23 September 2020

The hard left hates Starmer’s appeal to patriotism – he must be doing something right

By

Keir Starmer is moving on. In his first conference speech as leader he sought to draw a line under the Corbyn era with the tagline “A New Leadership”. If that wasn’t subtle enough, Starmer asked the country to “take another look at Labour…We are under new leadership”.

Just as the Tories after 1997 had to earn permission to be heard on issues such as public services, the environment and welfare, Corbyn has so tarnished the Labour brand that Starmer now needs permission to be heard on cultural issues such as patriotism and British values.

Starmer knows he needs to reach out to voters who left Labour for other parties, a point he made explicit when he said: “To those who have turned away from Labour, I say this: we hear you.” 

But does his speech speak to those people? 

To examine this, I use data from the British Election Study to look at three groups of English voters: those who voted Labour in 2015 or 2017 and then voted Conservative in 2019, those who switched to the Liberal Democrats in 2019 (yes, some people still do that), and those who stuck with Labour.

Arguably the most important for Starmer’s future prospects are the Labour-to-Tory switchers. As Ian Simpson notes here, a relatively modest swing of 4% would bring dozens of seats lost to the Tories back into Labour’s column – a sine qua non for Starmer to get a majority, though clearly not enough on its own.

Patriotism

Several commentators have picked up on Starmer’s emphasis on patriotic values, which sent some of the hard left’s Twitter outriders into a frenzy – probably a sign it was a good move. You don’t have to be Lynton Crosby to realise that people won’t vote for someone who they think hates their country – and some 68% of voters think Boris Johnson is patriotic, compared to just 43% who say the same of Starmer. 

So what do voters think of patriotism?

When asked to place themselves on a scale of 1-7 of how British or English they feel, those who left Labour for the Tories saw themselves as more British than those who left for the Lib Dems, or those who voted Labour in 2019 (6.1, 5.2 and 5.6 respectively). 

So talking up how much you love Britain is clearly not the vote-loser the hard-left think it is.

Starmer also spoke about being proud of Britain: “my vision for Britain is simple: I want this to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”. Again, defectors to the Tories were much more likely to be proud of Britain – an average response of 3.8 out of 5 – compared to 3.2 for Lib Dem defectors and 3.5 for those who voted Labour.

Finally, Starmer spoke of: “A country which would be an active force for good in the world, once again admired and respected. Leading the world – and leading by example – in tackling the climate emergency.”

From the outrage on parts of Twitter you would have thought Starmer called for the re-establishment of the British Empire. But in calling for a global leadership role for the UK, Starmer is on the pulse of the voters he needs to win over. Asked if they agree that “The world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like the British” Tory defectors place themselves at 3.5 (out of 5) compared to 2.8 for defectors to the Lib Dems, and 3.2 for 2019 Labour voters.

Again, it looks like love for your country is not a vote loser. Who’d have thunk it?

Competence and trust

Starmer also took a swipe at Boris Johnson, emphasising his perceived lack of seriousness. Again, this seems sensible. In national polling, Starmer outperforms Johnson on key metrics like “a capable leader”, “sound judgement” and “more honest than most politicians”. Starmer tried to play to those strengths, describing the Prime Minister as “just not serious” and “just not up to the job”.

But do defecting voters agree?

The British Election Study has not explored this particular question, but we can look at Johnson’s perceived competence and integrity, as well as likeability. Those who switched to the Conservatives in 2019 were more likely to see Johnson as having integrity and competence (6.1 and 7.0 out of 10 respectively), compared to defectors to the Liberal Democrats (1.1 and 2.4) and Labour voters (3.9 and 4.7). 

Unsurprisingly, those who defected to the Conservatives were more likely to like Johnson (7.1 out of 10), compared to those who went to the Liberal Democrats (1.4) or who stayed with Labour (4.4). 

On the other hand, Starmer is liked more by those who defected to the Liberal Democrats in 2019 than those who stuck with Labour (6.8 vs 4.3). Defectors to the Tories place him at just 3.0. This is probably largely down to Starmer’s perceived attempted at stopping, blocking, or delaying Brexit.

So, attacking Johnson might help to fire up the base, and perhaps win back a few Labour-to-Lib Dem defectors – who really dislike Johnson – but it’s a less effective strategy for winning back Tory defectors. It should be remembered that these defectors went to the Tories because they trusted Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’ – direct attacks on him may come across as attacking defectors’ judgement, which is hardly a vote winner.

Starmer also made a point of embracing his legal background – something Johnson had tried to make hay of in PMQs. 

“While Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists. While he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law.”

This is a canny move. All groups of voters are more likely to trust the courts than MPs, Westminster, or Parliament – so, though the Tories clearly think they’re on to a winner pointing out Starmer’s past profession, it may well be better for the Labour leader to be associated with his previous career than his current one.

Brexit

Finally, to Brexit, where Starmer was eager to move the debate on:

“And on Brexit, let me be absolutely clear. The debate between Leave and Remain is over. We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe. The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised that he will get a deal. So go on and get one.”

This is astute, because it absolves Starmer and Labour of making any decisions, instead putting the onus on Johnson and leaving Starmer free to criticise from the opposition benches.

Moving the debate on from Leave and Remain is a good idea – on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), the average response to the statement that ‘Britain should leave the EU because that is what people voted for’, defectors to the Tories placed at 4.5, compared to 2.3 for the Lib Dems, and 3.5 for Labour voters.

By the same token, Starmer should be wary of stoking up fears of a No Deal Brexit which a significant chunk of Labour’s target voters simply don’t share.

Overall, Starmer is right to neutralise the issue of Brexit and to embrace his legal career – and Johnson should drop what looks like a pretty ineffective attack line. At the same time, too many personal attacks on Johnson may play well with his base, and win back some Lib Dem defectors, but might put off some of the Tory defectors who will be crucial to any future electoral success for Labour.

To win back voters from the Conservatives, Starmer needs to fully embrace patriotism. When asked if “people in Britain are too ready to criticise their country” all three groups of voters agree – something the Corbynite left should remember that next time they fire off their hot, election-losing Twitter takes.

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Dr David Jeffery is a Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

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