This last year, the Conservative Party have self-imploded. The eventual defenestration of Boris Johnson became somewhat inevitable, with a government embroiled in scandal after scandal finally falling after allegations that Johnson had been aware of complaints against the then-deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher — before appointing him to the role. The chaos in Johnson’s final days before his ‘caretaker’ premiership began was extraordinarily eventful. Both his chancellor and health secretary resigned virtually at the same time, and Michael Gove was sacked — as well as allegedly being called a ‘snake‘ by a senior No 10 source. Gove’s sacking epitomised the disorder that was paralysing the Government. Ironically, Johnson resigned the next day, showing that you really can’t spell ‘government’ without ‘Gove’.

A Little Turbulence

After a long, drawn-out leadership race, the Conservatives continued their recent tradition of electing leaders who don’t use their first names by choosing Mary Elizabeth Truss to replace Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. What followed was 45 days of non-stop thrills — apart from the ten days of mourning after the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The ‘mini-budget’ announced on September 23 will live on forever in infamy having caused ‘a little turbulence,’ according to then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. If a pile of Monopoly money, being flung around by seven RAF jet engines, can be described as experiencing a bit of turbulence, then technically Kwarteng’s description was not an understatement. The famously left-wing markets panicked at the thought of unfunded tax cuts, and pension funds had to be rescued by the Bank of England. Kwarteng was soon sacked, and new chancellor Jeremy Hunt proceeded to reverse almost everything in the mini-budget. Five days later, Truss too was gone, resigning a day after boldly declaring that she was ‘a fighter, not a quitter.’

While Rishi Sunak has soothed the markets and has a somewhat sensible plan for the economy, everything is by no means rosy. Strikes are continuing over pay and working conditions, and Britain is becoming more fragmented by the day. Surely, this is the perfect time to be Leader of the Opposition? Despite Labour’s current 23-point lead in the polls, the next election is still a year away and anything can change between now and 2024.  Based on the tales of three past Labour leaders, Starmer is undoubtedly right not to be complacent.

History Lessons for Starmer

We start our journey back in the 1950s. After Labour had been defeated in the 1955 election, Clement Attlee, Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, resigns as Labour leader. Hugh Gaitskell, who had served as chancellor from 1950 to 1951, takes over. Gaitskell was on the right of the Labour Party. In fact, his economic policies were deemed to be so close to those of Tory chancellor Rab Butler that the term ‘Butskellism’ was coined by The Economist in 1954 to describe their shared vision: a mixed economy with moderate government intervention for the good of society.

Gaitskell took his party on over unilateral nuclear disarmament at the height of the Cold War and attempted, but ultimately failed, to change Clause IV of the party’s constitution — the one that affirmed the party’s commitment to common ownership of public services.  These battles came after a crushing defeat in 1959 when the Conservatives returned with a majority of over 100 seats after running a campaign that highlighted Britain’s prosperity at the time. During Gaitskells untimely death in 1963, Labour was consistently ahead in the opinion polls, and the new leader Harold Wilson went on to win the next election just one year later. If he had not passed away, Gaitskell could have been the man taking Labour back to power.

Neil Kinnock is our next leader whose tenure as Leader of the Opposition holds some lessons for Starmer. After a heavy defeat in 1983 under Michael Foot, Kinnock began to shift the Labour Party back towards the centre ground, with most of the work coming after another bruising loss in 1987. He too had to wrangle with his party to convince them to drop their radical plans for denuclearisation and large-scale nationalisation — except, unlike Gaitskell, he was successful. While Labour was still opposed to the privatisation of the NHS and proposed taking back public control of the National Grid, its manifesto in 1992 was made up of fairly moderate policies. However, the party was not trusted enough on the economy to dethrone the Conservatives, led by John Major — although their majority was significantly reduced. Kinnock, broken by the optimism that had surrounded an energetic campaign, stepped down as leader.

His work, though, was not in vain. By a somewhat cruel twist of fate, the pound plummeted only a few months after the 1992 election, destroying the Tories’ reputation for economic credibility — the very thing that had limited the damage at the polls. Coupled with a charismatic young leader, one Anthony Blair, elected after the sudden death of John Smith (Kinnock’s replacement) in 1994, the stage was set for a monumental victory. Blair finally removed Clause IV, finishing the work that Gaitskell had tried to start, and ‘New Labour’ was swept into power in a landslide victory in 1997 as a party of the radical centre.

All three leaders gained from shifting the party towards the centre, but the elections were ultimately decided on the economy. Macmillan’s campaign in 1959 could be boiled down to ‘don’t let Labour ruin our economic prosperity.’ In 1992 the Conservatives ran a poster saying that under Labour taxes and prices would be higher. And in 1997, Labour’s commitment to sticking to the Tories’ existing spending plans helped them win the trust of the electorate on economic matters.

So far, the signs are promising for Keir Starmer, especially after the chaos last autumn. But the deal is far from sealed. Voters can sometimes have the memory of a concussed goldfish. If the economy starts to recover, and it’s beginning to look that way, he could end up more like Gaitskell or Kinnock than Blair.

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