It says something about the nature of British politics that within two days of Boris Johnson scraping through a confidence vote of his own MPs, it was the leader of the opposition who was getting clobbered. The ultimately inconsequential issue of Keir Starmer’s poor performance at prime minister’s questions sparked a fresh round of Labor introspection.
Some of this is just short political attention spans – next week’s by-elections will turn the focus back to Johnson – but the criticism had two justifications. First, Starmer’s performance was as flat as reviews suggested and second, the sense his party is floundering is what sustains Johnson in power.
And yet if one ignores the poor delivery, the Labor leader was mapping out an important strategy. His questions were designed to link current problems to the previous decade of Tory rule, be it through under-investment during austerity or poor pandemic planning.
The slow recovery in public services and an economy facing zero growth next year may open voters to Starmer’s message: that not all problems are down to the pandemic and 12 years of Conservative rule left the nation poorly equipped to face crises. The goal is to land the argument that Johnson is not a unique break with the past, just the latest in a line of failing Tory leadership premiers.
This matters because in the 2019 election Johnson successfully, and justifiably, depicted his government as a genuine change from predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron. This was a new Brexit-delivering, austerity-ending, interventionist administration.
Most elections come down to a choice between two messages: “time for a change” or “things are going well, don’t ruin it”. In 2019, unusually, both sides competed on the former. The change message is even more powerful if it follows the phrase, “After a decade”. Johnson can no longer claim the change mantle, but it is hard to be the “stick with it” choice if voters do not think things are, in fact, going well.
But Labor’s strategy reveals a problem. You cannot be the change party without telling people how things will be different. A common criticism of Starmer is that he is a poor leader because he is boring. But this is not correct. He seems dull because it is not clear that he has anything to say. For all the UK’s challenges, Labor’s offer is managerialism.
This lack of definition means his opponents are succeeding in depicting him as a weak, untrustworthy lawyer and unsupportive during the pandemic.
John McTernan, a former Blair aide, notes that in the recent Australian election, Anthony Albanese, the Labor leader, “made sure there were three things everyone knew about him: that he had a single mother, was raised on a council estate and supported the Rabbitohs [an Australian football team]”. This gave voters an idea of the man and his values. What are Starmer’s three things to offer that sense of him?
One might reasonably be that he has rescued Labor from Corbynism, clearing out the worst of the hard left. He can also fight to be seen as more honest than Johnson – not exactly a stretch goal – though, as voters mistrust all leaders, this will get him only so far.
Johnson’s allies clearly hope that whatever his personal flaws he can still sell himself as the better man in a crisis. Like the old joke about two friends confronted by a bear, he only needs to be faster than the other guy.
While Labor has numerous policies it is hard to comprehend its overall plan. What is the big ambition for education or health? In the current climate it cannot just be to spend more. Labor will be more trusted to modernize the NHS but what is its notion of 21st century healthcare? Where is it now on Brexit or immigration? There is a cogent green strategy (one senses nerves about it going too far). What is the strategy for economic growth? How would it tackle inflation? Who will pay more tax? Labor needs to ram home its overarching vision, illustrated by just three or four emblematic policies. Voters don’t want pages of detail, just enough clues to join the dots and decide they like the picture.
The looming rail strikes illustrate the problem. Labor had weeks to prepare and yet struggles to say which side it is on, strikers or commuters? Starmer wants negotiations not strikes, but who doesn’t? He could have placed Labor firmly against crippling industrial action, on the side of people trying to get to work in hard economic times. He may yet get there, but, shorn of a clear line, frontbenchers have freelanced enough to suggest sympathy for the strikers. This is not a failure of message discipline. It is an absence of message.
Starmer looks like a man steering between what he believes and what he thinks Labor needs to say to win. This week, he berated shadow cabinet members who privately call him “boring” telling them “what’s boring is being in opposition”. It is a fair point but building excitement about how things could be better is the job. It is hard to look at him as one did Tony Blair and be confident about where he will land on an issue. Clarity of vision will make him look more interesting, less weak and give voters that sense of his values. Right now, he is losing the battle of his own narrative.
Johnson is beatable but it is not enough for Labor to say it will restore integrity (though that would be nice). It will have to paint a convincing and broad picture of the future it offers. Voters may be open to a change. They will not sign up for a less-than-magical mystery tour.