How the UK political crisis affects the opposition Labour Party

While Tories are looking for a new prime minister after the resignation of Liz Truss, the Labour Party, having reinvented itself, seems destined to take up the reins of government sooner rather than later.

Since David Cameron became prime minister after the Conservatives’ election victory in 2010, Labour has been desperate to unseat the Tories. Now, for the first time in years, it has a good chance of coming to power in the next elections, which must take place in 2024 at the latest.

“Given Truss’s departure and the Conservatives’ abysmal poll ratings, Labour have every opportunity of winning the next general election, and winning big,” Nicholas Allen, professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, told Al Jazeera. “Whether or not their stratospheric lead in the polls continues, the party must fancy its chances of defeating the Tories and returning to power.”

“If the Conservatives have wrecked their reputation and image as badly as the polls suggest, then Labour could be in with a decent chance of winning at least the next two general elections,” he said. “If so, they’ll have the opportunity to pursue a sustained programme and change Britain’s economy and society to their liking.”

“They need to avoid complacency, of course, but as we saw with New Labour in the mid-1990s, the confidence that comes with a very healthy lead in the polls can foster discipline and focus minds on becoming the government,” Allen added.

‘We are ready’

Party leader Keir Starmer emphasised that Labour believes it is ready to govern after Truss’s resignation.

“After 12 years of Tory failure, the British people deserve so much better than this revolving door of chaos,” he said on Twitter.

Starmer also announced his willingness to take on responsibility. “We are ready to form a government,” Starmer told Sky News on Thursday.

Moreover, during Labour’s conference at the end of September, Starmer outlined the party’s agenda to change Britain for the better.

Starmer presented his ideas for a publicly owned energy company, insulation for every British home and carbon-free power by the end of the decade – with the intent to tackle the soaring cost of living and to “level up” the UK’s regions.

However, some experts argue that much of what Starmer announced were promises rather than coherent plans.

‘Hands are tied’

“Labour have to provide more detail on their policy priorities and be clear on whether a Labour government would be genuinely redistributive,” Lynn Bennie, reader in politics and international relations at the University of Aberdeen, told Al Jazeera. “They need to provide more detail on how they would rise to economic, social and ecological challenges.”

“Starmer’s hands are tied to an extent due to the dire state of the economy, meaning he can’t promise too much, but I think there’s some confusion on the part of the electorate about Labour’s policies,” she said. “What would the party actually do with power?”

Thus far, Labour have primarily benefitted from the chaos within the Tories and the current economic situation, not by delivering a brilliant message that has sparked a movement and Labour revival.

The tumultuous Boris Johnson years and Truss and her failed mini-budget have led to financial turmoil, causing the public to become weary of its government.

“Labour’s rise in the polls has more to do with the very public failings of the last two Conservative prime ministers and the deeper structural problems gripping the country, specifically rising energy prices, inflation, the cost of living crisis and chronically unfunded public services,” Allen said. “The material impact of Brexit is also beginning to bite, whether the Tories want to admit it or not.”

“The Tories are a bit like the Titanic after it struck the iceberg. They’re going to sink anyway, but it’s as if their recent captains have been making additional holes in the hull to speed up the process,” he said.

Indeed, current polls have Labour leading the Tories by up to 30 percentage points – figures not seen since Tony Blair led Labour to new heights in 2001.

New elections

With that kind of polling advantage, Labour wants new elections. However, much to the opposition’s dismay, these seem – at least for now – implausible.

Under the Fixed-term Parliament Act, an early election can only be triggered if two-thirds of MPs are in support of the idea.

Since Johnson’s landslide victory in 2019, the Tories possess an absolute majority in the House of Commons.

Members of the party will vote on Truss’s successor within the next week with the current favourite being Rishi Sunak, former chancellor of the Exchequer under Johnson.

No matter who becomes the next prime minister, the new resident of No 10 Downing Street would face significant trouble reversing course and re-establishing trust in the party.

“Overall, Sunak would be the great threat [to Labour] as he would have more widespread appeal, and he is obviously more competent,” Bennie said.

“However, the damage done to the Conservative brand and reputation will mean any Conservative leader will struggle to win an election,” she said.

The waiting game

Labour are thus in a somewhat comfortable position right now. With the British economy and national budget already suffering and the country’s debt extremely high, it is essentially playing the waiting game.

What also speaks in Labour’s favour is that, unlike the previous elections, the party seems, at the very least, sufficiently competent to lead.

With the election of Starmer as the party’s leader in 2020, Labour has transformed away from what many voters perceived to be unelectable, far-left views under predecessor Jeremy Corbyn towards a more moderate, less divisive party and leadership.

In fact, Starmer suspended Corbyn’s membership and cracked down on anti-Jewish tendencies in the party as soon as he took office.

“The party suffered a humiliating defeat in 2019, which silenced the Corbyn supporters though most remain in the party,” Bennie said. “Starmer is obviously more moderate ideologically and more cautious strategically.”

Starmer has offered the Tories as few targets as possible on issues such as the culture wars, political correctness, migration, the relationship with NATO and even Brexit, which once divided the party’s electoral base.

“However, there’s a question mark over what kind of Labour Party this really is because we have relatively little to judge in policy terms,” Bennie said. “Blair’s approach was similar in that economic credibility came first, but New Labour had clearer policy objectives.”

While considered competent, Starmer is often described as a dull character [Isabel Infantes/AFP]

Dull character

Despite Labour’s advantages at the moment, some observers have argued that for now, the party’s and Starmer’s most significant burden could be Starmer himself.

While he is considered competent, he is also often described as a dull character, and the ability to electrify the masses does not seem to be one of his calling cards.

However, a quiet pragmatist may not be the worst alternative in the current environment, the tumultuous previous years and the crises at hand, Allen said.

“Dullness can be a virtue, especially when prime ministers are exciting, dynamic and terrible,” he noted.

Nonetheless, Starmer has questions to answer before potentially taking over from the Tories.

“Labour still need to develop their strategy,” Allen said. “Not having a general election is to their benefit, whatever they say. More time will give them the space to develop that strategy and the personnel to implement it.

“It probably follows that the country will benefit from Labour taking its time to develop fully the policies necessary to dig Britain out of its current hole.”

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