The warnings come from a newly launched group Renaissance – led by key figures from Labour’s centre including Stephen Kinnock, Yvette Cooper and Justin Madders – who have called for the party to refocus on winning back Conservative voters in towns.
Kinnock, a shadow minister and MP for Aberavon, told the Guardian the victory in Batley and Spen was “a turning point for us … I genuinely feel we’ve got a spring in our step, but it needs to go further and it needs to go faster and it has to be scaled up.”
He said the party needed a compelling narrative for the next two years ahead of the election that it could hammer home. “We need to commit to stories. We need, I would say very soon, to be clear on these these issues, and then to actually start repeating them and making them the first thing that Labour MPs and activists and supporters think about when they get up in the morning,” Kinnock said.
He said the party needed to reestablish trust on jobs and economic competence – and make them the main themes of the next few years, rather than be distracted by culture war traps laid by the Conservatives.
“The problem comes when – if you’ve got a lack of clarity about who we are and what we stand for – that is fertile territory for the Conservatives to plant the seeds of division,” he said.
“You need to fill that space with really strong and compelling stories about being a party of work and good jobs, being a party that wants a manufacturing renaissance, and being a party that’s going to manage your hard-earned taxpayers’ money in a very sensible and sound way that’s actually going to invest for change in the future. Then these other issues and concerns and sideshows will just evaporate.”
The campaign has done a series of focus groups from former Labour voters in target seats across England and Wales, who have stopped voting Labour over the course of the past 10 years, but who say they are open to voting for Labour again.
The final report, due later in the summer, will warn that Labour’s attacks on austerity were not having the desired effect because Conservatives were successfully devolving blame to local councils, often run by Labour.
One voter in their 50s, from Rother Valley, said local government “get the money from London to put in what they need, and they aren’t doing the job … I have always voted Labour and now gone over to Conservative.”
Another from Stoke said that Labour “had the chance to prioritise Stoke for years and years. People then decide to vote for something different.”
Voters also suggested they were deeply concerned about the national debt and said they did not trust Labour with high-spending pledges. “It’s hard to trust Labour given that the pandemic will have to be paid back for some time,” one from Don Valley said.
However, Kinnock said the focus groups showed that a relentless focus on secure jobs could win over voters.
“I remember when Labour were in charge, the worker had more rights than the employer. I think we have gone too far now … and the employer has too much power,” one voter said.
Launching the new group, which has financial backing from north-east lawyer Vaqas Farooq, the MPs warn more than 100 of Labour’s 124 target seats for the next general election lie outside the major cities.
Carolyn Harris, Starmer’s former PPS and one of the party leader’s key loyalists, is also on the advisory board, saying he “needs support from organisations within the Labour movement”.
Cooper, whose Normanton, Pontefract and Castleton seat has become a marginal after a sharp fall in Labour’s share of the vote, said that the image of Labour as “the party only for the big cities” had to change.
“Labour has lost support in many of the towns and communities where the party was forged over a century ago,” she said, saying she backed a renewed focus on “community values, on supporting families and on bringing quality jobs back to our towns”.