour Party. It smells like victory. To eavesdrop the behind-the-scenes conversations of some of the young people working for Labour is to hear a generation measuring up the Whitehall curtains. Notwithstanding the official line about taking nothing for granted, and the public war on complacency, few doubt that Labour can sweep aside the Tories whenever the election comes.

The signs are certainly propitious. There are few iron laws in politics, but there are enough straws in the wind to make a bale. For example, Labour is re-engaging with some of the wealthy philanthropists who previously supported the party, but found themselves out in the cold after 2015. Former Labour science minister David Sainsbury has made a £2 million donation to the fighting fund. Business leader Gareth Quarry and his wife Jillian Whitehouse have donated £100,000 after deserting the Tories, and that’s just for starters. Other high-level donors are making a welcome return to the Labour family. The Labour party is now in the red, with no debts, and no plans to blow members’ cash on an unsuccessful music festival.

Recent Labour seminars aimed at British businesses have revealed a refreshing re-engagement with the entrepreneurs and business leaders who are so essential to Labour’s plans. John Allan, chairman of Tesco and Barratt Developments, and Paul Drechsler, chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce UK, both former CBI presidents have stated their support for Rachel Reeves’ growth plans.

As anyone in the public affairs industry will tell you, their clients are clamouring to find out what’s in the minds of Jonathan Reynolds or Pat McFadden. If you’ve worked for a Labour frontbencher, your CV has a certain glow right now. This new-found interest in Labour thinking is not necessarily born from the expectation of Labour victory, but it is a signal that business thinks Labour is back in the game, and could potentially form a government.

The affaire Sue Gray presents some optical difficulties with who said what to whom when, but the bigger question is why should Ms Gray want to work for Starmer in the first place? It is another sign that serious-minded people are contemplating life with a Labour Government, and some of the best people in public life are starting to gravitate to Labour. You’ll see some other big-name endorsements and hires this year, including celebrities, business leaders, and public figures. The welcome return of Luciana Berger is just another stage of the process of reconciliation and healing.

And what about the next Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP)? The rigour of Labour’s selection processes is yielding impressive results, with unsuitable candidates being halted before they get anywhere near the electorate, and local party memberships being offered a rich choice of talent. Decent Labour people are now being selected as candidates across the Red Wall seats and beyond, from Hastings to High Wycombe, Carlisle to Chipping Barnet. On the estates, market squares, and high streets, Labour’s general election campaign is up and running, with candidates who are a credit to our values.

What can possibly go wrong? Everything, that’s what. The main barrier is mathematical. The crushing rejection of Corbyn Labour in 2019 means that Labour goes into the next election with not merely a huge mountain to climb, but a range of Everests. Labour must win back all the seats squandered by Corbyn: Ashfield, Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Blackpool South, Burnley, Bury, Darlington, Redcar, Sedgefield, Stoke, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton, Wrexham and dozens of others. But to regain these should be no great cause for celebration – they should have never been lost in the first place. Nor is there anything inevitable about rebuilding the Red Wall. Once lost, a vote for Labour is hard to rewin, and some of Red Wall may well stay blue.

Then there is Scotland. The SNP is doing its best to help Labour, but we are not in landslide territory in Scotland. There are just four constituencies with SNP majorities under 10 per cent with Labour in second place. Many of the marginals are SNP-Tory fights, with Labour some way adrift. The selection of Douglas Alexander in East Lothian, with a majority of less than 4000 for the breakaway Alba party, is another sign of Labour renaissance. However, Labour’s route to Downing Street runs as surely through Wales and England as through Scotland.

Labour needs to win seats such as Gedling, Delyn, Stoke-on-Trent Central, and Kensington with Tory majorities less than a thousand. But we also need to win seats like Corby, Gloucester, Finchley & Golders Green, Morley & Outwood, Hexham, Thurrock, Dover, and Croydon South, with Tory majorities of over 10,000. The cruel mathematical fact is that for Starmer to win a precarious majority of just one, he will need a bigger swing than Tony Blair at the 1997 landslide. That currently feels about as likely as an Oasis reunion.

The old adage that Governments lose elections is only partly true. Labour’s defeat in 2010 proves that Governments can lose, without Oppositions winning. The Tories themselves are convinced of their own demise. They may as well be parading around Portcullis House with ‘The End of the World in Nigh’ placards. Cabinet ministers are contemplating life beyond Westminster. Book deals are being signed, head-hunters are being lunched. But Starmer’s task is not to gloat over the wreckage of an imploding Tory party, but to continue to give compelling reasons for switching to Labour.

Sir Keir has made impressive inroads in a short time. But the nature of modernisation is that it never stops, and you can never go too far. The difficult truth, one which should keep us all awake at night, is that for all the progress made since 2020, Labour has yet to seal the deal with the British people.


If you enjoyed this Paul on Politics, check out his previous issue: Sunak fails the smell test.