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11 January 2021updated 12 Jan 2021 7:58am

Keir Starmer’s big speech features a very old trick

The Labour leader is seeking to associate his weaknesses with his strengths. 

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer’s speech today was an example of a very old political trick: attacking your opponent on an issue where they are considered strong by conflating it with an issue on which you are  seen to be strong. David Cameron did this by arguing that the best way to protect the NHS (an area where Labour is more trusted than the Conservatives) is a strong economy (where the reverse applies). Jeremy Corbyn turned law and order, one of Theresa May’s areas of strength, into an area of political vulnerability by making it central to his broader anti-austerity argument.

[Hear more from Stephen on The New Statesman Podcast]

The headline that Starmer is seeking – and the one he got in yesterday’s Telegraph – is that Labour is “the party of the family”: an issue on which Labour is already significantly more trusted than the Conservatives. He is linking that to two issues: welfare, an area on which the parties have exchanged leads in the polls over the years, and tax, where the Conservatives are generally more trusted than Labour.

[see also: Keir Starmer faces his biggest challenge yet in lockdown three]

It’s the same approach that Starmer’s Labour Party has taken to the economy by talking up Conservative cronyism: this leans into the general perception that voters have about the Conservative Party, which is that it will, in a crisis, prioritise the rich and its own allies first. (That focus groups continued to show this despite a half-decade of efforts to “modernise” the party’s image was a source of constant anxiety to David Cameron and George Osborne in the run-up to the 2010 general election.)

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You can see the theory of change here: if you associate topics and policy areas you are weak on with issues you are trusted on, people start to give you more credit on the issues you are less trusted on. It worked, to a varying extent, in the elections of 2010 and 2015 for Cameron and in 2017 for Jeremy Corbyn. The big question for Starmer is whether it can work for him on the economy. 

[see also: Why Rishi Sunak can’t escape blame for the Covid-19 crisis]