The ongoing pandemic and widespread horror at events in Afghanistan have combined to make pre-summer political concerns seem even more distant than normal at this time of year.
Back in July the Government was on the ropes, criticised for everything from its failure to define levelling up — the supposed flagship policy of the administration — to the needless cut to overseas aid.
The Conservatives’ surprise loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June, early in the summer though it was, perhaps encapsulated the mood of government drift. Commentators reported a “gnawing sense among some backbenchers — particularly in potentially vulnerable southern seats — that voters are becoming queasy about Johnson’s brand of Conservatism”.
One senior Conservative cited Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Axelrod, who warned against loading too many “bricks on the wagon”, by which he meant giving voters reasons to turn away from the party. “How many bricks can you hold until the wheels come off?” they asked, warning that the Conservatives risked looking “mean-spirited”.
Since then, the disaster in Afghanistan has only added to the sense that the Government is out of its depth. Rarely if ever has a British Prime Minister appeared so devoid of influence or relevance on the international stage. The Biden administration may have paid little heed to the views of NATO allies across the board, but Britain was supposed to enjoy special access. A closer Atlantic relationship was once promised as the centre piece of Global Britain. Instead, Johnson’s fantasies have been brutally exposed to the light, his weakness laid bare.
The public seem to agree. As recently as May around 40% of the public both approved and disapproved of the Government. Three months on almost twice as many disapprove as approve of Government handling of events, numbers which could deteriorate further after the Afghan failure.
The autumn is unlikely to offer Johnson any respite. The return of schools will see COVID-19 cases rise in large part because he has refused to invest in classroom ventilation, require masks or impose distancing, as the US and most other European nations have done. The result will be increased pressure on the NHS, more deaths and hospitalisations. Many experts believe a return widespread of restrictions will follow.
Meanwhile, the economic recovery is stalling, while daily reports of Brexit-induced worker shortages and empty shelves will continue. Levelling up cannot be said to have begun when most of the UK is still in the grip of austerity. Despite Johnson’s promises, things have not got better.
By rights this ought to be fertile ground for the Labour Party. There is ample opportunity for Keir Starmer and his team to attack the Government on any one their failures. Yet Labour has struggled to get a hearing over the summer, or to find attack lines or themes that successfully resonate with voters.
The result is polls that still give the Conservatives leads of between seven and ten points, while Johnson still outperforms Starmer. Given that leadership ratings are almost always a better indicator of election outcome than party polling, Starmer’s numbers need to improve just as much as his party’s.
In part, the Conservatives’ enduring lead is the result of an assessment by a large part of the electorate that over the past 18 months they have got the fundamentals right. The vaccine rollout was an undoubted success, while Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme prevented what would otherwise have been huge unemployment, even if it also abandoned millions of workers, including two million small company directors and many of the self-employed.
These victories will live long in the public mind, attached as they are to core concerns of health and livelihood. The coming resurgence of the virus and likely rise in unemployment as furlough finally ends may dent the image, but for many it will remain for some time to come.
Yet Labour is not a passive observer. The Opposition, even against a majority government, is an active participant in the nation’s politics. If, as now, the Government retains a healthy lead despite serial errors and misjudgements, this has at least something to do with the type of opposition being offered and the people offering it.
It is not as if Labour lacks a critique of Johnson or the eleven years of Conservative Government. Keir Starmer’s February speech, given in advance of the budget, was a clear articulation of the errors of austerity, the weakened state Britain found itself in as we approached the pandemic, and the consequent need for more investment and active government as we face the challenges of the next decade.
“The terrible damage caused by the virus to health and prosperity has been made all the worse because the foundations of our society have been weakened over a decade,” Starmer said. “It’s about an ideology that’s failed [and has] proved incapable of providing security for the long-term, that’s indifferent to the moral and economic necessity of tackling inequality, and that left Britain unprepared when we were tested most.”
Yet Starmer’s critique has failed to dominate political discourse in the months following his speech. Nor has he followed it with a clear set of policy prescriptions for the future, distinct from the Government’s own and capable of winning widespread public support.
So what went wrong? Critics suggest a number of possible reasons. Some, including New Statesman political editor Stephen Bush, argue that Starmer may simply lack political experience. He suggests that the lack of clear messaging in the run up to May’s elections, the decision to hold the Hartlepool by-election on the same day, and the “misguided attempt to move against [Angela] Rayner” which “blew a series of better results for Labour in the south of England off the agenda” together prove that Starmer “cannot get the few decisions within his control right.”
Others query Labour’s choice of policy priorities and message discipline. “The local election campaign was somewhat schizophrenic,” says LabourList writer Jake Richards, “beginning with a pledge to give NHS workers a pay rise, moving to a focus on a green new deal and ending with a photo-op of Starmer buying wallpaper.”
“More recently Labour has pledged £15bn for an educational catch-up fund — a smart policy focus considering the government’s flagrant failings in this area — but some in the shadow cabinet were apparently not even aware of it, let alone the public.”
