Life in the leader of the opposition’s office feels cacophonous. Briefing, rebutting, meeting, tweeting, people looking over their shoulder, looking over someone else’s shoulder for a more important person to talk to. But, to the outside world, opposition leaders make almost no noise. Once they were an inconvenient interruption before flipping to the fun bits of the newspaper. Now, as news consumption moves online and TV goes on-demand, they can almost be screened out altogether.
In this situation, it would be easy for Keir Starmer to lose sight of the people who really matter, in particular when the current crisis passes. Voters won’t be able to deliver a decisive verdict for several years, but if a leader doesn’t respond to an irate backbencher or a fired-up political journalist, they will get it in the neck tomorrow. A bad page-eight story starts to appear a big deal when page eight is, most days, as prominent as the opposition leader gets.
This problem is most acute in the Labour Party where trade unions and party members have high expectations of influence, but only a limited incentive to reflect voters’ priorities rather than their own ideological preoccupations. Under both Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, the endless need to preserve the leaders’ job in the face of internal challenge further fuelled the prioritisation of political management over electoral strategy.
In this context, the team of advisers appointed by the leader plays a crucial role. A cohesive, focused team dampens down distractions and maintains the discipline needed to build a coherent picture in the minds of voters. They know that voters’ views about specific policies are highly elastic, but their basic values are unlikely to change. They know that everyday ideas of competence, honesty and leadership are more important than big-picture ideology or microscopic policy detail. They know there is no alternative to repetition and that boring the Westminster bubble is a sign of success, not failure. Above all, they realise that electoral strategy trumps pretty much every other consideration. If they don’t think these things, they should be running a pressure group or a think tank, not a political party.
The last two Labour leaders did not have teams like this. Corbyn’s team had no respect for voters who didn’t share its worldview, treating them as dupes of the “mainstream media” who could be bought at election time by a combination of lavish promises, online hectoring and Corbyn’s pure spirit. Miliband’s team – which I was part of – had fleeting periods of lucidity but couldn’t coalesce around an electoral strategy if it was carved in stone (which, weirdly, it kind of was). Slogans changed with the seasons. In both cases, loyalty sometimes trumped competence when picking staff. Neither leader was able to draw on the full talent pool that exists across the Labour Party.
As Starmer assembles his leaders’ office, he needs to avoid these problems. He has begun well, drawing talent from across the party, including senior people associated with the two Kens (Livingstone and Liz Kendall). His team were highly effective in delivering his studiously amorphous message and have managed the transition to leadership faultlessly.
The question is whether, as his political offer sharpens and shifts, his team remains united, or if political and personal differences emerge. He also needs to decide if he wants to echo the model used by the Conservatives and have all advisers report to the leader’s office rather than to the individual shadow cabinet member they serve.
Assuming the team is coherent, he needs to consider how to incorporate ordinary, disinterested, voters’ views into the decisions he makes. Neither “Workington Man” nor “Worcester Woman” gets to sit in the leaders’ office or join his Zoom calls. They wouldn’t want to even if they could. And yet, it is vital that Just-About-Managing, Hardworking Family voters get their say well before they put a cross on a ballot.
The need to listen to voters was important before the current crisis, but it is even more so now. Corbyn might be right that the current situation shows the 2019 Labour manifesto was “absolutely right”, but that is a rather convenient interpretation of events. We are all tempted to see what is happening as further evidence we were right all along. Listening to voters is the best way to reveal the self-indulgence of that kind of thinking, whether from the left, centre or right.
Listening to voters should be a visceral experience, not just an intellectual exercise. No graph can replace the power of physically watching a focus group and seeing people’s disdain for politics, insecurity in the face of change and, in most cases, the fundamental decency and reasonableness behind their views. People are often wrong about facts, but their motivations are generally sound and politicians need to understand and engage with their experience, not dismiss it as false consciousness.
Leading an opposition is hard. David Cameron needed the 2008 financial crisis to limp across the line into coalition. Labour’s last two leaders had good months and bad, but ultimately failed to address the party’s brand weaknesses or to paint a clear picture of the future. Bucking the odds and winning voters’ trust depends in part on a clear strategy, but, much more, it depends on a team that will screen out the noise of the bubble and focus relentlessly, year after year, on delivery.