The battle ahead

So, the May elections are all but certainly set to go ahead after all, and politics is about to resume in a big way. For the last year in a way, everything has been subdued, and politics has been put on sleep mode; no more, this is the fight of both leader’s lives, and will have implications politically that reverberate for years, giving us not only the first glimpse of what happens when Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer face off in a national contest at the polls, but also how Britain’s voting habits will really have shifted after going through a global pandemic.

The first thing about these elections is I think they’ll pretty much set the tone for whether Keir Starmer is a Neil Kinnock, or an Ian Duncan Smith. Will he do quite well, but fail to reach power, or will he be such a carcrash he’ll be removed before the next general election? This contest should tell us. Off the back of the vaccine success and the unlocking “feel good factor”, the Tories may play a blinder and make gains. If things are looking better for Labour than meets the eyes right now, expect Labour gains, and expect that to indicate when we have a GE they’ll eat into the Tory majority, as most polls currently indicate. If a dead heat or Tory gains, see that as a message that Labour may even loose seats come GE time.

Keir Starmer’s leadership isn’t looking so good right now. He’s alienated the left, he’s in the process of alienating the soft left with the manoeuvrings around the Shadow Chancellor, and the right is waiting in the wings to champion someone far more brutal, and far more neoliberal than he is. Simultaneously, Sir Keir is failing to win Tory voters, but he’s shedding 2019 Labour voters; in other words, the swing voters aren’t coming in, the core is leaving, and all he’s got the show for it is a cannibalising of the middle class older Remainers that make up the Lib Dem vote, and just can’t win a FPTP election, since on a constituency basis we live in a Leave country.

Meanwhile, things haven’t looked better for Boris Johnson since he won a landslide majority, and buried the Corbyn project six feet under, a prospect that had seemed thinkable earlier that very same year. He’s once again defied the “doomsters and gloomsters”, has survived the harrowing political hit that was his abysmal 2020 leadership (best described as a car crash), and he’s embracing pragmatic cronyist populist Keynesianism, quite literally buying off votes by splurging spending in key seats, and chucking austerity dogma out the No 10 window. He’s in pole position to rule for a decade if he wishes, with his bluster and bombast suddenly much suited to an era of unlocking and British exuberant excess and national mythmaking.

We’re barrelling towards a contest that will shape the political winds that take us to the next election, the result of which will shape the next decade, and the battle lines now couldn’t be clearer.

Boris Johnson wants you to vote with the here and now in mind. He wants the unlocking to be at the centre of your mind, the glorious summer to come, the world beating vaccination success, and the mood of national optimism. He wants you to feel proud, to feel like your country isn’t doing so badly after all, and like his brand of leadership got us out of this mess after all. Boris Johnson is relying on the mood of the moment to be overpowering enough to override the instinct to punish him and his party for the hideousness of 2020.

Keir Starmer needs you to vote with a longer memory, and to vote, not just on the vaccine rollout, but on the wider pandemic response. He wants you to think of the Cummings affair, the chumocracy, the U-turns, the uncertainty, and the comical lack of leadership throughout. He wants you to take the 2021 elections as an opportunity to punish the governing party for letting you down right through 2020, and this depends on hindsight and critical thinking working, rather than just the mood of the moment.

This sums up the entire thing. I haven’t heard anyone frame it like that yet, but this is in my view, the only way to look at the upcoming contest if you want to understand it in a deeper way. This formula holds the answer to not only what’s likely to happen, but how to interpret the results as the roll in on the night. When those results are revealed, we’ll known not only the mood of the electorate, but also which way the winds are blowing politically, a snap preview of the next general election, and the thought process of the electorate on the govt’s coronavirus response.

There are many factors operating in the governing party’s favour here. Rightly or wrongly, in a national crisis, voters give the govt the benefit of the doubt, and desperately want to believe in their leaders. Sectarian divides go out the window, and the average voter rallies around the flag, as we saw in trends all around the world, with controversial leaders picking up marvellous approval ratings. Some squandered this, but it’s very difficult to do so, and those that did moderately well now reap the rewards. So despite all the earlier, completely unforgivable failures, now things are back on track, voters may simply forgive and forget; opinion polling certainty makes it look that way, and that’s the conventional wisdom for these elections.

Labour’s hope, as usual, is to defy the odds, the prove that 2020 will count, and voters will retain a long memory. All those debates about whether the British electorate will forgive 2020 should be considered settled on the basis of the results of the May elections. The onus is on the Labour party, and Keir Starmer, to prove us all wrong, and make gains at the expense of the Tories. How they’ll do this now they’ve alienated a chunk of their core vote and aren’t bringing in the kind of voters they aim to bring in (the aggrieved pensioner vote remains wedded to the Tories), is an open question.

These elections will be an utterly fascinating glimpse at the new political era we’re emerging into, in a post COVID world. The answers to all the questions of this new era, whether Keir Starmer is a flop or Labour’s new hope, and whether Tory hegemony is secured for a decade, all rest within the swings we see in May 2021.

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Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.