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24 August 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:59pm

Competence is king? Why Keir Starmer is avoiding talking about values

Labour's attack on Tory “incompetence” won't win awards for style – or set out its alternative vision. But clear messaging could at least achieve a hearing.

By Tom Hamilton

“Show, don’t tell” may be a good rule for writing, but Keir Starmer’s team evidently sees it as a bad rule for opposition. Labour’s recent attacks on the Conservatives have left nothing to the imagination: their key message, that the government is incompetent, is expressed baldly and without metaphor, over and over again.

According to Starmer’s own recent tweets, getting children back to school is at risk “after a week of chaos, confusion and incompetence from the government”; Gavin Williamson’s reported blame-shifting is “absolutely typical from this incompetent government”; “The Tories’ incompetence is holding Britain back from recovery”; “Incompetence has become this government’s watchword.” There is plenty more of this. Whether you like the message or not, you can tell what it is. This is progress, given that too often in recent years Labour has not known what it has wanted to say about its opponents. Labour’s focus on incompetence is at least competent.

The almost banal clarity of Labour’s current attack messaging contrasts with its reluctance to set out its own alternative vision for government in any detail – although even this ambiguity is unambiguous, couched in a straightforward explanation that it is too soon to set out its plans now, rather than the usual nods and winks to different wings of the party. It is too early to say whether Starmer’s Labour will govern in poetry, if it is ever given the opportunity to govern at all, but we already know that it campaigns in prose.

Labour is not opposing a new government, although Boris Johnson’s administration sometimes seeks to present itself as such. But in opposition since 2010 Labour has only rarely sought to prosecute the incompetence argument, despite having plenty of evidence to support the charge. In fact, in the last decade incompetence only really emerged as a major theme for Labour for a few months in 2012, following the “omnishambles” Budget; it was at the heart of the most effective passage of Ed Miliband’s best Conference speech later that year (“Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this government?”) but then fell into disuse.

Whether it was a judgement that under two unpopular leaders, Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, Labour was never going to be able to convince the public that it was more competent than the Tories, or whether it was a preference for big picture ideological dividing lines over pragmatic ones, Labour’s failure to hit the Tories hard on incompetence looks like a strategic error (and even if it wasn’t, the strategies Labour did adopt across this period self-evidently didn’t work either).

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Focusing on incompetence can be frustrating – and it can be taken too far, as when Labour’s initial response to migrant boats crossing the Channel earlier this month was to criticise the government’s “lack of grip and competence” rather than to express any kind of view on what they ought, albeit more competently, to be doing about it. Viewing politics through a competence/incompetence frame can look like a decision to avoid arguing about values and policy, and to compete instead in the sphere of managerialism. But during a pandemic, when there is more agreement than usual on what government should be seeking to achieve, the question of how well it is achieving it becomes more salient. And, in any case, incompetence is, given its consequences for the people affected by it, a moral as well as a practical failure – just ask an A-level student – and a legitimate thing for oppositions to point to and for voters to withdraw their support over.

Governments rarely lose elections, but when they do, incompetence is often a big part of why they fall. Few things drain a government of authority and support faster than a wide perception that it is simply incapable of achieving what it has set out to do. And – crucially – incompetence is the only serious critique of a government that does not implicate the voters who chose to put it in power. If a party has appalling values or terrible policies, then you should have noticed before you voted for them; competence, or incompetence, is revealed in real time, and can only be punished in retrospect.

More than any other attack, the incompetence frame allows voters to change their minds without thinking they were wrong last time, and without the opposition telling them they are bad or stupid. And it is the attack most likely to be amplified and brought to a wider audience by the media – including Tory-sympathising media who may well agree with the broad thrust of government policy – and even by Tory MPs, whose discontent is a more immediate threat to the government, and a better story, than anything the opposition says. No political message can be effective if the people it is aimed at don’t hear it.

Deciding not to vote for one party and deciding to vote for a different party are two decisions, not one, and one comes before the other. Keir Starmer’s Labour has done little, so far, to persuade people to vote for it, even if it is starting to cement the idea that doing so would not be disastrous. But Starmer knows, apparently better than some of his internal critics, that it will be a long time before anyone can put him into office anyway. If Labour has not set out well before then what kind of government it aspires to be – what it will do differently, beyond simply managing things better – then it will not win, or deserve to. In the meantime, chipping away – boringly, repetitively, convincingly – at the Conservatives’ claims to be any good at governing the country will not win them any awards for style, let alone votes. But it may help them to achieve a hearing when they do have something more to say.

Tom Hamilton is a former Labour Party staffer, who prepared Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman and Jeremy Corbyn for PMQs, and the author of Punch and Judy Politics

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