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8 October 2021

What Keir Starmer’s new chief of staff needs to know

Every conversation is a focus group if treated properly. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

By John McTernan

Keir Starmer has appointed Sam White, a special adviser in Gordon Brown’s government, as his chief of staff. Now conference season is over, political strategist John McTernan has a few words of wisdom for him.

Congratulations, Sam – you’ve got through conference! A baptism of fire, and the usual rollercoaster from the turmoil of daily NEC meetings to the triumph of the leader’s speech!

Now you know what it means to be a member of the most exclusive club in the movement – Labour chiefs of staff. It’s a huge privilege, and a well-deserved one. When Seumas Milne became Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications I wrote him a note on what I wish I had known when I took that role for Julia Gillard [in Australia]. I thought I should do the same for you.

I bet you’ve already been bombarded with advice – mostly unasked for. It comes with the territory. If I had a dollar for everyone in the Australian Labor Party who told me the Gillard government needed an “economic narrative” I’d have a house on Sydney Harbour. But you need to listen. Partly because every party member and supporter has the right to give you their tuppence-worth – the leader’s office is only there because of the party, not the other way around. But mainly because every conversation is a focus group if treated properly. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

And don’t just stick to your comfort zone. There’s a lot of energy, insight and good thinking on the left of the party – even when they are at their most frustratingly oppositionalist, they’re part of our future too. Look at President Biden’s strategy. He wrapped Senator Bernie Sanders’s policy team into his and turned those ideas into deliverable outcomes rather than distant dreams. If there is to be a “progressive alliance”, it should be one of ideas, not an electoral pact. Look beyond the chants of “betrayal” for the substance – really thoughtful considerations on working life, crime, environmental justice and community development. As David Edgerton has said, the party needs to “love itself, its members and its voters”.

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Listen to the voters too. One of the Labour Party’s besetting sins is that after an election defeat we love to blame the voters, not ourselves. Instead, we need to understand the electorate. It’s easy to say why we wouldn’t vote for Boris Johnson – but you can never defeat an opponent if you only take them at your estimation of them. Accept that Prime Minister Johnson is attractive to voters – and find out why. Stuart Hall should be your inspiration – not just because we all need to reread Gramsci, but because his response to Margaret Thatcher’s election victories was to read everything she’d written and to listen to everything she’d said. That’s what made him one of the finest analysts of Thatcherism, able to provide an essential guide to Labour in our wilderness years. Or as Sun Tzu put it:

“Know the enemy and know yourself in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”

Learn from your opponents too. One of Dominic Cummings’s smartest observations about his time as an adviser in government was that there was a constant sense of chaos but no urgency. The leader’s office has to be the opposite of that – an urgent tempo like a newsroom, but with the order that comes from a clear strategic purpose. There are very few things that oppositions have that governments don’t, but time is one of them. Use that wisely.

Don’t forget your friends: the unions. The most important relationship in the party is between the political wing and the industrial wing. It can be demanding at times, but we can never leave each other. In the words of Jack Benny: “Murder, yes, but divorce, never.” They root us in everyday reality, but more importantly, the union movement is six million strong – a movement that large has a lot to say. And the pandemic has raised so many questions about the world of work to the top of the agenda. Looking back, while we increased workers’ rights every year we were in office, in the end I don’t think New Labour did enough. With Boris Johnson claiming to represent working people better than Labour, there’s a real opportunity here: to offer a vision of work in the 21st century that gives real rewards and genuine protection. If the Conservatives want to try and come on to our turf let’s show them why it belongs to us!

Finally, don’t forget the job is a pleasure as well as a privilege! The sharp end of the politics is the greatest place to be. Have fun while you’re making history.

Always happy to help,

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