After the defeat of Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election, Labour recognised that the party needed radical reform to become electable to the British people. By this stage, the party had failed to win an election in sixteen years.
Kinnock’s successor, John Smith, went on a charm offensive, wining and dining business and finance leaders, hoping to convince them that Labour was a credible party of governance and a safe pair of hands to entrust the nation’s economy to.
The attempt to undo their reputation as a dangerously left-wing party was coined the ‘prawn cocktail offensive’, a reference to the food that was typically served at these events. The behind-the-scenes lunches coincided with real change within the party. Trade union block votes were scrapped at the 1993 Labour conference and Tony Blair later ditched clause 4 which ended the party’s socialist ambition to expand the nationalisation of Britain’s industries – a sign Labour really did mean business.
It was this strategy that made the Labour Party electable once again – something it appears Keir Starmer now wishes to emulate.
This change of tack may come at a good time for Labour. The Conservative Party, once the bastion of free market economics, has, in many ways, abandoned their long-held principles.
While Conservatives may be in Downing Street, the days of ‘spending within our means’ and ‘fixing the roof whilst the sun is out’ have been replaced with a quasi ‘cradle to the grave’ mantra that is reminiscent of the days of Butskellism.
And the tax burden remains stubbornly high. Besides immediate Covid relief measures like the extension of the Business Rates holiday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak froze national insurance contribution thresholds – effectively a stealth tax increase on individuals across the UK, and corporation tax is set to increase for the first time since 1974. Root and branch reform of our complex and burdensome tax code is off the agenda altogether.
After years of advocating for a socialist utopia under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a new chapter in Labour’s history could be emerging. With the Conservatives slipping to the left, will Labour be capable of seizing the opportunity this presents?
It certainly appears as though Starmer is keen to shift his party back to the centre ground. He and Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds have launched a second prawn cocktail offensive, wooing business leaders at the Despatch Box and in the media, in an attempt to make the party electable once more.
Convincingly or not, the Labour Party seemingly has discovered a newfound concern for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. Starmer was right to raise concerns over government procurement spending on PPE and their calls to freeze council taxes to ‘protect hardworking families’ were welcome.
As with John Smith’s first offensive, Starmer has, to an extent, backed up his words with actions, with the Shadow Chancellor demanding no tax rises (at least for now).
It may well become increasingly difficult for the Conservatives to paint Labour as the fiscally irresponsible party at the same time as the government continues to run up colossal debt, borrow excessively, while also raising taxes.
If the Labour party continues to rein in their socialist policies and distances itself from trade union demands, on paper the party will appear to many as a credible alternative to the Conservatives. But will this be enough for Labour to get ahead in the polls?
Arguably, the political landscape has changed so much in recent years that cultural issues are now more important to voters than the economy. For many, taking the knee or statue toppling have become more important issues than budget deficits and taxes. If the economy is a secondary issue, the party’s soul searching must start with their stance on cultural issues. A new PR offensive will need to be mobilised to convince the red wall seats they are not too woke.
It is refreshing to have the opposition holding the Conservatives to account on the state of the public finances. British politics has desperately missed the presence of a solid opposition. But in a world turned upside down, only time will tell if Labour can beat the Conservatives at their own game by occupying the ‘business friendly’ political ground or whether it needs to reassess the woke agenda they so avidly support.