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3 February 2021

Keir Starmer’s “patriotism“ strategy isn’t so different from Jeremy Corbyn’s

And it's not clear that it will necessarily get a better result. 

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer’s strategy is to emphasise Labour’s patriotism and to cultivate an aura of reassuring respectability: that’s the content of a leaked presentation, detailed in the Guardian, and also what you would guess if you looked at anything Starmer or the shadow cabinet does or says on any given day of the week. You can see it in Starmer’s claim at Prime Minister’s Questions today that “schools are closed and borders are open”: which is also a very old political trick of linking an area on which Labour are trusted (schools) with one on which they have become much less so (immigration).

That, in of itself, is a good thing: a party’s strategy shouldn’t be particularly surprising. It should be something you can pretty much work out by just by looking at and listening to what it does. The more a party’s strategy needs to be explained or is a shock, the more trouble that party is in.

The question is: how is this strategy different from the one pursued by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn? One of Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy’s big internal achievements was getting Corbyn to reliably wear a smarter suit, though the Labour leader himself was not wholly enthusiastic about it. (One regular observation among his staff was that a sign the Islington North MP was in a bad mood was that he would turn up to work in one of the scruffier outfits he wore in the 2015-16 period of his leadership.)

And Corbyn also had a swathe of policy proposals the sole purpose of which was to illustrate his patriotic bona fides: his five-point plan to help the armed forces; his inclusion of a veteran in the questions from the public he put to David Cameron at PMQs, his proposal for the creation of a bank holiday on St George’s Day.  

It is frankly unclear what the difference is between these ideas and Starmer’s frequent deployment of the British flag (something that every Labour leader has done) in his party political broadcasts. And to be blunt, “look like you like the country you want to govern and dress smartly” is useful electoral advice only in the same sense as “have a shower before a job interview and feign enthusiasm for the role” is good career advice: it’s true, but it’s not, in and of itself, a winning strategy.

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So why is this strategy news? It seems that, in Labour circles, both advocates and critics of Starmer’s strategy feel the difference is that Corbyn didn’t really mean it; that Starmer doesn’t need to be cajoled by two of his senior aides into wearing a sharper suit.

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I don’t think this means that support for this strategy or opposition to it is entirely baseless: whether you think the leader believes what they are saying is a good thing to consider when deciding whether you support or oppose them. If I tell you that if you subscribe to the New Statesman I will arrange for the actor Nicholas Hoult to turn up at your door with chocolate and flowers, whether you think I can and/or will do so is in many ways more important than whether you like chocolate, flowers or Nicholas Hoult.

Can the strategy of “the 2017 manifesto but the leader really buys into the patriotism stuff” prove to be the difference between a “hung parliament in which only the Conservatives can form a government” and “a hung parliament in which Labour can form a government”? That the 2017 election was so close means we can’t rule that out entirely.

But the problem for Labour is that the 2017 manifesto felt, looked and was covered as if it was new because it was new. Putting to one side what you think the merits of the 2019 and 2017 Labour manifestos were, the fundamental difference is that returning to the 2017 position will be covered, seen and perceived as a party in retreat. (As a case in point: Starmer last week gave a full-throated defence of free tuition fees, an intervention that received quite literally no coverage, because “opposition policy remains unchanged” is not newsworthy).

That’s fine if what you want is to be portrayed as more moderate and conciliatory than you are – as David Cameron managed very effectively from 2006 to 2016. But if your aim is to generate genuine excitement around your policy proposals while being reassuring and patriotic, that’s something of a problem.