Others believe that better messaging and strategy alone will not suffice, and that nothing less than radical reform will revive Labour as an electoral force. “It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction,” said former Prime Minister Tony Blair in a recent essay, “nothing less will do.”
Blair says that while Jeremy Corbyn was “radical but not sensible”, Starmer appears “sensible but not radical” and “lacks a compelling economic message.” The way ahead, he believes, is to unite a radical economic message with “a unifying social and cultural message”.
Given the Conservatives’ ability to unite the right-wing vote, Blair advocates parties of the left working together as the only way to defeat them. The alternative, he says, is “the dreary business of fighting with a cause which is unclear, our hands tied behind our back, on a ground we didn’t choose in a battle we can’t win, against a foe which doesn’t deserve to triumph; and hoping that another defeat will bring the clarity of purpose we should embrace now. It won’t.”
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey may be willing to help Labour into power. He admits that his party’s priority should be removing the Conservatives from power by unseating Conservatives in places where Labour can’t win. “A lot of people [would have been] with us [in 2019] but for fear of Corbyn couldn’t come that extra mile,” said Davey. “They’re not scared by Starmer, in fact [they’re] increasingly scared by Johnson and his approach.”
Davey’s policy focus has three themes: social care, small business and the environment. As leader of a smaller party unlikely to form a government he has the luxury of not needing to articulate a national programme. Unlike Labour he can ignore foreign policy and other issues if he wants to. But he understands something that Starmer’s team need to get right: choose some priorities and make them yours.
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Eighteen months into Starmer’s leadership few could articulate which issues brought him into politics, or which would be the priority of an incoming Starmer government. That matters — the public need to have a sense of who a prospective prime minister is, and what sort of world he or she would build.
For all his faults, Johnson understands that too. In late 2019 voters were left in no doubt that a vote for Johnson would mean hard Brexit and investment in public services. For good or ill he has delivered on part one; his ability to deliver on part two may determine his political future.
Instead Starmer remains focused on his party. “The top priority is a Labour government. That’s the whole purpose of the Labour Party,” he told the Observer in August. He added that only by winning would he be able to move from opposition to “changing lives”, but the focus on winning as a goal in itself risks confusing means with ends. From a voter’s perspective why should they be interested in a Labour win if they don’t know what that Labour government will do, where or for whom?
Starmer says he will use September’s conference to paint “in primary colours” the kind of country a new Labour government would champion. As he does so he would do well to follow Davey and Johnson in picking two or three themes to make his own, and on which to build a vision of life in Britain under a Labour government. The options are endless, but he may do well to begin where the country is in 2021: traumatised by the pandemic, aware that Brexit and other challenges are putting pressure on the economy, and increasingly concerned by the climate crisis.
By making health his first priority Starmer could begin with clear criticism of both Johnson and the last decade of Conservative government. Johnson’s failures during the pandemic are matched by ten years of NHS underfunding, repeated failures to address social care and a refusal to heed the advice of many health professionals by investing in a viable public health system. Starmer should propose a long term funding settlement for the NHS, funded if needed by increased taxation, alongside a fair social care system and investment in public health. Only then will our health system be adequate and in a position to face the next pandemic, should it arrive.
On the economy, the Conservatives long ago abandoned their claim to be the party of business. There is no dichotomy between being the party of the worker, as Labour remains, and the party of business. Indeed, without functioning businesses there is no place for workers, no secure employment, wage rises or pension provision. Given the ongoing harm of Brexit and Sunak’s deliberate abandonment of small business owners and many of the self-employed during the pandemic, the way is open for Labour to become the party of both business and worker. Doing so would secure a new set of Labour voters and provide a key building block of Labour’s economy policy, helping it to rebuild credibility as a manager of the economy.
Finally, climate change has rocketed up voters’ list of concerns, particularly as disaster struck so many countries over the summer, some of them uncomfortably close to home. Floods in Germany and Belgium could just as easily have been floods in Yorkshire and Devon, and voters know it. Meanwhile the Government is true to its nature with climate policy: keen to make commitments but unable to follow through with action on the scale required. Starmer would do well to come clean with the electorate that changes to our lives will be demanded in coming decades, but to make the case that doing so need not lead to a fall in living standards, and that the alternative would be far worse.
The date of the next election is not for Labour to determine. But what is within Labour’s control is its own communications and priorities, both in its attack on Johnson’s Government and its own statement of intent. Health, the economy and climate are priorities that align with those of the electorate, on which the Government is weak, and on which Labour can make a claim to have proven itself before.
With these policies in place, and communicated regularly and clearly over coming months so that voters get the chance to hear them, Labour would at least have a foundation and the chance to define itself in the public mind. The alternative is more months of the Conservatives dominating the agenda while Labour focuses on internal battles that are of little interest or value to voters who may be dissatisfied with the government they have, but need good reasons to choose the alternative.