New Times,
New Thinking.

Labour needs a strategy for governing

Neither “the technocrats” nor “the campaigners” have all the answers.

By Harry Quilter-Pinner

Labour, under the watchful eye of campaign director Morgan McSweeney, is at pains to tell anyone who will listen that it is taking nothing for granted. But a Starmer-led government appears by far the most likely outcome (veteran pollster John Curtice has given Keir Starmer a 99 per cent chance of becoming prime minister).

It is unsurprising, therefore, that behind the scenes, a new debate has begun within Labour. How should the party deliver on its promises and ensure it wins more than one term in office if it is elected on 4 July?

This may seem premature. But Labour has seen the fortunes of its centre-left sister parties in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Germany fade fast after their election. Across the party, there are two main schools of thought emerging on how to avoid making the same mistakes. 

The first group – “the technocrats” – argue that Labour must quickly put the campaign behind it if it wins and pivot to a relentless focus on delivery. All that matters is “what works” and getting the government machine to prioritise Labour’s missions.  

But many in the party argue this would be a mistake. They point to the US where, despite a strong economy and a successful legislative record, President Biden is struggling to win re-election. The lesson, they say, is simple: delivering is not enough.  

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Instead, this second group – “the campaigners” – say the alternative is to maintain Labour’s campaigning stance in government. In a recent interview, Josh Simons, who leads the Starmerite organisation Labour Together, argued that the storytelling of policy should be as important as the delivery.  

This approach is inspired in part by the success of populist right parties across Europe and the US who appear able to get re-elected without delivering much at all. They do this by using the platform of government to dominate the media and shape the terms of the debate in a way that is favourable to them.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this critique. But Labour must avoid taking this approach to its extreme. Why? Just ask the Conservatives. They are now struggling to communicate to an angry electorate what they have achieved in government over the last decade. The lesson here: power must be a means, not an end in itself. 

If neither the technocrats nor the campaigners have the whole answer, where should Labour turn for a plan for governing? A recent speech by David Miliband to mark 25 years since the party’s 1997 election victory holds some of the answers. He argues that a distinctly progressive project should shape both how Labour governs and campaigns.

As Miliband said in his speech “it is easy to mock the idea of a project. It’s got a bit of Antonio Gramsci about it”. But it is built on a profound insight: successful political parties combine a transformational policy agenda with a political strategy to retain power. And these two components – policy and politics – are self-reinforcing. 

If Labour wins at the next election, it will have gained votes across all groups and regions. But many will have lent their vote to the party out of anger towards the Conservatives (or the SNP). Labour will have to work hard to earn their loyalty.  

This demands that it quickly understands how to speak for and to them – as well as delivering on their priorities. This is what political projects of the past have achieved. 

Think of Margaret Thatcher’s mission to win over working-class voters through policies such as Right to Buy, or Tony Blair’s commitment to expanding universities to signal his pursuit of aspirant middle-class voters. These are defining examples of how policy delivery and effective storytelling can be fused as part of a political project. 

There are early signs that Starmer understands the need for this. He – and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves – have started to build a project based on the idea of delivering “security for working people”, encompassing not only the working class voters that Labour has lost in recent decades, but an increasingly precarious middle class too.

This is an exciting basis for a new social democratic project; one that is both a nation-changing policy agenda and a coalition-building electoral strategy. But as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the cheerleaders of levelling up, have discovered, a compelling slogan is not enough. Only true clarity, focus and sustained political commitment can turn it into a reality.  

Harry Quilter-Pinner is Director of Policy and Politics at IPPR. He is leading a new programme on the future of social democracy and the need for a new progressive project.

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