Stale Starmer is set to win the race to succeed Corbyn but can he win back the heartlands?

Last week the Liberal Democrats announced that they would postpone their leadership election, however, voting for the race to succeed Corbyn has closed and the result will be announced on Saturday.

Since the election starting gun was fired every opinion poll has shown that Sir Keir Starmer is expected to emphatically defeat Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey in becoming the leader of the Labour Party.

However, the biggest challenge facing the former Shadow Brexit Secretary is still to come. In 2024, he must attempt to overturn the Conservatives largest majority since 1987. Many political scientists describe a Labour majority in the next election as “unprecedented”.

Boris Johnson’s ability to connect social conservatives in the red wall and economic conservatives in the English shires proved essential in delivering Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Recent studies into Corbyn’s calamitous election defeat indicate that it will be all but “impossible” for Labour to end the Conservatives fourteen years in power if they cannot win back socially conservative traditional Labour voters who backed Brexit in 2016.

Can Starmer win these voters back? Probably not.

Whilst there are some MPs in the north of England and the Midlands that have thrown their weight behind Starmer’s campaign, the chances of the red wall electorate deciding to support Starmer is slim.

The studies into Labour’s worst electoral defeat since 1935 tend to reduce the reason for Corbyn’s demise as either: Brexit or leadership. However, the truth of this is that Labour’s woes have been fermenting for some years. The referendum in 2016 exacerbated a divide between the parliamentary Labour party and these historic heartlands; it did not create it.

When Blair romped to victory in 1997, it may have gone undetected that in the traditional working-class seats antipathy to politics rose. In Hartlepool, for example, turnout was as high as 76.1% in 1992 but by 2005 this was down to little over half of the electorate.

Enter Nigel Farage. A divisive politician that skilfully managed to appeal to both those forgotten in economically deprived communities and those in English shires. Prior to the 2014 European parliamentary Election, Matthew Goodwin warned Ed Milliband that UKIP could punish Labour in these historic heartlands. His warnings were dismissed, and UKIP became the first third party to win a national election since 1906. Since then Boris Johnson has benefitted from the normalisation of former Labour voters defecting to the right.

This was embodied in a trip The Guardian made to Jaywick in Essex. A lifelong Labour voter, who criticised the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s government, told John Harris that he would be voting for Farage’s party in 2014. Just five years later he appeared optimistic, even enthusiastic, about supporting a Boris Johnson Tory party.

Thus, the Europhiles who regard the deposition of Jeremy Corbyn as an instant solution to the problems facing the Labour Party are just as wrong as the Corbynites who believe that Brexit was the only reason for Labour’s downfall.

Earlier in this campaign Channel 4 gathered together Labour-Leavers in Birmingham Northfield. These voters described the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service as “weak”, “corporate” and even like David Cameron. When asked which candidate could win back their support the room was united in supporting Lisa Nandy.

Why is this? What is important to traditional Labour voters in the heartlands that puts the frontrunner so out of touch? The answer predominantly lies in social conservatism. Historically, social, and under Tony Blair, economic conservatism has bolstered Labour’s footing in the Commons.

In the aftermath of the First World War the patriotism of Jack Jones and his colleagues were inspired by the growing popularity of The Daily Mirror. Subsequently, the patriotic wing of the party replaced the republican rhetoric of Keir Hardie. A decision that alongside Liberal infighting, helped to place Labour as the main opposition in Westminster.

Starmer is no Jack Jones. Starmer’s role in the Remain campaign and attempts to thwart the wishes of the British people will not be forgotten. But it appears that he has not learnt from his mistakes. On ‘Independence Day’, Starmer expressed his support for a return to freedom of movement. Such a move indicates how distant the party is from the electorate.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Lord Ashcroft conducted several polls. He found that the second most important issue for Labour Leavers was the ability for the United Kingdom to control her own borders.

With regard to crime, Starmer has previously dismissed the merits of stop and search despite the successful implementation of this police power across the north of England, especially Merseyside.

Aside from policy Starmer also faces a significant challenge in personality. Boris Johnson currently has a net approval rating of 20 per cent. By comparison, the man who will probably face him at the dispatch box is viewed in a slightly negative light, at -4 per cent. In part, this is because Starmer is perceived as “boring” by the electorate.

Nevertheless, the first challenge facing the leader in waiting is the 2021 devolved elections in the celtic corners of the United Kingdom. Labour have historically fared extremely well in Wales and in Scotland. They would need to emphatically carry both nations in order to have a chance at winning in 2024. But this is easier said than done.

Lord Mandelson once said: ‘the people of south Wales will always vote Labour because they have nowhere else to go‘, however, if the recent results across Wales are anything to go by Labour’s grip on the principality is gradually loosening.

Last December, Boris Johnson equalled Margaret Thatcher’s record of delivering the most ever Conservative MPs west of the River Severn. Historic gains in Wrexham and Delyn should worry the Labour party.

But with recent opinion polls showing that the Tories can become the most popular party in the Senedd Election next year, Labour also need to worry about constituencies, like Newport West, where Labour’s lead over the Tories collapsed last December.

Just ten years ago Gordon Brown won 41 seats in Scotland, today Labour holds just one of these seats. This is Labour’s worst ever performance in Scotland, even in Labour’s first election in 1906 the party managed to win two seats north of the border.

Starmer has acknowledged that Labour cannot win an election without support in Scotland. But how can they do this? The Tories have positioned themselves in Holyrood and Westminster as the natural party of the Union. If Labour are to emulate their Brexit policy as an antidote to the Scottish independence question they will be crushed.

In 2024, as in 2019, the battleground of the election will be in the red wall. Because the election will be fought on this front I cannot see how Sir Keir Starmer, who naturally appeals to the white-collar, liberal, pro-Remain Labour voter, can re-bandage the wounds of Labour’s broken coalition and win back the support of the patriotic, socially conservative voters that left the Labour party in their droves last December.

By J Walters

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