Labour saved from ‘summer vacuum’ but Tories hope to exploit weak spots

Estimated read time 7 min read

Labour has been rescued from an awkward summer vacuum by Rishi Sunak’s surprise snap election, senior figures believe.

Some of the party’s most prominent figures are using this weekend to ridicule the chaotic start of the Tory campaign, accusing Sunak of displaying a “reverse Midas touch” after his rain-soaked election announcement outside Downing Street and a series of early gaffes on the campaign trail.

However, there is also some relief inside Labour HQ that the party has avoided several potentially uncomfortable months before an election. There had been internal concerns that Labour faced unwelcome pressures to make new policy announcements in the months leading up to an expected autumn poll.

Concerns arose because the party had spent much of the spring preparing a manifesto for a May election, and then a campaign plan for one in the autumn. It left a long summer stretch in which the party would have had little it wanted to say, creating a potential vacuum where internal ructions could break out. “That is a long time to fill and it’s not clear what we would say,” said one insider.

That strategic challenge has now been erased as a result of Sunak’s summer gamble. Labour’s campaign timetable has kicked in, with advisers largely given their roles either at HQ or out on the campaign trail, while shadow cabinet ministers have been allocated specific constituencies to oversee.

Critical 6.30am campaign calls have begun, including Keir Starmer, director Morgan McSweeney, chief of staff Sue Gray, campaign coordinator Pat McFadden, communications chief Matthew Doyle and gatekeeper Jill Cuthbertson.

Insiders boast that within an hour of the election announcement, activists were already working battleground seats with leaflets and boards all emblazoned with Labour’s “change” slogan. Strict anti-gaffe protocols have already been implemented that limit Starmer’s exposure to unexpected pictures or encounters.

Cuthbertson is now emerging as a key figure, both in terms of deciding what issues Starmer must adjudicate on and ensuring his event calendar has no unscheduled surprises.

Starmer is this weekend preparing for a big campaign speech on Monday in which he will attempt to flesh out how Labour would transform the country for the better, given that the party has now thrown its campaign squarely behind the idea that its leader represents the “change candidate”. Starmer will try to take on the idea that there would be little difference from the Tories once he was in power, concentrating on political stability.

Senior figures are trying to play down the notion that there will be many policy surprises during the campaign, with the manifesto launch still a couple of weeks away. “Our strategy hasn’t changed, and that’s a deliberate choice,” said one figure involved. The party will, however, flesh out its six “first steps”, covering economic stability, NHS waiting times, border security, antisocial behaviour, energy and new teachers.

Starmer has decided to take part in a small number of TV debates, but shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and deputy leader Angela Rayner are also expected to feature heavily during the campaign.

Despite the testing start for Sunak, senior Tory figures believe that defence remains a possible vulnerability for Starmer’s team that has not yet been properly explored. The Labour leader has already attempted to neutralise the party’s record on defence by committing to spend 2.5% of gross domestic product on it “as soon as resources allow”.

This is slightly weaker than the Conservatives’ commitment to spend that proportion by 2030, though neither side has clarified how they would afford it.

David LammyView image in fullscreen

More pressing for the campaign is the issue of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. Senior Tories have been totting up the number of Labour MPs and frontbenchers who have voted against Trident in the past, including the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy.

“They say they’re in favour of Trident, but nearly 50 Labour MPs voted against it last time they were asked – 12 current frontbenchers voted against,” said a senior Tory minister. “Lammy voted against. They say they’re in favour of 2.5% but refuse to outline when or how they’d pay for it. They’re very weak on it.”

Labour insiders are trying to balance the obvious glee of many aides with a warning that the Tory campaign will improve. The party is now having to hurry through a few issues, including candidate selection in seats they are mostly unlikely to win.

The bigger problem is managing internal competition for some safe and winnable seats that have become available as MPs stand down. They also face a big decision over whether or not to allow suspended MP Diane Abbott back in to the fold.

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On Friday night, the party quietly released its plans for sweeping employment law reforms that the left has accused it of diluting after lobbying by employer groups.

It included a rebranding of the reforms in an attempt to nullify Tory attacks on the plan and reassure the business world. Formerly the “new deal for working people”, it will now be known as “Labour’s plan to make work pay” to better reflect the party’s message to help with the cost of living.

The newly released document confirms a series of compromises reached with union leaders in recent weeks that will see many of the principal changes put through consultations. The main elements include an end to “fire and rehire” practice, the scrapping of some recent Tory trade union laws and more rights for newly appointed workers.

As previously hammered out with unions, a commitment to ban zero-hours contracts is now an undertaking to outlaw “exploitative” versions of these contracts. The party has spent much time behind the scenes keeping union leaders on board, with only Unite breaking with the rest.

“The again revised new deal for working people has more holes in it than Swiss cheese,” said Sharon Graham, Unite’s general secretary. “The number of caveats and get-outs means it is in danger of becoming a bad bosses’ charter. The country desperately needs a Labour government, but the party must show it will stick to its guns on improving workers’ rights.”

While many in the party acknowledge there is little evidence that the public are enthusiastic about the prospect of an incoming Labour government, there is some evidence that the electorate expects things to improve more under Labour than under the Tories.

According to research by the More in Common group, people tend to expect that NHS waiting lists would go up under the Conservatives, but down under Labour, and even believe that a Tory government would be more likely to increase taxes than a Labour one.

Voters also expect house prices and crime to go up more under the Tories compared with Labour, while they are more optimistic about wage increases under a Labour administration.

Only on immigration do they expect the Tories to have a bigger impact. Most think Channel crossings would increase more under Labour.

“While the public aren’t particularly convinced much will get better whoever wins the next election, it’s striking that there is one area where the public do think Labour will do a much better job than the Conservatives,” said Luke Tryl, director of More in Common.

“Combine that with the fact more of the public think taxes on working people are actually likely to rise under the Conservatives than Labour, and you can see that, even leaving headline voting intention aside, how much the Conservatives have to do to convince the public they’d be better off under them.”


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