It's Never Too Early To PRepare
“Forensic” was the word branded around like confetti when Keir Starmer asked his first Prime Minister’s Questions as leader of the Labour Party to an almost-empty chamber last Wednesday. The general media consensus was that he gave an assured performance, asking the difficult questions where necessary, but in a constructive manner. Whilst it was an encouraging start, there will be many challenges ahead.
It may seem a blindingly obvious statement. but in a job in which success is measured by the incumbent’s ability to garner support, public relations are crucial for any opposition leader looking to make the big step into Number 10. Yet of the last 5 men to have led the second party in British politics, only 1 has succeeded in being elected as Prime Minister. Starmer inherits a deeply wounded Labour Party, which has torn itself apart through infighting over Brexit, economic policy, and anti-semitism during the Jeremy Corbyn era. What lessons can be learnt from his predecessor if he is to achieve what those before him have failed to do?
Corbyn himself took over in 2015 when the Labour Party was at a crossroads. The Labour Party had just lost a 2nd successive election – one which some polls had tipped them to win. In an environment where the other candidates’ policies were barely distinguishable, Corbyn, a serial backbencher, was able to position himself as the most enthusiastically anti-austerity candidate and won the leadership with 59% of first preference votes. After a leadership challenge in 2016, Labour made surprise gains in the snap 2017 election, with many of Corbyn’s socialist policies proving popular, and giving the party a platform from which they could potentially win next time around.
Despite the progress made, it began to unravel quickly. Instead of moderating to reach out to voters in Tory marginals, he doubled down. The policy of taxing private school fees was replaced by a pledge to ban private education altogether, and the big 2019 election pledge was free broadband, which didn’t seem feasible to most of the electorate. Both seemed like an ideological attempt to appeal to the party membership rather than the swing voters who could have propelled Labour into government. He also failed to address the reservations that many voters had over his views on defence and security and even appeared to back the Russians over Britain’s own security services in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning in 2018. In a YouGov poll conducted after Labour’s crushing 2019 election defeat, 51% of those who had deserted the party cited Corbyn and the economic policies as their reasons.
Although their views are wildly different, similarities can be drawn between Jeremy Corbyn and Iain Duncan Smith who became leader of the opposition in 2001 after the Tories had suffered their second landslide defeat to Tony Blair’s Labour Party. Duncan-Smith was chosen by the Conservative members for his Eurosceptic credentials above all else, and ahead of the vastly experienced and popular Ken Clarke. “IDS” failed to land a punch focused on traditional Tory issues such as adoption rights and Europe rather than winning back Middle England and attracted media ridicule for his lack of personality. Yet when he tried to address this issue he simply made things worse – his exclamation that “The Quiet Man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume” at the 2003 conference further demonstrated IDS’ lack of media savvy and he was removed later that year, losing a no-confidence vote before being allowed to fight a General Election. Like Corbyn, Duncan-Smith could never command the support of his own parliamentary colleagues. Despite being popular with the membership, his history of backbench rebellion against his party left him bereft of the moral authority to lead it.
Mr Duncan Smith was succeeded by former Home Secretary Michael Howard. Although he inherited some abject parliamentary arithmetic, Tony Blair’s popularity had plummeted due to the Iraq War and after 8 years of Labour government, the political pendulum was due a swing to the Tories. However, their strategy was poor. At the manifesto launch, Howard announced his 5 pledges; reducing migration, increased police recruitment, lower taxes, stricter school discipline and cleaner hospitals. Summing up a policy programme in a few short messages is usually an effective method of communication but the unusual mix of policy proposals meant they were unable to demonstrate a clear philosophy. Sure, everyone wants a clean hospital, but to equate its’ importance to voters with a desire to see more police and ensure public safety was bizarre. Additionally, the Tories suffered from over-emphasising their immigration policy, which suggested to the voters that they had not learnt their lessons from the Duncan-Smith disaster and were simply focussing on traditional Tory issues, rather than appealing to the wider electorate.
Despite making gains and winning the popular vote in England, the Tories slumped to a third successive defeat in 2005, again falling short of the 200-seat mark. Howard was unable to capitalise on Blair’s tarnished reputation as he too was in support of the Iraq War, which made the Liberal Democrats the natural alternative to disaffected Labour voters. His premiership was well summed up by a question from an audience member at a BBC leaders’ hustings – In the wake of a large polling lead for Tony Blair’s Labour Party, Howard was asked how it felt to be less trusted than a man he frequently referred to as a liar. The audience laughs were repeated by the voters at the ballot box a week later.
