It looks and feels like some form of political beast or dinosaur wandering aimlessly across the political plain, not quite knowing why it exists, where it’s been or where it’s going.
Three themes – vision, voids, and voices – help explain this painful diagnosis. The ‘vision thing’ is arguably the most fuzzy and yet important dimension of any successful project. It’s the political equivalent of the Ronseal slogan ‘It does what it says on the tin’.
It is sharp, succinct but resonates with the mood of significant slices of the public. The Conservatives have one. Their ‘offer’ is ‘levelling-up’ which connects with long-standing public concerns about growing levels of regional inequality in England.
It also hints to those that feel ‘left behind’ that the Government is attempting to address those concerns. “What we offer is jabs, jabs, jabs and then jobs, jobs, jobs,” Boris Johnson told a phalanx of reporters after his party’s Hartlepool by-election win.
Where is the Labour Party’s vision? Since he became the leader, Sir Keir Starmer has deployed what can only be called a ‘submarine strategy’ whereby he tries to say as little as possible that might attract attention to him or the party.
It’s a negative ploy which rests upon the likelihood of capitalising on your opponent’s mistakes rather adopting clear positions which are inevitably going to disappoint or anger some people. With Boris Johnson in No 10, the idea of sitting back and waiting for the Government to implode through a combination of blunders and buffoonery is understandable, but it has left Labour high and dry when it comes to brand-awareness amongst the public.
And what happened last week was not really a shock because Labour is in the midst of an existential crisis. While Starmer admits that last week’s elections suggest the party had ‘lost the trust of working people’, even this fails to recognise the modern realities of everyday life for many people.
In Sheffield and Scunthorpe, Barnsley and Bridlington, it’s not jobs that are needed but ‘good’ jobs that bring a degree of security and respect. ‘In-work-but-still-in-poverty’ is the modern condition but too often the Labour Party appears too focused on internal battles and an elite obsession with identity politics.
There is something in the complaints of the Labour MP Khalid Mahmood that “Labour has lost touch with ordinary British people. A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”.
This has created the void that Boris Johnson appears to be filling with a brand of ‘blue-collar Conservatism’ that is explicitly designed to resonate with England’s seaside towns, former colliery areas, fishing ports etc.
What the Conservatives have done is to actually move into the social democratic big state, public spending, interventionist policy space that would traditionally have been seen as Labour Party territory.
Which brings the discussion to a final focus on voices. In short, Keir Starmer needs to find his voice quickly and it needs to be clear and loud – with imagination, verve and vision. He also needs to allow others to speak up and speak out to promote a clear Labour vision.
Starmer lacks the energy, charisma and connective capacity of Boris Johnson but also seems oddly reluctant to give those who do have these skills a real platform.
The weekend’s reshuffle was far too limited. Keeping Lisa Nandy MP as Shadow Foreign Secretary, for example, was a really poor decision. It’s a ‘non-job’ in political terms that draws her away from domestic politics and thereby robs the party of one its most gifted ‘new generation’ performers.
The Labour Party is playing an endgame. The stakes could not be higher.
The Conservatives are undoubtedly playing a highly populist game that will at some point falter. The vision is strong but the detail is weak (Boris does not do detail).
But will Labour be prepared to seize the opportunity? I doubt it. They have become masters of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
But the time has come for Keir Starmer to shape up, or shift out. Not just for the sake of the Labour Party but for the broader health of British democracy.
Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.
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