Published: 06:00, 25 September 2021
| Updated: 09:48, 27 September 2021
As party leader Keir Starmer prepares for the Labour conference, he does so facing criticism that he is failing to connect with voters the party needs to have any chance of forming a government.
Can it regain the level of support that propelled it to three successive general election victories under Tony Blair? Political Editor Paul Francis takes stock.
Most parliamentary by-elections are seen as a litmus test of the popularity of the government and the prospects of the opposition parties scoring an upset.
This convention was turned on its head when in May, the Conservatives chalked up a victory in Hartlepool, defeating Labour with a swing of 16% - the first time since the constituency was created in 1974 that it had a Conservative MP.
Kent might not have much in common with a constituency nearly 300 miles away but it does in one respect: Labour is struggling to find a compelling narrative that will appeal to both floating voters and its own supporters.
Its defeat in a string of northern seats at the 2019 election gave rise to the phenomenon of “red wall” seats, constituencies that had been in Labour’s hands for decades but were lost.
The political landscape in the Garden of England is largely true blue Tory heartland, with all but one constituency - Canterbury - solidly Conservative.
It is a far cry from the heady days of the “New Labour” which began in 1997 when the party broadly shared the electoral spoils in the county’s 17 constituencies.
The party is performing poorly in the polls and the run up to conference has seen a divisive row over transgender rights - with the party’s only MP in Kent Rosie Duffield at the heart of it - and simmering tensions over claims the party leadership is out to purge its critics on the left. It makes for an uncomfortable backdrop to its Brighton conference.
On the plus side, the party can claim some successes on the election front in Kent but the gains have been modest rather than seismic: it won seven seats at the county council election, less than it hoped for and its losses included the seat held by the then opposition group leader Dara Farrell.
It also picked up support in some unlikely areas, such as Tunbridge Wells, although it did not quite have the votes needed to push it over the finishing line in first place.
And it is at some distance from being able to say that it is on course to convert this into winning seats at a general election. A landslide on the scale of Blair’s in 1997 is not in the offing.
Vince Maple, leader of the Labour group on Medway Council and regional officer for the South East, says the party has been operating in a period when “normal politics” have been effectively sidelined due to the ‘super-sized’ issues of Brexit and the coronavirus.
He said: “We've had the combination of dealing with Brexit, and then dealing with a global pandemic and I entirely accept, it is difficult to deal with those as a leader but also for a leader of the opposition, it’s a pretty big challenge as well. We haven't had politics as normal.”
Election results “shows good positive signs of progress being made, although not getting to the numbers we would have liked.”
He says the party needs to hone in on issues that ordinary voters are concerned about.
“We should be taking the majority of that time in Brighton to look at how we deliver good quality public services, and have a genuine attempt to tackling this climate emergency with progressive values. That's what we should be focusing on.”
He is cautious about the impact of the party’s difficulties over anti-semitism and more recently transgender rights, choosing his words carefully: “Those two issues are important but if you compare them to education or health - they come up a lot more.
"I hope the conference isn't too inward looking, you know, as I have said before, no-one has ever said to me on the doorstep ‘I’m voting Labour because you're arguing with yourself'.”
Questions about whether Keir Starmer is the right man for the job get a diplomatic response: “I hope if we've got the message right, Keir will be the man to take us to a Labour government.”
With recriminations over the suspension and expulsion of party members in what has been described as a witch hunt, familiar hostilities between left and right are conspiring to make it difficult for the party to present a united front.
The rancour that has followed the party’s suspension of left wing members for associating with ‘banned’ groups is partly a legacy of ‘Momentum’ - the movement that was set up to support former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Among them is former chairman of the South Thanet Labour party Norman Thomas, who claims he was suspended because he allowed local members to debate a motion in support of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, when he had the parliamentary whip taken from him.
He said: “This is not just an internal Labour Party battle. This is about democracy and justice. Labour will not be an effective party of opposition while this outrageous witch-hunt is allowed to continue.”
Euan Philips, of the Kent-based Labour Against Anti-Semitism group has a similarly gloomy prognosis - from the opposite side.
He said: “The Labour Party is trying to present itself as under new management but it still has a very long way to go; Keir Starmer has to get involved and start challenging those MPs who facilitated the anti-semitism.
"The membership is not aligned with broader views of the ordinary voter and while that continues to be the case it will be very far from electability.”
With the possibility of an early election, Vince Maple says a key priority is to get parliamentary candidates adopted as quickly as possible.
“We start from a difficult place; we have one MP and we need more. So we need to have good people putting themselves forward to be parliamentary candidates and we should, in my view, get those candidates in place as quickly as possible.”
As things stand, the odds are stacked against Labour’s chances of dislodging the Conservative grip on Kent but the volatility of politics means anything is possible.