by GK Strategy 7th May, 2021

David Laws – View on Elections 2021

Thursday’s election results will give analysts a great deal of information to pore over during the weeks and months ahead. But whatever the detail, it’s likely that this election round will be remembered for one result – the crushing defeat of Labour by the Conservatives in the “heartland Labour” seat of Hartlepool. This is the type of seat that would be expected to be Labour under almost any circumstances, yet it has fallen to a Conservative Party which has been in power nationally for over a decade, yet fought on a “time for a change” message.

It will be tempting for some in Labour to hope that this result is a pandemic-related aberration. After failing to “lockdown” quickly enough in Spring and Autumn 2020, the government has had a very good last few months on Covid related matters. The Treasury has protected the economy from mass unemployment through the furlough scheme. The vaccination programme has so far been a huge success. The plan to re-open society looks well thought out and is proceeding to plan. And the economy is bouncing back strongly. So, some may consider that these are unusual times, and may hope that the defeat of a populist right wing leader in the US may soon usher in the defeat of a similarly populist right-wing leader in the UK.

However, there are few parallels that can usefully be drawn by Labour. Trump ended up being defeated in part because he failed to tackle Covid. This government seems to be finding its feet on that issue after a disastrous start. Boris Johnson may be a right-wing leader, but he is far less alienating and divisive than Trump, yet still seems to be able to reach out to traditional working class Labour voters in a way his predecessors never could.

And perhaps that is because of Labour’s final big problem. Policy. Cameron offered support for the EU, austerity, and big spending on overseas aid. Miliband and Corbyn offered the same, but replacing austerity with more welfare and other spending. Johnson is offering what many traditional Labour voters seem to like – Brexit, slashing overseas aid, and offering to spend big on jobs and investment in the North (or at least the bits that decide to vote Tory!).

In parts of the North, Labour isn’t just losing a personality competition. It’s losing a policy battle. Its former great Coalition of Scottish lefties, urban progressives, and the working class has fractured badly. If left unresolved, the Conservatives will romp home again to victory in national elections in 2023 or 2024, and the Conservatives will be in power for at least as long as they were under the Thatcher/Major administrations of 1979-1997.

Policy. Message. Messengers. Labour – and other opposition parties – need to look hard at all of these if they wish to be competitive at the next General Election.

David Laws is an Adviser to GK Strategy.

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