Keir Starmer should learn from how Wilson and Blair led Labor to success | Andrew Rawnsley


IFor more than half a century, only two men have taken the Labor opposition party in government. You have to be over 40 to have voted in the 1997 election which rewarded Tony Blair with his first landslide. You must be 78 years of age or older to have voted in the 1964 election that placed Harold Wilson at number 10.

It would reward Sir Keir Starmer and his recently renewed shadow cabinet to study what these examples of rare Labor winners tell us about what it takes to be a successful opposition. A clue is in the job title. You have to oppose effectively. It is not just about seizing every opportunity to expose and eviscerate the faults and follies of the Prime Minister and his office. It also means exploiting these loopholes to support a ruthless account of why incumbents are unfit to stay in government. Wilson relentlessly despised the Conservatives of his day as a party out of reach and out of time. “Thirteen lost years” was a label that stuck. Blair had the advantage of being the Leader of the Opposition as John Major’s government sank into a quagmire of sordid and divisiveness, but that didn’t mean he just sat down and wait for the power to fall on its knees. As Andrew Adonis reminds us in his excellent new book on The Importance of Leadership, Mr. Blair has been formidable in destroying the credibility of the incumbent. “Weak, weak, weak” and “I lead my party, he follows his” – the blunt phrases he used to dismantle the public reputation of his conservative opponent – “pierced Major to the political heart”.

The closest Sir Keir came to something similar was in his party conference speech when he lambasted Boris Johnson as “a trivial man … a showman with nothing more to show … a trickster who executed his only one. tower”. It is never enough to say things once when you are the Leader of the Opposition. Sir Keir must be as relentless as his two successful predecessors were.

The main thrusts of his attack on the government have been to attack them for foolishness and incompetence. He had a lot of material to work with and that suits the style of a QC attorney. Making jurisdiction the defining issue works well for Labor when the government is very blatantly incompetent, such as during the long stretches of last year when its handling of many aspects of the pandemic was so terrible. Sir Keir then hesitated when the government was able to claim, although not fully deserved, the rapid roll-out of the immunization program. At the last shadow cabinet meeting, several in attendance argued that they should expand their means of attacking the government.

Shadow Secretary of State Yvette Cooper. Photograph: Linda Nylind / The Guardian

In the 20 months that Sir Keir has been the Labor leader, the shadow cabinet’s performance has been good in some parts and unseen in others. It reverberated on them, but also on Sir Keir himself, as they were his choices in the first place. The complete overhaul he executed last week was long overdue. Too many of his previous front yards have greeted the opportunities to make a splash not with dynamic enthusiasm, but with quivering shyness. This was a big deal because much of the battle in opposition captures the public’s attention. The Labor leader has sought to remedy this with a reshuffle that has replaced or displaced all but five of his leadership team and high energy figures who are accomplished performers in the media. The consensus among Labor and Conservative MPs I have spoken to is that Sir Keir now has a much sharper top team. After the leader himself, three members of the shadow cabinet will be particularly critical of whether the Labor Party thrives or fails. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, must shape an approach to economics that combines radicalism and credibility. Yvette Cooper, back in the limelight as shadow Home Secretary, must boost public confidence that Labor has the right answers on crime and immigration. Lisa Nandy will face Michael Gove. Its main challenge is to make “leveling” a winning issue for Labor. “This is the key to taking back those seats on the red wall,” remarks one of his colleagues.

The new party faces a struggling government on many fronts. Since the party conferences, the Conservatives have been beset with a slew of negative stories, most of them self-generated, including broken promises on high-speed rail and welfare, a tax hike budget, crisis in the Channel and now constantly conflicting advice on how people should or should not change their behavior in response to the Omicron variant. The Owen Paterson affair and Johnson’s rambling digressions about Peppa Pig at the CBI reinforced impressions of a shady government led by an insecure prime minister.

Rachel reeves
Rachel Reeves, the phantom chancellor. Photograph: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

The by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup, which the Tories have clung to with a much reduced majority due to low turnout, tells us there is discontent among those who voted Tory in the last election , even in territory that is historically very true blue and also very Brexity. Labor improved its diabolical stance in the last general election, but still has a long way to go if it is to be sure of eliminating the Tory majority next time around, not to mention the sensational scale of swing required to secure a majority for himself.

The opinion polls have the two parts shoulder to shoulder. It is more encouraging for the government than for the opposition. Former Labor leaders, including Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, were given a big lead in mid-cycle polls to be defeated in the next election.

Sir Keir’s revamped shadow cabinet should bring more weight and bite to Labor as an attack machine, but that’s only half the challenge. The other half is to make Labor a party that seems ready to govern. Voters may come to the conclusion that this government is deeply shady and highly incompetent and they will always re-elect the Tories if they are not convinced Labor is making a better offer.

Here, the examples of Wilson and Blair are again instructive. Both have successfully described the Tories as representatives of a discredited status quo and Labor as the party of the future. Both had a story about modernizing the country. Both promised a “new Britain”. There is nothing quite as old as promising to do new things – and no story quite as powerful if it can be told in an inspiring and plausible way. Wilson expressed his vision in the ambition to create an invigorated country “forged in the white heat of the technological revolution”. It didn’t exactly work out that way once he was in issue # 10, but the magnetism of his narrative helped him get there. Blair was a maestro at distilling his mission into compelling slogans. “Education, education, education” and “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” left no doubt what he was doing. This is a non-trivial point. If you don’t have the ideas and can’t express them with a crispness and clarity that will reach voters, then you have nothing to do in modern politics.

Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy will face Michael Gove. Photograph: Anthony Harvey / Rex / Shutterstock

The most charitable thing to say about Sir Keir’s party is that developing and communicating a positive and persuasive account of what a Labor Britain would look like is still a work in progress. More than one recent study has reported that many voters either don’t know what Labor stands for or think they know it and don’t like it. An analysis of new research for the Tony Blair Institute by Peter Kellner, the sympathetic former Labor Party chairman of YouGov, notes: ” The study suggests this can be improved, but only if Labor can persuade voters that they are ‘knowledgeable, connected and have a relevant agenda to improve daily life’. The next elections could take place as early as spring 2023, in just 18 months. “We are past the point of just attacking the government,” said a shrewd member of the shadow cabinet. “We have to marry our criticism of them with a vision of our own.”

Being effective in dismantling preservatives is important, but not enough. The most critical challenge is to put together a convincing case that the country would be better served by a Labor government. Sir Keir can only hope to emulate Harold Wilson and Tony Blair if he and his new top team can.

This article was last modified on December 5, 2021. Persons must be 78 years of age or older to have voted in the 1964 election, not 75 or older as stated in an earlier version, as the voting age was 21 to the time.

Andrew Rawnsley is the chief political commentator of The Observer


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