Welcome to Road to the General Election, the new regular political insight newsletter brought to you by BCW London’s Corporate and Public Affairs team.
Ahead of a critical UK General Election within the next 22 months, we will be bringing you our analysis of the political developments you need to know about, updates on the latest party standings, and the crucial events and announcements you may have missed. We’ll be alternating our focus between the Labour and Conservative parties.
With a team composed of specialists from both main parties, BCW is expertly placed to help you navigate the lead-up to the next general election. For more information on how we can support you and your organisation, please contact our Head of Public Affairs, Simon Richards: [email protected].
Leading the Way
A chink in the armour - what Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation means for Labour
By John McTernan, former No.10 Political Operations Director for Tony Blair
Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation was shocking. The news was a tightly held secret that didn’t leak until shortly before her announcement. The SNP leader is going at the height of her powers and at the time of her choosing - each a rarity in politics where careers famously end in failure.
There will continue to be much speculation about why she left when her political authority was so unchallenged, but there was sincerity in her statement that she was running out of energy – echoing the words of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she stood down recently. Modern government, with 24/7 media, is exhausting and for female leaders the misogynistic attacks on social media add an extra pressure.
What does this mean for the Labour Party? Well, it certainly levels the playing field in Scottish politics. Nicola Sturgeon was not just a supremely effective communicator; she is also a globally recognisable figure. She was a political giant, as was her predecessor Alex Salmond, but her potential successors, from Finance Secretary Kate Forbes to Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, are small in comparison.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar now has a fairer fight. And he was smart in his response to Nicola’s news. He praised the First Minister for her public service, while noting their differences of opinion but he firmly stated that Scottish Labour were not and could not be a default option – they had to be a positive change.
This is even truer at a time when there is such division within the SNP over the strategy to win independence, and such growing signs of failure in public services in Scotland – where there is an NHS crisis that mirrors the one in England, despite health being devolved. Additionally, the fact that there is going to be an SNP leadership election means there will be space for a more open policy debate about Scotland’s future. On all these accounts, Scottish Labour have a chance to be heard – and they need to seize it!
The electoral opportunity is significant. UK Labour’s polling support is in the high 40s, with a more than 20-point lead over the Conservatives. At that level a modest revival in Scotland was coming, with Labour perhaps gaining six or seven seats.
The flux in the SNP creates a bigger potential opening. If the next General Election is run as a “de facto referendum”, as Nicola Sturgeon intended, that mobilises all “No” voters behind Labour in any seat in which they are the main challenger to the SNP.
But the furore over trans rights that engulfed Nicola Sturgeon at the end of her leadership has upended Scottish politics, as the new polls over the weekend show. Twice as many Scottish voters support the UK Tory government preventing the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill passing into law as support the SNP. For the first time in nearly two decades, the nationalists are on the wrong side of public opinion. And the issue has become a lightning rod for concerns about the SNP government and its record.
But the biggest winner is probably Keir Starmer. Though Labour is currently on track for a landslide, the Tories have been reviving their very effective campaign from 2015 – asserting that a minority Labour government propped up by SNP MPs would be a danger to English voters. It will be impossible to re-run that campaign with a new SNP leader – whom voters won’t recognise, let alone be able to name.
The Party of Business?
As the party tracks well in the polls, Labour has certainly upped the ante in recent weeks in efforts to show it means business when it comes to industry engagement.
Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Jonathan Reynolds and senior party figures continue to engage with CEOs, industry groups and organisations with an open-door policy that business leaders contrast with the attitude of government ministers.
This drum beat of stakeholder engagement builds on Starmer’s shrewd March 2022 hire of Vidhya Alakeson as his Director of External Affairs. After seven years running Power to Change, a charity focused on growing community-led businesses, Alakeson has brought new networks to the Leader of the Opposition’s Office, as well as policy and delivery experience from UK and U.S. government. Businesses should be looking to engage with her right now.
Behind the scenes, Labour has also made key hires in its Business Relations team at the turn of 2023: taking on Isaac Oliver to help lead on private sector partnership building.
Currently, Labour’s National Policy Forum is seeking stakeholder views on topics from transforming Britain’s infrastructure to what exactly the future of work should look like. With the latest round of consultations closing on 17th March, this is a chance for business stakeholders to make the case to Labour at a critical moment in the manifesto drafting cycle.
To get your voice in the room with Labour, BCW can help. Organisations can also sign up to Labour’s business newsletter here.
State of the Polls
Data taken from Politico’s poll of polls for the United Kingdom (18th February):
LAB - 48%
CON – 25%
LIB DEM – 9%
GREENS – 5%
REFORM – 6%
SNP – 3%
There are projections that this would mean a landslide for Labour: New Statesman modelling puts Labour on 424 seats to 138 for the Conservatives. A recent poll for The Daily Telegraph is even more dire for the Tories – putting them on just 45 seats, behind the SNP.
A blog by James Kanagasooriam of Focaldata provides a corrective by looking at other tested methods of predicting election results, which produces smaller majorities for Labour.
In case you missed it
Labour recently unveiled further details on its plan to reform the government’s apprenticeship levy: creating a Growth and Skills Levy overseen by a new body, Skills England (SE). Replacing the current scheme, which industry considers too restrictive and which has left over £3.3 billion in levy funds unspent, Labour’s alternative would allow businesses to spend up to 50% of levy contributions on “non-apprenticeship training”, including modular courses in priority areas such as digital and green skills. SE will be tasked with maintaining overall standards and deciding the courses in scope.
In unlocking this untapped potential, the party argues its replacement will be more flexible and, ultimately, productive. The move plays well into Keir Starmer’s “partnership” approach with industry by invoking greater choice for business whilst conferring clear responsibilities onto them in terms of upskilling future generations. Moreover, with SE set to bring together trade associations, employers, trade unions, local government and actors across further and higher education, it offers stakeholders a further chance to get their voice in the room and influence the scheme’s contours.
With Labour leading, now is the time for businesses and groups to be looking ahead, finding opportunities, and prioritising engagement with Labour, to help shape what is increasingly considered government policy in waiting.
Thank you for reading, we’ll see you soon.