The polls may seem dismal. But here’s how Labour could win a general election | Tom Kibasi

The party should frame this campaign as a choice between more of the same and a new start, with hope of national renewal

Today, Labour MPs will decide whether the country will head to the polls in December. Many are hostile towards the idea, fearing that they are facing an electoral wipeout. Instead, they cling to the prospect of securing a second referendum as an alternative means to stopping Brexit. With the polls where they are, it is understandable that Labour MPs are fearful of facing the electorate.

But this election could be far closer than is commonly imagined. The ascendancy of the SNP in Scotland, the rise of the Liberal Democrats in England, and the schism between the Tories and the DUP means that there are fewer seats in play for the major parties. Labour and the Conservatives must compete for around 540 seats; with no viable coalition partners, the Tories must secure 322 seats for a majority of one. For that to occur, Labour must get no more than 218 seats – far below either its performance in either 2015 or 2017 (232 and 262 seats respectively). Conversely, if Labour can defend its current seats, it would enable an anti-Tory majority to be formed.

Strategically, Labour approaches a general election with three major advantages.

The first is that the deal Johnson has negotiated is truly awful for the country, leaving Britain substantially poorer according to the government’s own figures. The second is that the Tories have the record of their 10 years in power to defend – a decade during which public services and benefits have been cut, wages have stagnated and living standards have been squeezed – alongside Brexit chaos: a winter election highlights these issues, from the rise in concern about homelessness during the Christmas period to the likely winter crisis in the NHS as a result of systematic underfunding. Third, polling shows that Johnson is disliked by large parts of the electorate, and many people might be prepared to vote tactically to keep the party they dislike out of office. This opens up the route to at least some informal electoral pact between the anti-Tory parties – perhaps a loose agreement not to campaign in certain seats.

Absent a settled strategy, Labour languishes behind in the polls. Its MPs focus their interventions on questions of parliamentary process and election timing rather than critiquing Johnson’s plans or articulating Labour’s policies. When politicians talk about their own priorities, not those of the voters, it should be little surprise that they are not rewarded by the electorate. This can and must change. So what would a more effective strategy look like?

The public need to want to fire the Tories before deciding that they wish to hire Labour. It would be a serious error to think that Brexit can be ignored by simply talking about other issues. At the time of the 2017 poll, the chaos and perpetual crisis of the following two-and-a-half years was unimaginable. The mistake that Theresa May made was to call a general election after article 50 notification had taken place; this meant most voters thought that Brexit had been sorted and that it was only a matter of time before Britain would leave the EU. No one thinks that now. Brexit will be front and centre in this election no matter how much some might wish it away.

In any election, the public either want change or more of the same. In 2017, the Tory message of “strong and stable leadership” sounded like an appeal for continuity and so in what became a change election, they paid the price. Labour needs to present this campaign as a choice between more of the same with the Tories or a new start with Labour.

That’s why the first phase of the Labour campaign should be to demonstrate how each strand of Johnson’s deal represents continuity with a decade of Tory austerity and misrule, heaping disaster on dismay. After 10 years of NHS cuts, the Tories now want to sell off the NHS to private corporations. After a decade without a real pay rise, the Tories plan is to strip away workers’ rights for a deal with Trump’s America where there’s no maternity pay, no sick pay, 10 days’ holiday and the ability for bosses to fire people on the spot for no reason. After a decade of putting the bankers first, their sell-out deal will mean the end of decent manufacturing jobs as the price of avoiding banking regulations. A vote for Johnson is a vote for more of the same. And to make matters worse, Johnson’s Brexit plan still includes a trapdoor to a no-deal disaster. The only way to stop a prime minister committed to a no-deal exit from the EU is to fight and win a general election that removes him from office.

Next, Labour has to make, and win, the argument for a second referendum. Its message – “let the people decide” – has failed to cut through precisely because its strongest remain voices on the backbenches have focused more on timing and tactics than on bothering to prosecute the argument. More than that, the message sounds like one of exasperation: that Labour is incapable of making its own mind up, so it has outsourced the responsibility to the public. Instead, Labour needs to make a deeper argument about the kind of country we want to be: this could be extended beyond Brexit into an agenda for economic democracy and more public participation in decision-making.

Labour also needs to offer the country an alternative project of national renewal. With a plan to settle Brexit for good, Labour should then offer to rebuild Britain instead. It can frame this as a 1945 moment: the chance to shape a new settlement for the decades ahead. That means a manifesto bursting with good ideas to improve the state of country and fundamental reform of the status quo. But it also needs to show how change can be meaningful: that will require translating big, bold, national policy commitments into what they could mean for every part of Britain. From the national transformation fund to the green industrial revolution, Labour has been willing to think big about the future of the country: it now has an urgent task to think small about what it might mean for each community and every household.

Finally, Labour should ignore the idea of extending the franchise to 16-year-olds, which will be viewed as the naked pursuit of self-interest. It should instead argue that every voter must be offered a postal vote, given the hours of daylight and the potential for bad weather on polling day. All the evidence shows that electoral fraud is virtually non-existent and that postal voting increases participation, especially from those groups in society that are marginalised or vulnerable. Let the Tories explain why they want to inconvenience people during the cold winter months.

There can be no doubt that Labour has an electoral mountain to climb. But there are reasons to believe that it can do so in this election of generational significance. The country cannot afford and should not expect anything less.

• Tom Kibasi is a writer and researcher on politics and economics. He is writing in a personal capacity


Tom Kibasi

The GuardianTramp

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