Ed Miliband was the next unsuccessful leader of the opposition, taking over Labour in 2010, after 13 years in office. Although he took a pasting from the media for his unusual appearance and for being more overtly left wing than his Labour predecessors, “Red Ed” made a decent fist of opposing the new Conservative government and their radical austerity programme during his first couple of years, without challenging the Tory narrative that the previous Labour government had been responsible for the effects of the Global Financial Crisis. Almost all polling between 2011 and early 2014 showed a clear lead for Labour, but the lead began to narrow roughly 12 months before the 2015 General Election. The Party were facing threats from UKIP in their northern heartlands, whose policies on reduced migration and rejection of the European Union resonated with many traditional socialists. As well as this, Labour were trying to regain marginals which had turned blue in 2010 and deal with the rise of the SNP in Scotland. Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls found themselves fighting on many fronts – they subsequently panicked and altered their message.
During the campaign, Miliband boasted of being the first Labour leader to have a manifesto advocating a reduction in spending but maintained radical economic policies such as abolishing zero-hour contracts to appeal to left wing voters. Throw in a UKIP-friendly pledge to control migration and there was no clear vision for what a Labour government would deliver. Whilst having a moderate policy programme is normally a vote winner, Miliband backed too many horses and was subsequently outflanked on all channels. The Tories won marginals in middle class areas, due to having a stronger stance on cutting the fiscal deficit as UKIP’s more fervent opposition to immigration led to a fall in the Labour vote in northern areas, a split which resulted in Balls’ losing his seat to the Conservatives. Meanwhile in Scotland, Labour’s perceived pandering to right wing policies allowed the SNP to present themselves as the clear progressive alternative, and Labour lost all but 1 of its Scottish MPs, as it slumped to a disappointing defeat and finished with 2010.
So, what can Keir Starmer learn from this? In the wake of Labour’s calamitous defeat, he can take heart from David Cameron’s journey from opposition to Downing Street. His party had a similar number of MPs as Labour do today and the Tories’ low popularity soared in the wake of the financial crisis, which turned public opinion on its head and gave them victory in 2010 after 13 years in the wilderness. Similarly, with the Coronavirus and Brexit both likely to have lasting economic effects, the political landscape could become more volatile. Starmer’s response to the pandemic so far has been professional; his policy of supporting the government where necessary but scrutinising in order to improve their response has been welcomed by moderates on both sides of the house.
Even in the first few weeks of his premiership, his public relations must be immaculate. This can be divided into 3 categories; image, ideology and messaging. With regards to image, Starmer must address the concerns of many that he is an EU fanatic; in his leadership campaign, he was clear in his view that Labour must “end the leave/remain divide” and that he would not advocate rejoining in the next manifesto – he must now articulate this to the general public. Starmer’s front bench appointments have been received fairly well and addressed – new Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas Symonds’ description of Hezbollah as an “anti-semitic terrorist organisation” was a welcomed intervention, as Jeremy Corbyn and ex-Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s past associations with extremist groups had been a major factor in declining Labour support. Additionally, the fact that the Shadow Cabinet now appears to be less factional should go some way towards persuading voters that the party is now a more moderate and fiscally responsible one.
Another failure of the previous leadership was not to talk about the achievements of the last Labour government. Record NHS investment, massive poverty reductions and Sure Start all made massive differences to the lives of many, yet these have scarcely been mentioned in previous years. Instead, it allowed the Tories to own the narrative with regards to the Blair/Brown years, with the infamous “no money left” note regularly flaunted yet rarely challenged. Whilst the party did a good job of highlighting the negative effects of austerity, there was a feeling among many that the overall message was pessimistic, rather than one which demonstrated the positive change a Labour government could bring about.
However, the messenger is just as important as the message. Starmer must make tough decisions with regards to media representatives. Although Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry receive harsh press criticism, the stark reality is that they aren’t popular with the public, so having them on Question Time every other week won’t help with reconnecting with the public but handing the spotlight to more popular figures like Dan Jarvis and Lisa Nandy would do this.
All of these improvements boil down to strategy and the Labour Party is damaged goods in the eyes of many – but this can certainly change with work. Whatever his defining message, Starmer must be quick out of the blocks and already start preparing for 2024 if Labour is to stand any hope of snatching power away from the hands of Boris Johnson.