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July 30, 2020

Labour still miles away from where it needs to be

We haven't written about the Labour Party since the UK elections. This is partly because we believe that Labour's return to political power is still a long way away, perhaps another 8 to 10 years. We were positively surprised by the way Sir Keir Starmer approached his job as new party leader. He may well be a prime-minister-in-waiting. But for the most part we agree with the argument by Patrick O'Flynn who writes in the Spectator that there is absolutely no evidence of a sustained Labour surge - the kind needed to bring about the shift needed for Labour to win power at the next elections. The polling organisations that got the last elections right, YouGov and Kantar, have the Tories ahead at a solid lead of 10 points, and this despite the government's less-than-stellar handling of the Covid-19. What O'Flynn tells us, and what we didn't know before, is that Boris Johnson's approval rating is rock-solid in the so-called red-wall states in the north of the country. These used to be Labour strongholds until the last elections. The north has become of the most important electoral battleground in the UK.

The problem for the Labour Party is a divorce of political cultures between the south and the north, something the mostly-southern UK political commentators do not seem to see. Starmer managed to heal the rift with the Jewish community, which is a big deal given the recent history of anti-semitism in the Labour Party. But the slick human-rights lawyer is not the guy to win the hearts and minds of the northerners. It is anthropologically remarkable that an Etonian like Johnson gets to these people while a middle-class guy like Starmer does not. We suspect that the real reason is not the politics of left and right, but the politics of north-vs-south, or cities-vs-towns. The urban, woke culture of the south is a turnoff in the north.

O'Flynn is probably right in his observation that Starmer's fan club in the media, who are mostly southerners, is blind to this distinction. We disagree with his rather mechanical historical analysis. Each election is new. There are lots of statistical mirages when you draw parallels with previous Labour leaders. What we need to watch out for instead is whether Johnson can hang on to his popularity in the north, which will depend to a large degree on the post-Brexit economic management. The key is not the trade deal with the EU, but the ability to forge an industrial policy with targeted support for regions and employment-generating sectors.

Unlike O'Flynn, we don't take the outcome of the next elections for granted. There is everything to play for. 

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