In order to win, Labour needs a popular leader with a purpose

Chris Curtis

Labour seems to be getting into the habit of losing elections, and it is hard to underestimate how devastating December’s result was for the party after nine years in opposition. But rather than dwelling on the past, the party now needs to turn to the future and think about how it can rebuild and maximise its chances of winning next time. 

It is worth stressing that victory next time around is not completely out of the party’s grasp. While the result in 2019 makes the number of seat gains required look astronomically high, another Conservative victory is not inevitable.

Predicting the events of the next few years is a difficult task, but it is important to remember that Boris Johnson is fairly unpopular by new Prime Minister standards, and by the next election the Conservatives will have been in government in one form or another – in coalition, in minority and latterly in majority – for over 14 years. 

So, given that they now how a long time to prepare, what should Labour be doing to ensure they have the best shot at a majority in the 2024 election? I think the two most important elements are leadership and purpose. 

On leadership, the party needs a leader who the public consider a credible candidate for Prime Minister. In every one of the past four elections, Labour has gone into polling day with a candidate who the public do not think is up to the job, and who is more unpopular than the Conservative leader. 

In our final poll before the 2019 election, just 32% of Britons had a favourable view of Jeremy Corbyn, compared to 40% who had a favourable view of the Prime Minister. When asked who would make the best Prime Minister, 39% picked Johnson, compared to 26% who selected Corbyn. 

The characteristics that make a leader cut through with the public are often difficult to quantify, but we know it is important to be viewed as principled, in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters, and decisive. 

It was the last of those that really hurt Jeremy Corbyn this time around. In our research last year, when we looked at why voters were going off the Labour leader, the biggest issue was that they increasingly saw him as indecisive and weak, particularly on the issue of Brexit. By election day, just 23% saw the Labour leader as strong, compared with 51% who said the same of Boris Johnson.

Emily Thornberry has suggested that, if she becomes leader and polling indicates she is unpopular with the public, she would be willing to stand down and let someone else take over. While it is important not to overreact to bad polling over a short term, the party does need to be more ruthless in replacing unpopular leaders if it hopes to regain power. 

Beyond leadership qualities, the next Labour leader also needs to define and then champion the party’s future purpose. Election winners are usually those who can tell the best story about the biggest problems the country faces and why they are best placed to solve them. 

In 1945 it was about how Labour would rebuild Britain after the war through the creation of the welfare state. In the 1960s, in was about the ‘white heat’ of Harold Wilson’s technological revolution and the promise of modernising, go-getting government. In 1997, it was about New Labour’s ‘Third Way’, fixing public services after decades of Tory governments without returning to old fashioned socialism. For the Conservatives in 2019 it was about ‘getting Brexit done’ after years of division. 

It is difficult to work out at this stage what the best narrative would be, particularly because we have so long to go until the next election and therefore don’t know how events might change the political circumstances. For example, the Conservatives’ story in 2010 was about rebalancing the public finances, something that only became relevant after the 2008 financial crash. 

However, a successful narrative would clearly play on a theme of change after years of Conservative governments. It is also likely going to have to encompass the environment as an issue, which has become a much more important issue over the past two years, and I expect will continue to rise in salience.

But regardless of the purpose and narrative the party leads with, it needs to resonate with the public and the issues they face in their lives. And it needs to be communicated by a leader who the public like and see as a suitable Prime Minister.

Chris Curtis is political research manager at YouGov. He tweets @chriscurtis94

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