French philosopher Albert Camus once told the story of Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology who, when it was time for him to die, cheated death by putting Hades in chains when he came to collect his soul. Eventually Hades was liberated, and Sisyphus’ punishment was doled out: he would be condemned to push an enormous boulder up a mountainside, only to watch it fall back down again – a task he would have to repeat for eternity. The figure came to serve as a poetic representation of Camus’ philosophical absurdism: that life, in spite of our efforts to assign purpose and value, is inherently meaningless.
A heavy opening paragraph, I know, but the point is this: there is almost always a Sisyphean element to general elections. For the Labour Party, this has happened twice in the last decade. The first Sisyphus was Ed Miliband, who pushed the boulder for five years only to watch it plummet back towards the bottom of the mountain in 2015. Jeremy Corbyn’s odyssey was slightly more complicated; the 2017 election seemed to indicate that the boulder was in a stabilised position, only for the British electorate to blast it off the mountainside two years later and crush Corbyn under its weight in the process.
So now the boulder is once again at the bottom of the mountain. Jeremy Corbyn’s corpse lies splattered on the ground, Boris Johnson has shuffled towards his throne as the newly crowned king of the castle, and most of the Labour Party membership have hanged themselves.
The last ten years have been, for the Labour Party, a never-ending Sisyphean allegory, so it seems appropriate that a recent report on Labour’s disastrous 2019 result described the party as having a ‘mountain to climb.’ But now the party has chosen a new leader, perhaps one who will succeed in rescuing them from their cycle of electoral defeats: former human rights lawyer and hair gel enthusiast Keir Starmer. Starmer has only been in Parliament for five years but as we’ve all brutally learned, this is the political equivalent of a lifetime.
So what exactly does Starmer need to achieve before the next election in 2024? Well, a lot – and that would be sugar-coating it. At the last election Labour lost around sixty seats, leaving them with 202 in the House of Commons out of a possible 650. For a simple majority, Labour will need to retain the seats they currently hold and pick up an extra 124. This alone would require a monumental swing towards the party, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1997 landslide. And remember, all that will give them is a majority of one; if they want to form a government that is, shall we say, ‘strong and stable’, an even bigger swing is necessary.
And that’s to say nothing of the internal conflict that has threatened to tear the party apart for the last five years. Let’s be honest: both the left and the right of the Labour Party have their ugly incarnations. The left seems happy to excuse the rampant anti-Semitism that was not adequately addressed under Corbyn’s leadership, while the right seems to be made up of career politicians who were happy to tank the 2017 election as long as it would force a leadership contest. But that’s politics, right? It’s normal to have strong emotions, and it’s even more normal to have a somewhat irrational hatred of certain groups. What the Labour Party needs is a strong unifying force that will bring both sides together, united in a common dream: that of winning the next election. Starmer was only elected in April, so whether he will succeed in doing this remains to be seen.
But who knows? Voters have shockingly short memories, and with the Brexit issue no longer a factor in political debate, some of the lifelong Labour voters who voted Conservative for the first time six months ago might decide to revert back to their old ways. A recent Ipsos MORI poll indicated that Starmer currently holds the highest approval rating for an opposition leader since Tony Blair, so he seems to have gotten off on the right foot. I won’t give any electoral predictions in this article because, despite the fact I’m studying politics at a university level, I know astonishingly little about the subject. (I’m willing to admit that I predicted Hilary Clinton would win a landslide.) We’ll just have to wait and see. A lot can change in four years, and a Labour victory is certainly within the bounds of credibility, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the mountain is just a little too steep.