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From Blair to Starmer: Echoes from the Past

By Elohor Efakpokire

With spotlights looming over Starmer’s political promises, are we seeing a replica of the 1997 win, or a party that is losing the trust of its voters?

Four consecutive general election losses have left many wondering if Labour could ever win a general election again. Currently, Starmer’s Labour has shifted firmly away from Corbynism, moving closer to the centre. Many have considered this a necessary step to winning a general election.

In light of this, recent media coverage has looked back to the last time Labour won power from long-standing Conservative rule. The landslide obtained by the party in 1997 has largely been attributed as a blueprint for a successful Labour campaign. It left hardliners at the time feeling that the party was moving away from socialism.

Their campaign was characterised by a controversial flight across the pond made by Blair to visit Rupert Murdoch, as well as the abandonment of what were perceived to be traditional Labour values in favour of appealing to a wider demographic of voters. Fast forward to 2023, and questions remain over whether a shift to the centre ground is as necessary for Labour’s success as it was deemed to be in 1997. The party’s current leader, Keir Starmer, whilst being a previous Corbyn ally, has sought to distance himself from the failures of the 2015-2019 leadership.

Many comparisons have been made between Blair and Starmer. Make no mistake that this is done intentionally. A shadow cabinet minister notes that Starmer has “studied the New Labour ascendancy very carefully”. He may not be a self-proclaimed Blairite, but if Blairism is perceived by Labour HQ as the only path to success, then it seems as though Starmer is prepared to make concessions to come out on top.

So far, Keir Starmer has at least done a successful job of moving Labour out of obscurity. With the party winning a number of by-elections recently, including Rutherglen and Hamilton West, a seat formerly held by the SNP, a Labour win feels more in reach than

ever before. But at what cost? Starmer has been criticised for his middle-ground stance on certain issues, perhaps caused by desperate attempts not to isolate any potential voter.

He has been viewed as being “policy light”, and has recently received backlash for his stance on humanitarian issues, not least comments he made on Israel’s defence strategy and his refusal to call for a ceasefire in the region.

It appears that Starmer may not want to rock the boat too much. Having been in opposition for well over a decade, it is understandable for the party to want to be strategic in ensuring they do not suffer another defeat at the ballot box. Perhaps, once in power, they will go on to make more radical changes. The worry, however, is that groups of people facing considerable injustices feel disillusioned by Starmer’s policy positions.

Starmer has consistently placed emphasis on providing “reassurance and security” for the future. This vague phrasing makes it somewhat difficult to place Starmer on the political spectrum. Yet what I find particularly interesting is Starmer’s strong opinions on climate action, found in his commitments to renewable power in his October conference speech. This may be because the popular consensus surrounding the need for climate action means that what we once thought was radical is no longer such. Less optimistically, it just happens to be the salient issue, making it something Starmer may regard an easy-win topic.

The question remains, whether 2023 will replicate 1997 in a dramatically different political climate? A two-part podcast series published by the Guardian’s Today in Focus, titled “From Blair to Starmer”, discusses the 1997 election and the similarities between Starmer and Blair’s electoral strategies. Whilst the series notes the parallels, Alastair Campbell and David Miliband, both central players in the 1997 win, say that 1997 should not be used as the blueprint for Labour today. Essentially, the problems facing the country then are not the same ones impacting the country now. This particularly stood out to me, as it highlighted the risk that an overly cautious Labour party could perhaps lead to more insidious consequences. Right now, we are experiencing a cost of living crisis, and longer-term, students are leaving University saddled with debt; while the possibility of owning a home is becoming further out of reach. I would argue that now is exactly the time to rock the boat.

Whilst playing it safe may lead to Labour winning the next general election, it runs the risk of undermining the integrity of a party that should be committed to social justice. In some ways, we can only speculate the kind of leader Starmer may be in government, but I worry that his current record fails to demonstrate a commitment delivering radical change which this country desperately needs.


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