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3 February 2021

Labour isn’t working – how Keir Starmer is allowing the Tories to get away with failure

Until the party leadership offers a genuine alternative, Labour will struggle to establish a consistent poll lead. 

By Tom Railton

Something’s not working for Labour. In Scotland it is veering towards the rocks while the crew vote for a new captain. But that was a foreseeable problem. The strategic problem is the new Labour leadership’s failure to turn 12 months of scandalous Conservative mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic into a polling lead.

Labour has been consistently approaching the 40 per cent mark in the polls. Clawing back 12 percentage points since April 2020 is a brilliant achievement by Keir Starmer and a vindication for those who backed him. But Labour is still struggling to surpass 40 per cent, which currently acts as a glass ceiling for social-democratic support across the UK.

And Starmer has fallen behind Boris Johnson as the public’s preferred prime minister as a series of Labour interventions over Covid-19 have failed to hit the Tories where it matters – among wavering voters in small-town England. During the late 2010s, voting patterns in Britain switched decisively away from party loyalties and income, and towards values and age. The strategic question for Labour, after the devastation of the 2019 election, was: is the switch permanent, and what do we do if the answer is yes?

A year ago it appeared that only two contenders for the Labour leadership understood the problem: Starmer and Clive Lewis. The former’s solution was to leave Brexit behind, to accept that it has happened, and to appeal to the low-income suburban and small-town voters Labour needs to win back – not just in the “Red Wall” but in places such as Plymouth Moor View, Swindon South and both Milton Keynes constituencies. The price would be a compromise with these areas’ socially conservative values.

Lewis’s solution, which got so little support from the traditional left that he failed to make the leadership election ballot, was to accept that this new reality may not change – or at least not in the short term – and to pursue a “progressive alliance”, maximising the values-vote for social liberalism and economic interventionism through electoral pacts and the promise of constitutional change.

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[See also: Stephen Bush: A consensus is forming among the commentariat that Keir Starmer is not up the job. Does that matter?

As I have written before, if Starmer’s Plan A does not work, then Lewis’s strategy has to become Plan B. As for the orthodox left, it doesn’t really have a plan, except – for some – Corbynism without Corbyn. There is not a single leading figure in the House of Commons aligned to the Socialist Campaign Group who has set out a clear, comprehensive alternative to Starmer – either on policy or electoral strategy. Were Starmer to fail, as things stand, the only genuine leadership contenders would come from the right (which should trouble us). 

So the question is, why isn’t Starmer’s plan allowing Labour to break through the 40 per cent barrier? The first, and most obvious answer, is the Covid-19 pandemic and the hegemonic position it gives the government. In normal times, Matt Hancock’s voice on the radio is not enough to make me disengage from an amusing animal video on Facebook: during the pandemic that has changed. In a crisis, what politicians do matters, even the ones who habitually screw up.

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If you add to this the fact the government has borrowed around 19 per cent of GDP and handed it out for free to workers, businesses and consumers – literally offering cut-price pizzas over the summer – you can understand the economic basis for continued Tory support, despite the appalling mismanagement of the pandemic.

As for that story of mismanagement, and Labour’s failure to cut through, we need to be honest: most people, and above all most working-class people, despise politicians. If they have heard of Wes Streeting or Bridget Phillipson, they are not philosophically inclined to think “if only Wes and Bridget were running things, it would all have turned out like New Zealand”. Corbyn’s final months as leader were such a stylistic and reputational calamity that the Labour brand was badly damaged – to an extent that most activists, above all those on the left, have failed to recognise.

From Tony Blair and the Iraq War, to Gordon Brown and the 2008 financial crisis, Ed Miliband and the “Edstone” and Jeremy Corbyn and the Skripal poisonings, each Labour leader has managed to lose a section of the electorate for the party, in a way most activists – who see these as sequential not cumulative failures – don’t appreciate.

Starmer’s plan was to re-establish trust first and then build a narrative, before moving to substantial policies at a later stage in the electoral cycle. If Labour’s poll ratings were solid, you could say he has achieved the trust objective. But they are not.

[See also: Why Richard Leonard’s resignation won’t end Scottish Labour’s woes]

The most important reason is Labour’s refusal to go beyond critique towards clear opposition and alternatives. The party’s polite, forensic and evidenced-based criticism has been refreshing to hear, but among an electorate polarised over values, and fearful for their own health and security, its effect has been anodyne.

When people say they trust the Tories on crime, defence, immigration and the economy, it’s because they have a set of values and a set of actions derived from them that chime with the capitalist ideology we call “common sense”, and are backed up by the ideological apparatus of the mass media.

A second reason, however, is the unresolved battle over values inside Labour itself, which is being exacerbated by both the left and right of the party, as they scrap around the edges of the Starmer operation. “Starmer needs to win back the Red Wall,” says the pro-Brexit left. So when he puts a Union flag in his office, they complain: “Starmer is playing to the nativist right and will lose Bristol.”

Likewise, the Blairite right, whose modus operandi was well described in the leaked document that is the subject of the Forde Inquiry, wastes no opportunity to troll the party’s activists and supporters, with shutdowns of constituency Labour parties, member suspensions and overt displays of anti-socialism. You can’t therefore blame the person who told a focus group in Birmingham that Labour is now “two different parties under one name”. 

One of Starmer’s most convincing arguments during the leadership election was that he could unite the party’s warring wings. He certainly had a better shot at doing so than his rivals Lisa Nandy and Rebecca-Long Bailey would have done – but he has failed so far. 

And that is because there is no organised centre left: no organic base of support for the centre-left-leaning shadow cabinet (with the partial exception of Welsh Labour). Only the left and right are ideologically and organisationally strong. And in part that is because Labour has no policy agenda. From fiscal policy to defence and crime, until the leadership fills the policy vacuum, the left and right will continue projecting issues into the void.

I don’t expect miracles from Labour in May’s elections. It may go backwards in Scotland, because both its leaders and members have failed to adapt to the demand for national self-determination. In the local elections, with scant opportunities to campaign and government ministers dominating the airwaves, I would be surprised at a breakthrough. But if Labour can’t take the West Midlands mayoralty from the Tories that should be cause for some soul-searching. 

What to do? Once the May elections are over, I would like to see parliamentary candidates nominated for every target seat. It’s a long haul but with the Tories using their new batch of incumbents to develop roots in ex-Labour areas, every constituency needs a name and face to lead the resistance on local radio and on the doorstep. 

Labour has to move from earning credibility to telling a hopeful story about a different future. It needs a clear narrative, told in straight, emotive language, that appeals to the voters not yet convinced. It needs to talk about crime, security and defence with the same passion that it talks about poverty. And to do so in ways more sophisticated than in the risible consultancy report leaked to the Guardian.

But as every screenwriter knows, narratives are built out of characters and their decisions. The decision to shadow-box with the Tories over Covid may have been the only sensible one last year, but we need Labour’s front bench to start slugging it out with Johnson over vision and substantial policies. Show, don’t tell, is the first rule of the narrative art and Labour’s front bench needs to learn that fast.

[See also: Philip Collins: Gossip about Labour’s front bench has started, but it’s too early to write them off]