What does Labour under Starmer stand for? The big question on everyone’s lips, but so far, the dividing lines between Sunak and Starmer are few and far between. However, days before the local elections, the Labour leader tried to create daylight by taking a stand on house-building.
The Sunday before the locals the Labour leader went bold on house-building by pledging to reinstate national house-building targets that the Government scrapped just months ago. It was the loss of the once Conservative safe seat of Chesham and Amersham in 2021 that was the catalyst that culminated in the Conservatives scrapping the targets. Conservative strategists now fear that any house-building in their leafy strongholds will only hurt them at the ballot box.
Indeed, so convinced in the merits of being anti-development for their electoral fortunes, the Conservative Chairman Greg Hands put in his MP WhatsApp group that Starmer’s pledge “could play badly for Labour in many places on Thursday”. Immediate was the backlash from a small group of Conservatives – Simon Clarke, Mark Jenkinson and Justin Tomlinson – who rallied against what they described as ‘NIMBYism’, arguing that if people can’t get onto the housing ladder due to a lack of supply, in the long-term the Conservatives will lose voters. These “private” messages were immediately leaked to The Times, demonstrating the ferocity of the current internal war within the Conservative Party.
Sunak and No 10 don’t have the luxury of thinking long-term, however. They have less than 18 months to overturn a double-digit polling deficit. If they think they will lose votes from developments then they will take the short-term view. Indeed, it was Sunak who wanted to continue the ban on onshore wind (despite committing to net zero) in fear of an electoral backlash, until his backbenchers forced him to back down.
But if Hands is right about house-building, why is Starmer in favour of it? Well for one, he can be. People support the principle of building more homes, it is just certain areas where you start to struggle. But also, the dividing line between the two major parties is now one of geography. Labour holds the cities and town centres; Conservatives hold the suburbs and countryside. Largely, it is the rural regions of the country that a) have the space to build but b) are often against developments. This means this is much more of a political football for the Conservatives. Labour voters are unlikely to be exercised about the issue in the same way rural Conservatives are. Also, in the areas where development is a big voting issue – such as in southern rural areas – Labour isn’t in the game. It is the Lib Dems or Greens fighting the Conservatives in these areas. Little to lose, much to gain for Starmer then.
It has given Starmer an opportunity… to claim that Labour are the party of opportunity. He can sell the vision of getting more people onto the housing ladder with little fear of it affecting his strong electoral position. Indeed, with many votes still to be counted – the Conservatives have lost seats in southern rural areas to both Lib Dems and the Greens in the locals where developments are an issue. Despite Greg Hands’ prediction, being pro house-building hasn’t seem to have affected Labour at all.
If anything, the results today will probably further entrench the view in Conservative central office that being pro-development hurts them electorally. Leaving the door wide open for Labour to be the party of house-building.