28 September 2021

Starmer must convince voters he actually likes the country he wants to lead

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Political life as Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition is tough. A Shadow Minister must compete on equal terms with an opposite number able to call upon the services of approximately six hundred times as many people. Just about everyone – the media, your members, concerned mothers – overestimates your ability to affect political proceedings. Meanwhile, because, unlike the Government, you are not in fact actually doing anything, you must run a gauntlet of endless horse-race style political commentary on your current polling situation. When commentators assess how a Government is doing, they can at least talk about substantive events and policy. For the opposition, it can only ever be the interminable who’s-up, who’s-down knockabout of Westminster punditry.

Perhaps worst of all, your communication incentives are consistently aligned towards doom and gloom. Whilst the Government must spend time hyping up its achievements, the task of opposition always tends towards the pessimistic. As time progresses, this can easily calcify into a perception you talk down the country as well as its government. Meanwhile, the devil still makes work for politically idle hands. Which means, as the congregation is the only audience reliably paying attention – the public tends to be supremely uninterested until the election itself – the only steady source of toil for an underexposed politician is invariably of the inward-looking variety.

It has not been too hard to find evidence of either naysaying or navel-gazing at Labour Party conference so far this week. And whilst the structural miseries of opposition allow Labour a degree of clemency, such sympathy should only extend so far. For the truth is, the further it gets from its time in Government, the more Labour seems to resemble the political equivalent of a pity party – self-absorbed, defeatist and, when not talking about itself, relentlessly negative about the future of the country. Such sentiment is captured neatly by the quote an anonymous Shadow Minister gave recently to the Economist magazine. ‘When you knock on the door of a big new house,’ the Minister moans, ‘how do you tell the people living there that the country is going wrong?’

As attention turns to his headline act tomorrow, there is an undeniable sense this must be the speech of Sir Keir Starmer’s life. The list of things he needs to do strategically is not short, but if the Labour leader wants to avoid the gloom vortex of opposition, he should focus on helping his party to see its country in a different perspective. To those who think like his anonymous Shadow Minister, he must demonstrate that the job of opposition is not to bemoan the country as basically shit, but rather to articulate that we are a great country that could be better under Labour. To the rest of us, he must show that he not only likes the country he aspires to lead but is optimistic about our future and capabilities.

Because make no mistake: Labour’s biggest communication problem at the moment bar none is the utterly miserable face it shows the country. Since 2010 it has fed us a near ceaseless diet of despondency, sackcloth and ashes. The exception is the utopian jamboree that was Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 general election campaign and it is in no way coincidental that this represents Labour’s best electoral moment of the past decade. In fact, despite all his idiosyncratic baggage, contrasted against Theresa May’s own brand of gloombucketry, Corbyn’s unabashed optimism came mightily close to giving Britain its first extra-parliamentary socialist Prime Minister.

In this and perhaps only this respect, tomorrow Starmer should channel his inner Corbyn. If nothing else, a dose of optimism might help diminish the credit the Prime Minister sometimes receives merely for being so contrastingly upbeat. More importantly it might fire up a Labour Party that should be relishing the recent progressive resurgence in countries like Norway, Germany and America.

The polls are narrowing too. Yesterday Ipsos Mori recorded Starmer as being level-pegging with Johnson on the question ‘who would make the best Prime Minister’ – the fist time Labour has not been behind on that variable for thirteen years (and fieldwork was conducted before the recent fuel shortages). This is no time to wallow in more self-flagellating misery.

In Bart gets an Elephant, a meme-generating episode in season five of the Simpsons, the eponymous elephant wanders into the Democratic National Convention to find banners saying ‘we hate life and ourselves’. That is not too far from the miserabilist message Labour has been projecting to Britain for the past eleven years. In his speech tomorrow, Sir Keir Starmer should put such pessimism decisively to bed.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.