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View from the Street: Starmer wants a ‘decade of national renewal’ – but will he be given the time?

Will Torness

Client manager

Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Such is the case in physics, but also – one could argue – in politics. Opposition parties, over time, eventually find their turn to govern.

While parties in power have typically had several parliamentary terms at the helm of government in the UK (think the eras of Thatcher and Major, Blair and Brown, and the five most recent Conservative administrations), recent global trends suggest the pace of the pendulum swing in either direction of the political spectrum is becoming more volatile, as high hopes for change in response to global challenges leads to increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Even as Labour hurtles toward victory on July 4, Keir Starmer finds himself trying to balance a narrative that inspires people’s desire for change while communicating the challenging environment that will constrain Labour’s ability to deliver that change.

If Labour does form the next government, it will inherit a stubbornly stagnant economy (the OECD forecasts it will be the worst-performing in the G7 in 2025), strained public finances (a potential £12 billion hole, according to the Resolution Foundation), and an increasingly disaffected electorate of voters (a recent Ipsos poll shows just 27% are satisfied with how democracy is working).

These aren’t conditions that bode well for sustained faith in democratic institutions or whoever leads the governing party. And there are reasons to believe that a Starmer-led government will find itself fighting against time to ensure that the pendulum swing in Labour’s favour now doesn’t rapidly reverse course.

Two examples offer a cautionary tale for the Labour leader in the long term.

To start, Sunday’s European Parliament elections signalled an important benchmark in what has been a gradual rightward shift in many democracies, as far-right parties surged across Europe, particularly in countries like Germany and France. President Emmanuel Macron has even responded with a gamble on his country’s political future by calling a snap election (echoes of David Cameron’s 2016 Brexit gamble, anyone?).

And in the US, president Joe Biden, who just four years ago was the agent of change against a chaotic incumbent government led by Donald Trump, is now fighting to convince his (at best) apathetic broad church of supporters that his administration’s suite of policy successes and management of the fastest-growing economy in the G7 has actually improved the lives of most Americans.

What is most concerning about the two examples above is the depleting support by some of the centre-left’s core base – particularly young voters who will be responsible for taking up the mantle of maintaining liberal democracy and who are also most likely to feel squeezed by persistently high living costs as a barrier to rising up the social ladder.

Many first-time voters in the EU – especially young men – are increasingly gravitating toward the far-right’s Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, and anti-establishment policy stances (along with its adept use of social media). And in the US, younger voters appear pointedly hesitant to support a Biden second term, with the president leading Trump by merely two percentage points (36% to 34%) among this group, which is a fundamental bloc of the Democratic Party’s support.

For centrist parties working within institutional frameworks, change can be frustratingly slow. And sitting within our era of instant gratification, tendency for political amnesia, proliferation of misinformation, and numerous global challenges this presents a pernicious cocktail for which the allure of more fringe movements can capitalise.

Back to the UK, where, if polls are correct, the Tories could face their most devastating defeat in 120 years. A rejection of the 14-year trajectory that has delivered the fiscal rock and a hard place the country now finds itself between.

Perhaps Britain has been somewhat insulated from the global experimentation with the far-right thus far (Brexit debates aside), in part, because the tumultuous past decade has been presided over by a dysfunctional centre-right party that has bungled some of its more fringe policy ideas.  Delivery still matters.

The political pendulum will swing to the left this time. But what follows could be an environment ripe for a pendulum correction if voters (and especially young voters) do not sufficiently “feel” that a Labour economy is working for them over the next parliamentary term – even if Starmer can deliver broadly good news on that front.

Take a recent general election poll already showing surprisingly considerable support for Reform – 12% amongst 18 to 24-year-olds, which is only two points down from Conservative support among this age group.

A not-so-unreasonable thought experiment supposes that the Bravermans, Trusses, and Farages of the UK’s far-right will clamour for a foothold in what could become an increasingly disaffected base of young voters. They may be the brunt of jokes now – but so were Trump and Marine Le Pen in 2012.

In speaking about a “decade of national renewal”, Starmer is signalling that the myriad issues facing Britain will require a long-term strategy with no quick fixes. The systemic change needed will take years – beyond one parliamentary term – and certainly beyond the time until Labour needs to defend its record in Scotland in the 2026 Holyrood elections.

It’s a tight window indeed. And there will be little room for error as a prime minister Starmer will need to produce a narrative that both steers public opinion through more challenging times and authentically sells the upsides of any potential economic improvements – without the appearance of gaslighting.

Will the public have the patience to stick with whatever form Labour’s “change” takes? And will it be enough to stave off the seductive allure of more simplistic narratives promising a very different kind of change that is beginning to capture some of the younger generation of voters?

As we await the election results in July, it’s worth being mindful now that what may appear inevitable in the near term can end up producing a wild return of the pendulum swing years down the road.