Talk to any poor so-and-sos who have done the job and they’d grimly agree. Being leader of the opposition is important – and uniquely miserable. You must shape a story about the future of the country, but without any power, hardly any machine and largely without the support of the media.
You face an opponent whose words weigh more than yours because a prime minister can make things happen. Journalists who rely on access to ministers often can’t be bothered to report your latest policy thinking. Yet they leap, with glee, on the smallest slip. It’s like trying to ice-skate on tarmac. Or having to practise arias in a public library. (Sorry to younger readers; that was a reference to times long past.)
In many ways, as I have argued here before, Keir Starmer has been doing well. In the Commons his tone – that of a perplexed grown-up in hard times – has been shrewdly judged. He comes across as patriotic, reasonable. He has been asking the right questions and refusing to rise to endless baiting from a grinning Boris Johnson. My impression is that he is a thoroughly nice guy, strongly grounded in his family and motivated by the best principles of public service.
So it is with genuine regret that I say that, in addition, he is not doing well enough. Under him, the opposition has so far failed to paint a convincing picture of an alternative Britain. There isn’t enough political courage. There is no front-foot excitement about the big change coming. Where’s the relish for the fight?
We don’t yet know what will happen in the May local elections; Boris Johnson and the Tories may be punished severely for “partygate”. If so, that’s down to them more than Labour. But meanwhile, the reports are that Johnson’s latest line, that Starmer is “a man without a plan”, is working with voters. It is being spontaneously recited back to Labour door-knockers.
And yes, I know, the Labour leader’s position is particularly difficult. It’s hard enough to rally voters during a pandemic when the country depends on government support and advice; doubly hard, perhaps, during a European war when most of the country is solidly behind Ukraine, alongside the British government.
Meanwhile, Starmer has successfully de-Jeremyed his party. The Corbynites aren’t completely done yet – there’s more news to come from that camp. But Starmer has also kept an iron grip on candidate selections. (Because of the age of Labour MPs, the next election is likely to see an unusually large replacement of people; the loyalties of the new candidates in winnable seats matter more than ever.)
None of this is enough to carry the opposition over the line at a general election. It is ground-rolling, the preparing of the pitch. To then win on it, you need a big idea.
Enough carping: what might it look like? Here are a few obvious areas Labour should focus on. First, there’s the massive cost of living crisis coming this year, not just for unemployed people on benefits but for what is fast becoming the pivotal electoral group, the underpaid. Maybe we are all over-talking it but right now it looks like a gigantic social crisis in the making.
To respond to it, Labour needs a big, bold, income-support offer, something that matches the radicalism shown by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill before the First World War. The Conservatives have come up with micro-measures. So Labour needs something properly imaginative in response. No money? Find ways of raising it.
Second, as argued here before, Labour must stop pretending that Europe doesn’t exist. Yes, Johnson wants to return to the subject of Brexit and will keep saying Starmer wants to take us back into the EU, even though he knows it’s nonsense. But Britain’s place in the world, and our future as a trading nation, are not issues the opposition can avoid. In power Labour would have to confront the lack of strong trading relationships with the continent and begin remaking strategic friendships. Starmer can’t go to a general election campaign pretending this isn’t so. As Volodymyr Zelensky would confirm, some battles, however perilous, have to be fought.
Then there is Britain’s crumbling public realm, from the scandal of the House of Lords, to the funding of parties, to the decay of local government. The Tories have their arguments – from a stubborn defence of the status quo to the promotion of elected mayors. How much does Labour have to say?
Underlying all this is funding. With public debt levels very high – 104 per cent of GDP at the end of 2021 – as well as overall taxation higher than it’s been since the 1940s, and relatively feeble economic growth, this is the British political nightmare. It has been caused by the financial crash, Brexit, Covid and now the war. But with the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves keeping a white-knuckled hold on spending promises, the choices it leaves are particularly painful for Labour. It means there is almost no attacking agenda for Labour on the NHS. Opposition politicians have been told to keep off this terrain during the local election campaigns – because there is no money.
A new Labour programme could be funded by a wide-ranging tax rise on the rich (a windfall energy tax is fine, but it’s not a long-term solution). But everyone is too scared of that. I hope that at least Labour will come out clearly against the promised income tax cut. The necessary higher spending could be funded by borrowing – a long-term national “security bond” issue, for instance, to get us through this mess. But so far, not a cheep.
Finally, how can Labour fight the next election campaign, and hope for a real opposition majority, without any substantive talks with either the Liberal Democrats or the SNP? There is, minimally, a political-reform, anti-corruption agenda to be discussed with Ed Davey. Scotland is a bigger problem for Labour, but also a bigger opportunity. It still seems to me that the SNP has a serious problem looming – Ukraine, Nato, economic mayhem – over its promised referendum next year. There is at least a conversation to be had about a maximalist-devolution or federal proposal that stops short of building a border between Berwick and Gretna.
This is politically difficult territory. But as with the EU, Labour should not believe that by keeping quiet on the subject it will prevent the Tories from accusing it of a plan to break up the UK. Better to start quiet negotiation ahead of time than face wild accusations during the campaign.
There are areas where Labour does sound as if it has a plan: on the drive towards net zero, including the need for new nuclear and onshore wind provision. But away from public events and television studios, the mood in the shadow cabinet is somewhat darkening. Starmer’s many allies are disciplined and nowhere near being publicly mutinous. But there is a strange depression, a creeping lassitude.
There is buzz and money in the next generation: in England, Wes Streeting and, in Scotland, Anas Sarwar are having no difficulty raising funds and getting attention. Andy Burnham lurks in his northern fastness. None would dream of public disloyalty. Burnham and Streeting might want to be leader and, along with Lisa Nandy, have the talent to do the job – but not before the election.
The trouble is, time is short. That election could come next spring, so the need for a clearer, bolder Labour offer will have to be thrashed out before and during the autumn party conference.
Indeed, a conference characterised mainly by discipline and order would be a bit of a disaster. Labour needs vigour, even disputation. It should really be going on in the shadow cabinet but if it isn’t happening there, it needs to happen somewhere else. Easter is a time for renewal and optimism; this year Labour needs a brave Easter message of its own.
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special