“Rather than provide an alternative, debate-shaping economic and political narrative, the Labour leadership is speaking in terms of a miasmic set of values, attributes, and abstract concepts”
By Sam Browse, Streatham CLP & Arise Volunteer.
The dust has settled on party conference season, with parliament reconvening last week. While politicians and pundits can sometimes wrongly speak as though the public follow every twist and turn of party debate, the coverage they afford offers an opportunity for opposition parties to cut through the media noise in a way that usually provides a bounce in the polls. Not so, this year. After the three-week recess, they’re much unchanged or are worse for Labour, with YouGov recently putting the Tories a full 10 points ahead.
The focus on party structures and processes at the beginning of Labour conference didn’t help, with the party leadership proposing a return to the electoral college system. Publicly rebuffed by the unions, alongside MPs from across the party, the plans were defeated, but were followed by a rule change to raise the threshold for nominating the leader to 20% of the PLP – an obvious attempt to make it harder for the left to mount a leadership challenge in future.
They were successful but, as many pointed out at the time, a leadership whose priority is to change the rules by which their successor is chosen does not look particularly interested in winning an election – or in being the leader for very long. When there is nothing on supermarket shelves, inflation is rocketing, and there are queues for petrol stations – not to mention a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, with hospitalisations again rising – a party obsessed with its own rulebook is not a particularly compelling prospect.
But the reasons for the lacklustre post-conference polling can also be found in the leaders’ speeches. Needless to say, Boris Johnson’s was littered with lies and half-truths (so, for example, he said average wages are increasing – but so is the cost of living, and some of the bounce is because there are less low-income workers in employment, bringing the average up).
It did, however, present a very clear narrative, providing an offer on living standards and a framework for understanding why wages have stagnated for the previous thirteen years. That narrative goes something like “now we’ve fought off the pandemic and Britain is making a new way in the world, we can push for higher wages and finally deal with the problem holding everyone back, and that previous governments have been too afraid to deal with – immigration and bogus asylum seekers”.
It’s a populist story that frames Johnson as the insurgent, standing up for the “many” (with rising wages) while railing against “the few” (previous governments, the establishment, and, in some hardened racists’ imaginations, migrants and asylum seekers) who are too afraid to do anything about the real problem in society (immigration).
It’s nonsense but it resonates in two directions – to a growing base of racist anti-migrant and asylum seeker sentiment, but also, more widely, to people whose wages have stagnated for over a decade, who do want to see an increase in their living standards, and who genuinely do want to feel some optimism for the future. All of this spoke to the conference slogan, “build back better” (unless, of course, you’ve fled from a war-torn country destroyed by British bombs or come here to prop-up our public services as a nurse, or even an HGV driver).
For our part, Labour provided no similarly simple framework on which to hook the party’s intervention into politics. In his 14,000-word essay, trailed before the conference, Starmer outlined ten principles of a “contribution society”. In the speech itself, he set out four principles or values or tools – work, care, equality, security – and three principles of taxation. The conference slogan had a slightly different message, “stronger future together”.
Not only that, but the four principles/values/tools were all connected not through a narrative about the country but of Starmer being the son of a tool maker, and W.H. Auden’s image of ‘that eye on the object look’. Importantly, the image is self-aggrandising – his own ‘eye on the object look’ is ‘beautiful’ – but also positions the remaking of Britain as an elite enterprise; while Johnson joins his audience in pointing a finger at the establishment, the Labour leader instead asks us to look on passively as – absorbed in his work – he “retools” the nation.
These are not simply technical differences in rhetoric and comms but reflect an underlying political strategy.
It’s a mistake to think the Tories have no plan. Johnson’s populist rhetoric reflects a radicalism which is all about remaking the economic, social and – importantly – electoral landscape through the crisis politics of the pandemic and subsequent economic collapse. The aim is to ossify the so-called “Red Wall” gains of 2019, while remaking the post-lockdown economy in the image of capital.
Although Labour has outlined a litany of things that are wrong with the country, in the last 18 months we have offered no story about why living standards have stagnated for the last ten years – and no compelling narrative about why Labour is the solution to people’s problems, outside of a technocratic argument about competence.
Rather than provide an alternative, debate-shaping economic and political narrative, the Labour leadership is speaking in terms of a miasmic set of values, attributes, and abstract concepts – patriotism, competence, security – and attempting to distance itself from its predecessor by giving the left a kicking. The approach is reflective rather than predictive, repeating focus-grouped buzzwords instead of setting the agenda, establishing clear dividing lines with the Government, or anticipating the development of the political situation.
That might’ve worked in the late 90s, and across a subsequent decade of relatively uninterrupted growth. But in the teeth of multiple crises – a pandemic, an economic crash, a climate emergency, the (frankly justifiable) loss of faith in democratic institutions, media, and experts – and faced with an enemy that is attempting to entirely reshape political and economic realities, it will leave us chasing behind.
The Tories have their story. We need ours – a tale rooted in the experience of the coalition we seek to build, identifying not just the problems, but explaining and offering solutions. Given the acuity of the crises, those solutions will necessarily be radical and require the redistribution of wealth, power, and – importantly – a social movement to fight for them.
That’s quite a story – and we have a long way, yet, to finish telling it.