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The writer is a political strategist at BCW communications and former political secretary to Tony Blair
A paradox is haunting British politics. The Labour party has consistent — and dominant — opinion poll leads averaging 20 points over the governing Tory party. Yet focus groups of voters consistently say that they don’t know what Labour’s policies are, nor what party leader Sir Keir Starmer stands for. What’s going on?
An obvious, but glib, answer from Labour would be: “Imagine how popular we’ll be when people finally hear about our policies!” A better, and more productive, response would be to interrogate this contradiction.
Partly, Starmer is a victim of his own success. He set himself clear and urgent tasks on taking over as leader after Labour’s worst defeat in nearly a century. First, to make a clear break with Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure and root out antisemitism at all levels of the Labour party. Those tasks are done — with Corbyn sitting as an independent MP and prevented from standing as a Labour candidate at the next election.
Phase two of Labour’s recovery would then follow: telling the country about the change that the party would bring. And yet, for all the hundreds of announcements, big and small, that Labour has produced since its 2019 defeat, the defining sense — the “vibe” — is caution not vision.
The position is understandable. Loss aversion is one of the most powerful forces in human psychology; who would want to endanger the polling lead? Only twice in their history have Labour won a commanding majority from opposition, so the stakes are high. As are expectations. The party is being scrutinised as though it is already in government, despite the fact that shadow cabinet members only have a handful of advisers to support them — unlike their counterparts in power, who have half a million civil servants to draw upon.
It’s not fair, but if you thought politics was fair then, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, you were misinformed. When a country is demanding change, it’s a leadership’s responsibility to give them what they want.
No voter doubts the scale of the challenges that the UK faces. After being battered by the global financial crisis, Brexit, the pandemic and now inflation, the electorate will not need to be convinced of that. What they fear is a lack of ambition. Starmer needs to come out swinging.
Great parties must have great causes. There is no greater cause than restoring this great country of ours. Of course that means symbolic policies such as VAT on private school fees to fund investment in state sector education, and changing the taxation of non-doms to pay for recruiting more nurses. But it also means — go big or go home.
If you can’t be Tony Blair, who was able, with Gordon Brown, to spend the proceeds of the economic growth he inherited, then be Clement Attlee: the postwar Labour leader’s cause was nothing less than laying the foundations of “a new Jerusalem”.
This doesn’t mean new ideas — they are there already. Labour’s industrial strategy aims to create jobs, and cut costs permanently for families, by decarbonising the UK’s economy. But the message won’t be heard while Labour calls it a “green prosperity plan” — when voters are told something is “green”, at best they hear “well meaning” but normally they hear “tax hike”.
In politics, some problems just have to be faced head on. There is no future that doesn’t tackle the climate crisis. There is no avoiding transition. The question is how the changes will impact the public. That is where Labour must be bold and ask: “Who do you trust to make the right changes for our country — and make them fairly for working people?” Say it with the confidence of a party on 44 per cent in the polls facing a government languishing on 24 per cent.
No opposition party can provide the detailed renewal programme required to reverse the cumulative impact of the past four Conservative governments and their five prime ministers. There are many challenges ahead. Families and communities across the country are in deep poverty. Sewage is pumped into rivers and on to beaches. Schools have had to cut teaching assistants — and are now being evacuated because of dangers from their crumbling buildings. Hospitals have waiting lists into the millions, and older people with dementia wait 50 days to be placed in a care home.
So many spheres of national life have reached the limits of make-do-and-mend. Change will be a collective endeavour. But hope, that essential element of great political leadership, will go nowhere without proud and confident leadership.
As a dedicated football fan, Starmer knows the taunt “You only sing when you’re winning!” He’s winning — why isn’t he leading the singing?