Reassurance With a Purpose
Labour's route to a majority
In a recent column Janan Ganesh took his fellow pundits to task for initially dismissing Keir Starmer as a loser and then, once he stormed into a huge poll lead, complaining he isn’t being bolder:
“We are telling him why he isn’t further in front. He ‘must be brave’. He ‘must be more radical’. His party must ‘expand its political imagination’. He has to ‘tell us who he is’ and ‘spell out his real plans’. It is only fair to warn you that the ‘What is Starmerism?’ pieces are imminent.”
Political commentators, he argues, being obsessed with politics, fail to understand that voters aren’t looking for charismatic excitement, which, unlike us sad cases, they get elsewhere in their lives. Instead they want reassurance:
“Voters want a leader to have definition, yes, but mostly in the negative. I won’t raise the basic rate of income tax. I won’t borrow to spend. I won’t reopen Brexit. Beyond that, politicians should view policy detail as some football coaches view possession of the ball: a liability, a chance to make a mistake. A ‘positive vision’ is not what clinches elections. It is the absence of a scary one….Be less brave, Starmer. Narrow your political imagination.”
I have some sympathy with this position. Words like “innovation” or “radicalism” that abound in think-tank reports can sound alien or unnerving to normal people. As the long-serving German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said “politicians who have visions should go to the hospital”. In any case the cautious approach is working for Labour. Yes voters in focus groups will complain they don’t know what Starmer stands for, that they can’t remember anything he says, that he’s dull. But they also don’t fear him or his party and they are absolutely sick to death of this government. That could well be enough for victory, as unexciting as that might be for those of us writing about British politics.
But the counterpoint is the risk of a “2010 in reverse”. As I discussed in my post on that election the Tories were pegged back from a 20 point lead a year out to a hung Parliament. This wasn’t because Gordon Brown’s Labour government recovered its popularity, but because Cameron and Osborne failed to offer any positive suggestions about how they would improve voters’ lives beyond the inchoate “big society”.
It’s true that if the government continue at the levels of inadequacy we’ve seen over the past few years then Starmer could probably relax with a cup of tea and a crossword for the next 18 months and still win. But the apparent success of Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland protocol deal, even if it is just cleaning up a mess created by his own government, could trigger a change in mood. Especially as we’re also seeing signs of a quicker economic recovery than expected and perhaps some movement on ending strikes. It might not take much stabilisation in the Tory position for voters to start expecting more from Labour, and large parts of the media will be keen to push that narrative given half a chance. I also worry that if Labour are too cautious they’ll get stuck in that way of thinking even if they win comfortably: the problems we face are too big for that approach to work in government.
In this post I’ll start by looking at the “missions” approach Starmer began to set out last week and then explore how that could be applied in a more effective way. The aim should be to offer a set of concrete pledges that are reassuring to voters, who are intrinsically risk-averse as well as deeply worried about their finances and public services, but also allow for an ambitious programme of government that could go some way to getting us out of the hole we’re in.