In the UK, consistent double-digit leads in the polls suggest that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is now a government-in-waiting. But has Labour’s abandonment of radical leftism left it vulnerable? Edward Goodger explores the prospect of a populist-left resurgence and its potential to transform the approaching general election
Despite over a decade out of power, the Labour Party remains a serious government prospect. The Conservative government has leapt between three leaders in less than eighteen months, and still struggles to deal with serious economic difficulties. This leaves Labour in pole position to reclaim its status as the UK’s governing party, with an election impending. Under Keir Starmer's leadership, the party has moved to reclaim itself from radical leftism and anti-elite populism under Jeremy Corbyn. However, convergence towards the political centre could allow room for a populist-left challenge that may threaten Labour’s electoral hopes.
When Keir Starmer became Labour leader, he replaced Jeremy Corbyn’s five years of radically leftwing policy stances and anti-elite appeals. Corbyn was popular with the party’s rank-and-file, having won two leadership elections. Furthermore, the party under Corbyn notably exceeded expectations in the 2017 election. That points to a prevailing demand for his radical-left populism in the UK. Yet, Labour was badly beaten in 2019, and Corbyn subsequently resigned. Since then, Starmer has made decisive efforts to expunge Labour’s populist radical-left context.
Speaking in July 2023, former Shadow Chancellor and Corbyn ally John McDonnell spoke out against Starmer for allowing a 'rightwing faction' to become 'drunk with power' and attempting to 'destroy' the left of the Labour Party. Labour’s convergence is also evident when we look at its recent policy shifts. The party’s leadership has ruled out nationalisation of energy companies and public services, has committed to continuing outsourcing in the National Health Service, has been non-committal on trade union strikes, voiced support for the Conservative Party’s Universal Credit welfare policy, and shirked plans to abolish university fees. Starmer has also claimed that his principle is to 'lower taxes', and has enacted multiple other shifts away from the party’s previous leftism.
On top of all these policy shifts, in October 2020 the party suspended Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn remains an independent MP, but Labour has announced that Corbyn will not be a Labour candidate in the next election.
What happens to pro-Corbyn sentiment in a post-Corbyn Labour Party? Former Corbynites may seek a new political outlet
Starmer has sought to undermine Corbynism at party level. However, what happens to pro-Corbyn sentiment among voters? That voter-level support for Corbyn’s leftist populism may find itself shunning Labour’s recent convergence and seeking a new political outlet.
In March 2023, Corbyn hinted he would stand against Labour for his seat, saying he has 'no intention of stopping the fight' to represent his constituents. A September 2023 poll considering the prospect of a Corbyn candidacy for 2024’s London mayoral election suggested he would attract around 15% of the vote.
By alienating Labour’s radical left and moderating the party’s policies, Starmer may have left Labour vulnerable to a populist-left challenge. That challenge, however, should it seriously arise, would not have a realistic chance of winning the forthcoming general election. Previous research has observed the barriers faced by new parties in the UK; the first-past-the-post electoral system in particular. Furthermore, memory of the ill-fated Change UK may resonate with some would-be defector MPs, keeping them in the party.
However, if Jeremy Corbyn inspires a populist-left challenger, it may prove a serious hindrance to Labour’s electoral hopes. Corbyn is not overwhelmingly popular. Nor does he possess the charisma which aided populists such as Marine Le Pen. However, he is well-known and remains popular with a substantial portion of the electorate. Consequently, it is possible a Corbyn-inspired challenger will not suffer the same electoral failure as other breakaway parties.
A powerful populist-left challenger could critically undermine Labour in key constituencies, threatening the presumptive Labour victory
At the very least, the threat of a populist-left challenger could hinder Labour's recent course of convergence. At worst, however, such a challenger could critically undermine Labour in key constituencies. This would leave the next election far from a foregone conclusion. We often see convergence in the rise of populist and radical challengers, and Labour’s recent convergence appears to be an especially potent force driving this rise.
Research from the 1990s raised fears that the: 'convergence of [social-democrat] and [mainstream-conservative] parties […] creates the electoral opening for the authoritarian Right'. Although presented in a populist-right context, Herbert Kitschelt and Anthony McGann’s logic could also apply to leftwing populists. My own research finds that policy proximity was also an important factor driving populist-left support.
In their foundational blog, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti showed how populism can arise in the political mainstream. Corbyn’s rise to Labour leadership is a useful example. The scale of his takeover will certainly have left an impact among voters.
Corbyn's rise to Labour leadership was clear evidence of how populism can arise within the political mainstream – and it will certainly have left an impact
Labour's convergence was preceded by radicalism. Piero Ignazi suggests the radical right benefits when competing in a context of rightwing convergence preceded by polarisation. The current situation in the Labour Party may offer evidence of how this applies to the populist left, because Corbynites previously in the Labour mainstream may soon be competing outside of it. If this happens, Corbyn’s well-recorded populism may draw substantial support from politically disaffected members of the UK electorate.
Can we learn any wider lessons from this; lessons which, perhaps, transcend UK politics? In many Western democracies, the centre left and populist left can coexist – especially in proportional electoral systems. The Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Podemos in Spain have cooperated in a coalition government since November 2019. However, in contexts without a proportional system (among other barriers), coexistence is harder. This leaves the centre left facing a dilemma.
Centre-left parties may need to maintain a veneer of radicalism to attract energised, outspoken radical-left voters. Otherwise, they may lose voters to a populist-left challenger, or else must hope these voters somehow de-radicalise. Overall, the costs of convergence may be significant in cases where radical-left voters are unlikely to comply quietly or vanish entirely.