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13 February 2022

Labour has the public on side – now it needs a story

Boris Johnson was elected as a politician who can be the life and soul of the party, but he has gone from a joker to a punch line. This is Keir Starmer’s moment.

By John McTernan

Keir Starmer has found his moment. His “just the facts” prosecutorial style in Prime Minister’s Questions is being wielded like a scalpel, and is now leavened with a sardonic “seen it all, heard it all” sense of humour.

He is clearly getting under Boris Johnson’s skin. It is a long time since such visceral, mutual lack of respect has been seen at PMQs. This approach is paying off: just two years after Labour’s worst election defeat since the 1930s the party is now consistently ahead in the polls. After shuffling the pack again, Starmer has the strongest Labour frontbench for years, with its leading figures Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson, and Pat McFadden visibly capable of filling the government benches when the time comes.

The rebuilding is complete. So what next?

In politics, as in so many other walks of life, there are strategies that are simple, obvious – and wrong. For political parties faced with a 24-hour news cycle hungry for content the answer reached for too often seems to be policy announcements. It’s easy to see why. It suits journalists, it suits eager frontbenchers, it suits the leader’s comms and policy teams. The problem is it’s irrelevant to voters.

If policy really mattered, the two hundred policies Labour announced in 2020 would have propelled it to a storming lead then. No party wins an election because it has the longest manifesto. No voter wants death by Powerpoint. Parties win when they are seen as the answer to the questions facing their country. Clement Attlee’s 1945 manifesto was only 5,000 words but the story was in the title: “Let us face the future.”

Labour today has a frame, but it needs a story too. Reeves has started on that project with her mantra that the shadow cabinet all repeat: “The Tories are high tax, because they are low growth; Labour will be high growth, and fair tax because they are high growth.” There’s an emerging fair tax policy that tells a story – tax the profits of tech giants, tax windfall profits of energy companies, tax wealth as well as work. It needs matching symbolic policies. One is there already – helping out with rising energy bills. Another should be a promise to close food banks by ending the destitution that drives the demand for them. But a bigger social policy offer is needed. There are so many potential areas – housing, childcare, health. All would be addressed by a Labour government, but one needs to be the emblem of the promise of change.

Starmer’s visit to Nato this week shows he understands the critical importance of international platforms. He also needs to learn from the global tide of progressive election victories. Scandinavia is fully social democratic again, as is the Iberian peninsula; Justin Trudeau won re-election in Canada; Jacinda Ardern is unchallenged in New Zealand; and Australian Labor are set fair to do well in their forthcoming federal elections. But the big win – and the place to look for lessons – is Germany, where the Social Democratic Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, swept to power at the end of last year.

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Scholz’s campaign is very suggestive for UK Labour. He committed to respecting those who work but refused to use the tedious and tendentious centrist invocation of “hard working people who play by the rules”. The Social Democrats’ campaign was value driven rather than transactional.

Scholz also scorned the traditional “green” language around net zero – as one of his advisers told me, “We are social democrats, not Greens!” Instead Scholz talks of re-industrialising the economy. This is smart, and should be copied by Labour. The language of “greenery” polarises, making middle class voters feel smug and working class communities feel nervous. Labour’s biggest spending commitment, by far, is the promise of £28bn to decarbonise the economy. Done right, that would be transformational levelling-up. Reeves and the rest of the shadow cabinet need to take this spending on the road. So far, there’s been one £28bn announcement, that needs to be turned into 28 billion £1 announcements – every worker, every family, every community needs to understand how they will benefit. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Of course, Labour does need a plan. Attlee, Wilson and Blair each in their turn transformed the country for good because they had thought long and deep about the challenges. But voters don’t want to read it in detail, not even those well-meaning ones who tell focus groups they don’t know enough about “the policies”. Progressive parties win when they own the future and when they own fairness. That’s a story-telling challenge, not a worthy but dull speech-making one.

While telling its own story, Labour mustn’t forget to tell one about the Conservatives either. Turn the government’s language on itself. “We got the big calls right” – really? The cuts to Universal Credit which have pushed so many families into poverty were catastrophic and voters who lent their votes to Johnson need to understand that these are the “same old Tories” and that the mastermind behind the cut was Rishi Sunak. Likewise, “getting on with the job” – in what way? Letting a cost of living crisis rip? Cutting rail investment in the north? Raising taxes on workers? Shrinking working class access to universities, particularly in “Red Wall” areas? Punch those bruises.

And finally, don’t neglect “Partygate”. It doesn’t need to be laboured, and the public have certainly made up their minds: when two thirds of voters are critical of the Prime Minister, all swing voters have turned against him. Johnson was elected as a politician who could be the life and soul of the party, but he has gone from a joker to a punch line. Voters who laughed with him are now laughing at him. That needs to be maintained. Time for Jess Phillips to be appointed shadow minister for mockery. The game’s afoot! It’s time for Labour to be light touch, but lethal.

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