LONDON — When Boris Johnson hit energy companies with a windfall tax last week as a way to provide more assistance to struggling consumers, it was a bittersweet moment for the opposition Labor party, which had been promoting such a plan for months.
For once, Labor could claim to have won ‘the battle for ideas’. But in one fell swoop, Mr. Johnson had co-opted the party’s marquee and claimed credit.
This could be an opportunity for Labour. Mr Johnson’s leadership has been in jeopardy over a scandal over illegal lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street – missteps highlighted last week by an official report that said senior leadership “must bear responsibility” for failing to comply with the rules .
But some political analysts believe that Labor should focus less on the ‘party gate’ scandal and more on setting a clear agenda for British voters facing rising inflation and a potential recession.
Labor has now been in power for 12 years and has lost the last four general elections, including a beating in 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist and party leader at the time, was crushed by Johnson’s conservatives.
John McTernan, a political strategist and former aide to then Prime Minister Tony Blair, said that while Labor had made a decent recovery under its current leader, Keir Starmer, it had not yet closed the deal with the electorate.
“It seems modest progress because it is modest progress,” said Mr McTernan, adding that after the 2019 defeat it was still a “massive rebalancing”.
He praised the progress made under Mr Starmer but said the party still has work to do if it hopes to install a Labor government in place of the Tories. “This is the year the pace has to pick up,” he said.
And while the Conservatives lost heavily in the recent local elections, Labor has made only limited progress, with smaller parties doing well.
Mr Starmer recently suffered a setback when police reopened an investigation into whether he too was violating coronavirus rules. He promptly promised he would resign if he was fined by the police – unlike Mr Johnson, who suffered that fate in April but refused to resign.
But whatever Mr Starmer’s future may be, the Labor Party has yet to deliver a convincing message to reclaim the regions of the rust belt that left it in the last election and which – judging by the local election results – have yet to be convinced.
In the 2019 general election, parts of England that had voted for Labor for decades switched en masse to the Conservatives, allowing Johnson to rearrange the political map, much like Donald J. Trump did in the United States in 2016.
Since then, Mr Starmer has thrown away much of Mr Corbyn’s socialist agenda, often posing next to the British flag to illustrate his patriotism, taking a hard line against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and becoming the first Labor leader in more than a decade. year visiting NATO .
But the party has yet to define itself with a clear new vision for British voters, and Mr Starmer, a former chief prosecutor, has little of the charisma that distinguishes leaders in the form of Mr Trump and Mr Johnson.
Even he accepts that Labor is not yet in a solid, election-winning position.
“I’ve always said that we first had to recognize that when you lose heavily, you don’t blame the voters, but change parties,” Mr Starmer said in an interview this year after meeting voters in a city. hall meeting at Burnley College in the North West of England. “We spent the best part of two years doing that hard work, that hard work.”
Yet the task of Labor is enormous.
In 2019, the Conservatives captured areas such as Burnley, in Britain’s post-industrial ‘red wall’, and Labor had a poor poll in Scotland, once another heartland, losing to the Scottish National Party. Emerging changes in electoral boundaries are likely to favor Conservatives in the next general election, due by the end of 2024, but many are anticipating next year.
So Labor organizes a series of town hall meetings where uncommitted voters are asked what would lure them back to the party.
After the Burnley meeting, Lisa Nandy, a leading Labor Party member, reflected on the project to mend what she called “a breach of trust” between Labor and its traditional constituents.
“It broke my heart in 2019 as I watched communities where I grew up and call home turn blue for the first time in history,” said Ms Nandy, referring to the campaign color used by conservatives. She represents Wigan, another former industrial city, speaks on behalf of Labor on how to spread prosperity to areas beyond England’s prosperous south-east, and knows that her party has work to do.
People at the Burnley meeting liked the idea of cutting energy bills by taking a windfall on oil and gas company profits, Ms Nandy said, speaking before the government announced the plan. But few knew at the time that this was one of Labour’s most important policy proposals.
“The question is, why don’t they know this is what we said?” Ms Nandy complained earlier this year, referring to voters.
The reason, she thinks, is that politicians spend too much time in London and too little ‘on their own territory to talk to them about things that matter to them’.
Labor is also reaching out to a business community whose ties to the government are strained over Brexit rules that pile up extra bureaucracy for many exporters. During a digital meeting with businesses in the Midlands, Seema Malhotra, who speaks on behalf of Labor on business and industrial issues, heard a litany of problems including customs bureaucracy, inflation, rising energy and labor costs and supply chain problems.
“I don’t think anyone expects a full policy across the board until the next election,” she said. “A lot of what we need to do is rebuild our relationship with the country and set out our values, and people need to get to know the Labor Party again.”
“While people are willing to listen to Labor again, we cannot be complacent,” she added. “A lot of people don’t feel like we’ve come out of the past enough to trust us now. We have work to do to continue to show that our party has changed.”
Some analysts argue that what Labor really needs is a sharper message.
“I know so many progressives who think politics is like a football game: if you have a ten-point health plan and your opponents only have a five-point plan, you win 10 to 5,” said Mr. McTernan. “You do not do that.”
Instead, he added: ‘You have to say, ‘This is Britain’s great challenge. Labor is the answer. This is why and here’s how.’”
To succeed, the party must convince people like Ged Ennis, the director of a renewable energy company that supplied Burnley College with solar panels. He has voted for Labor and the Conservatives over the years, but in 2019 opted for the centrist Liberal Democrats.
Mr Ennis said he was convinced Labor would be happy to listen but confessed that he had a vague idea of Mr Starmer’s politics. “I think he has to be brave and be very clear about what he wants to achieve,” he said.