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Keir Starmer’s Labour has dozens of policies. So why don’t I know what it stands for?

Labour doesn’t just need to start repeating what it wants to do – it also needs to explain why.

By Stephen Bush

Next week, you should expect to hear a lot more from the Labour Party. Why? Because the Commons will be in recess, and opposition parties tend to use the recess to make announcements and try to get noticed.

They do this for a simple reason: it’s really hard for an opposition party to get any coverage, particularly (as was the case for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party from 2015-17 and is the case for Keir Starmer’s Labour now) when the government has a majority and announcements from the opposition party are essentially completely uninteresting.

So, opposition parties need to use these periods of relative silence well. I don’t think that anyone could claim that Labour under Keir Starmer has done so thus far: since he became leader, his party has unveiled its new fiscal frameworkannounced a swathe of policies on welfare, including a commitment to scrap the benefit cap and the two-child limit; reiterated its commitment to scrapping tuition fees; and has unveiled a wide-ranging set of climate and environmental policies. In addition, it has announced a frankly dizzying number of pandemic-related policies, from proposals to remove Serco from the pandemic response, to increasing sick pay, to any number of other things I have long since forgotten. 

Yet polls consistently show that large numbers of people do not know what Labour stands for. The ranks of the perplexed include some of the party’s most experienced and effective media surrogates. What’s going wrong?

Part of the problem is, as Emma Burnell puts it, Labour under Starmer has a tendency to treat policy announcements “like your gran’s best china. It exists in theory, but only at the back of a cupboard gathering dust and no one knows quite who it is actually for, as it is never brought out and shown off”.

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If you announce a policy once and you are an opposition party, you might as well not have bothered. It’s worth remembering that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party announced its plan for UK-wide bank holidays to mark the UK patron saints’ days at least 16 times: and there were still people on Twitter who were covering it as if it were new on the 16th occasion.

Most people, including people who follow politics fairly closely, have not as a result noticed any of the above Labour policies.

But I don’t think repetition, or the lack thereof, of core policies is the only reason why people aren’t able to say what Labour’s vision is. I am aware of these policies, and couldn’t tell you what Labour’s “vision” is, so simply increasing awareness of Labour policies is not, in and of itself, a path to increasing the number of people who know what Labour “stands for”. It would probably improve Starmer’s poll ratings a bit if a couple more people went “oh, yeah, that’s the guy who talks about climate change/welfare/sick pay a lot”, and weaning Labour off its addiction to “announce a policy once, then move on to another policy” would, I think, at the margin, increase the number of people who felt they knew what Labour stood for. But it wouldn’t solve the overarching problem.

The aim of policy announcements in opposition is to tell a story not just about that one policy, but about as many of your policies as possible. So their policy announcements should aim to cram a lot in: not only should they tell us something about the opposition’s position on issue x, but they should use issue as a way of telling us about a variety of other positions.

One problem is that Labour’s policy announcements thus far do not actually tell us all that much.

Let’s start with tuition fee abolition: there are a lot of possible reasons you might want to scrap tuition fees, and a lot of possible reasons you might want to keep them.

But your reasoning is as important as your policy preference. I, for example, intensely dislike the high marginal tax rate that tuition fee repayment creates for graduates earning between £26,000 to £50,000. (The fee regime creates a significantly higher marginal rate for graduates than for non-graduates at every point of the income distribution. But I’m just not that bothered by the effective rate of tax the fees regime creates for people earning £50,000  upwards, which I think is a perfectly reasonable rate at that point in the income distribution, whereas I am bothered by the high rate that students earning below £50,000 are paying.)

From this, you can fairly deduce that I am considerably to the right of someone whose primary concern is opposing the marketisation of higher education. Now, you might fairly say, OK, I am opposed to the current tuition fee regime both because I intensely dislike that very high marginal rate of tax and I am deeply concerned about marketisation of higher education. But I’d be willing to bet that if I asked you a whole bunch of policy questions, it would eventually reveal that you were either, broadly, in the anti-marketisation or the marginal rate camp.

And if you are an opposition party, then broadly, how you answer the tuition fee question is a good guide to where you stand on a series of other issues. A Labour Party which opposes tuition fees because primarily it opposes marketisation of higher education is in a different political place to one which opposes them primarily because of the high marginal tax rate, while one that opposes them because it believes education is a social good and should be funded accordingly is in yet another.

So part of what Labour under Starmer is getting wrong is not only that it is not repeating itself enough (that’s “enough” spelt “at all”) but also that it lacks a policy rationale. I suspect this is semi-deliberate: Starmer the other day claimed to be “forward-looking” when asked about his left-right position. Given that no one who would be irritated by him saying “the centre” is not already annoyed with him, this suggests that his “real” answer is “the left” but he fears giving it. This is a problem in itself, as ultimately politicians cannot escape definition, but they can make sure they look shifty along the way to acquiring that definition. The failure mode of many opposition parties is to mistake incoherence for strategic flexibility.

The problem is even broader than the failure to provide a clear rationale for its policies and repeat both policies and rationale sufficiently often. Labour also lacks definition because we don’t really know what the party is against. Something that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour did very skilfully in its Easter 2017 policy blitz was to both set out a series of policies with the same general “vibe“, and explain how those policies would be paid for. They told us that Labour was supportive of universal public services, and highly sceptical about private provision in general.

If Labour under Starmer wants to use the coming quiet period better than it has previous ones, then next week it will announce something it has already announced, and give us two new things: a reason why it is doing it, and something that the party dislikes, too.