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  1. Politics
5 July 2024

Labour has won the election – it hasn’t won the argument

Keir Starmer’s task of earning his majority begins today.

By Lewis Goodall

Perhaps the two most important Englishmen in the world right now are Keir Starmer and Gareth Southgate (not necessarily in that order of popular affection). They’re not dissimilar characters. Unshowy, unpretentious, unaggressive – defensive in every sense. Two men who palpably prefer to show rather than tell. I was thinking about the obvious parallels between these two deeply English men in an Irish pub in Paris, watching the England-Slovakia game, in and out of reporting on the French elections. As a deeply dispiriting and stale match wore on, and the brows rose higher, my editor at News Agents turned to me and used that phrase which abounds in football punditry: “They’re just not asking enough questions.”

I’ve always been intrigued by it – in terms of sport, what could it mean? I suppose it implies a form of attack, of posing the unexpected, of discombobulating your opponents. It implies that even if you don’t always succeed, ultimately you will win. Politics is much the same. Unless you’re on the offensive you’re defending. Unless you’re asking the questions, you’re answering them. Unless you’re setting the terms of trade, someone else – through rhetoric, communication and strategy – sets them for you. In the age we’re in and about to enter, asking the right questions and getting voters to notice, is as important as providing the answers.

The biggest question for me about the incoming Labour government is whether the party realises it. Speak to senior Labour figures and, privately, they will acknowledge the scale of the challenge. They know that Labour is being given a single opportunity to prove not only its worth, but that of the system itself. The Starmer project has not been without merit or significant political skill. It has reformed the Labour Party to be in a position to capitalise on the Conservative implosion. It has run the campaign with discipline, it hasn’t dropped the ball, or the Ming vase. But that’s all it’s done – it has run a good campaign for the election and a poor one for government.

Can you think of any argument Labour has made beyond the Tories’ incompetence and the need to be rid of them? Any good it desires other than growth? Any theory of change it has espoused beyond being more competent than the others? Is there anything the party has said of any note at all? This matters. The point of making the political argument now is that it gives you strength later.

In 2010, David Cameron did not have to argue that he would bring austerity, but he did because he knew he needed legitimacy, that it would give his government purpose and coherence. In comparison, Labour has spent the campaign hiding under a paradox. It enjoyed a huge poll lead but spent it in the crouch position, occupying each day ruling out tax rise after tax rise under the weight of Tory attack, each time being dragged further on to their terrain. I fear this will be the pattern in government even with a big majority, because as a project it fundamentally lacks something to say about itself and where it’s going beyond election day.

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Is it for social justice? Equality? Liberalism? Freedom? No one knows, and Starmer actively dislikes talking in these terms. To return to Wilson’s aphorism, from Corbyn to Starmer, Labour has gone from being nothing but a moral crusade to anything but. And by forgoing the theory of politics, Starmer is leaving himself open to the most obvious post-election day attack: now the Tories are gone, his principal argument for the necessity of himself has gone with it. What is the point of Starmer? What gels a wide but shallow coalition together without the Tory bogeyman at the door? What will the Starmer coalition be for as well as against? That question has not been answered in the election campaign.

This would be dangerous in any circumstances, but especially so when we have had an entire campaign to witness the volatility of the electorate. With Nigel Farage’s return, the task becomes more urgent still. Labour needs a distinctive message to counter the radical right, both in the guise of Reform and that of a Conservative Party likely to move further to the right. To return to France, Starmer may soon find himself in the position of Emmanuel Macron: the unwitting slayer of the centre right and unlikely midwife of the far more potent force that takes its place.

Farage is quietly building up an impressive presence on TikTok, and according to polling has surprisingly high name recognition and popularity among the young. These voters barely remember Brexit as a political event. Farage is new to them, and he is creating an impression. For all his faults, he is certain about what he believes, and will drag Labour to terrain on which it is instinctively uncomfortable – unless it has something to say. Farage is far from invulnerable, but Labour needs to find its rhetorical teeth – to attack him on the NHS, Ukraine, his patriotism. The same is true for the nascent leftist movements which are growing across Britain and will have far more energy when the force to rally against is Labour. Look at the growth of the Greens, or the Gaza-inspired candidates across Muslim areas. Labour, increasingly has just stopped talking to these voters. That cannot be sustained in government. The party needs to have something to say about the order it seeks to defend and that Farage and other insurgents seek to transform or destroy.

Nothing is certain. It is entirely possible that among the dead embers of an old order, with populism to our west and south, and fascism to our east, Starmer’s Britain becomes a redoubt of economic and political stability. With enemies within and without promising more instability, Starmer’s Labour could offer voters a stability to which the party might cling. But to personify order, you must deliver it first, and that – with all of the technological, geopolitical and economic challenges ahead – is far from guaranteed. Labour must then clearly follow through on economic and social change, and find a compelling way of talking about it. Otherwise, like Joe Biden, it will find itself in the unhappy position of delivering and no one quite noticing.

To return to our Southgate analogy, Labour cannot keep playing defensively. Across the world, liberal democracy is under siege. Its detractors, the hard right or even far right, are often some of the most gifted communicators in politics. They have a theory of liberal democratic failure. But where are its defenders? Where are the charismatic storytellers of why liberal democracy is best? In this new political world, telling is as important as showing.

Asking the right questions as well as having the right answers. Joining the dots for voters. Starmer, often underestimated, will have to surprise his critics once again. And he can start by telling a captivating story about what he’s doing, or at least giving others the space to do it for him – for the sake of his own future, and more importantly for all of ours.

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