This article, the second in a two-part series, will focus on the second of those categories: message. How can Labour develop a compelling narrative that speaks to voters across the country? What are the values that should underpin that narrative? And what might an election-winning policy platform look like?
In a national political context, ‘messaging’ means building an engaging and forward-looking narrative and populating that narrative with policies that will be attractive to the different parts of the electorate discussed in the first article of this series.
In the immediate aftermath of the Hartlepool by-election, explanations for the loss broke along predictably factional lines. Corbynites argued that Labour is paying the price for abandoning a programme that was, they claimed, ‘popular’, noting that the party held Hartlepool in 2017 and 2019.
Labour speaking to voters
Richard Burgon, for example, insisted that Labour’s recent manifestos were “backed by a large majority of voters”, apparently unaware that Labour lost the last two general elections. Meanwhile, the anti-Corbynites blamed ‘long Corbyn’, claiming that the loathing of the ex-leader – which Lord Ashcroft’s post-election survey found to be the number one reason for Labour voters switching to the Tories – lives on.
A more compelling and probably more accurate reason for the defeat, is that voters did not know what Labour stands for.
Labour did have a tagline going into the by-election. In Starmer’s final statement before the vote, he said:
“Your priorities will always be Labour’s priorities, with Labour councils, councillors and mayors utterly focused on delivering the secure jobs, safer streets and health services we all want to see.”
As Ian Dunt, writing in Politics, has noted, however, this is “the kind of political language which degenerates into placatory nothingness … There is a lack of bite to it, a lack of specificity”.
This failure of message not only left voters uninspired, it also left the field open for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives who, remarkably for a party that has been in power for a decade, were able establish a narrative presenting themselves as a kind of ‘insurgency governing party’. In a widely shared (on social media) news clip of an interview with two new Tory voters, both claimed they were voting for change.
What do we mean by ‘narrative’?
In a fascinating recent article in the New Statesman, Quassim Cassam argues that “humans are essentially story-telling animals. We make sense of the world we live in by telling stories that aspire to truth”. Based on ‘After Virtue’ by Alasdair Macintyre, Cassam suggests there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through a stock of stories about who we are.
Stories are also, by extension, the most effective means of expressing one’s political vision and policies. When voters complain that they don’t know what a particular political party stands for, this is often understood as a complaint that they do not know the party’s policies. However, it is more plausible that they are complaining about the absence of an overarching narrative.
A narrative is not just a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a story that tries to make sense of events in the world. Narratives are not only used for delivering information. What they offer is explanations. Narratives serve to frame issues. They have emotional appeal and resonate with their audiences.
Narratives that are truth-based have what might be called narrative fidelity; those that strike a chord with voters have narrative resonance. Resonance without fidelity is possible. The leave narrative, for example, resonated with many voters even though it was based on falsehoods.
Narratives that resonate with voters are typically ones that are true to their lived experience.
Labour, what’s the story?
In the 1990s, New Labour’s pitch to the electorate was a narrative of national renewal. The narrative painted a compelling picture of what had gone wrong during 18 years of Tory government and told an optimistic story about the future. The resulting landslide in the 1997 election was not just a landslide for Labour but a landslide for a narrative.
Labour’s current problem is not that its narrative lacks fidelity or resonance, but rather that it has no narrative at all. The question that the party needs to answer is: what’s the story?
Carping on about the government’s incompetence is not an inspirational vision. Labour needs to develop an overarching narrative that frames its policies, and that is both true and truthful. “It needs”, according to Cassam, “to become a story-telling political animal, with a compelling and positive narrative for today”.
A similar point was made by Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in the Guardian. Chakrabortty quotes the socialist intellectual Stuart Hall who wrote, while Margaret Thatcher was crushing Neil Kinnock in the 1987 general election:
“People don’t vote for Thatcherism, in my view, because they believe the small print … It invites us to think about politics in images. It is addressed to our collective fantasies, to Britain as an imagined community.”
Chakrabortty thus urges the Labour Party “to offer some images of its own”.
Critically, those ‘images,’ those ‘stories,’ must reflect Labour’s values and give the British public a clear sense of what the party and Keir Starmer stand for.
As Jonathan Freedland remarked after the recent Batley and Spen by-election, narrowly won by Labour, Starmer “has to clarify who he is, what he stands for and what he stands against, even if that means a row with his party: there is no value in unity when it’s the unity of the grave. He has to develop one or two core themes and repeat them so often that even uttering the words makes him and his (currently anonymous) shadow cabinet nauseous – for only then will the message begin to reach the public”.
Other elements of a winning story have been hinted at by Starmer and his team. In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, for example, when asked to describe his three main pitches to the electorate, Starmer said:
“First, a first-class education for every child, the second thing is to make sure our economy deals with insecurity and inequality, and the third thing is to put real dignity into older age.”
Throw in some of Starmer’s ‘ten pledges’ from his leadership campaign, such as the fight for economic and social justice, strengthening workers’ rights and trade unions, a radical devolution of power in the UK, halting climate change, promoting human rights around the world, etc, and the broad outline of a narrative that could speak to all parts of the UK, becomes a little clearer.
Indeed, some of these core elements are echoed (albeit rather vaguely) in Labour’s new ‘Stronger together’ roadmap, released by Labour chair, Anneliese Dodds, on 17 June.
Progressive policies and redefining the ‘culture war’
Once a narrative is in place, it is time to populate it with positive, attractive, and progressive policies. But what might such policies look like in practice?
Quoting Jon Cruddas, Freedland argues that Biden’s presidential policy platform was able to “bridge the divide between the young, urban left and the traditional Democratic base, by focusing on work”.
The president lays out every measure and policy based on creating millions of well-paid jobs, “a message both kinds of Democrat can get behind”. Moreover, if Starmer were to adopt ‘Bidenomics’ on jobs, it would be off the limits of the Conservatives due to the ‘Thatcherite creed’.
In developing such a ‘positive policy programme’, Freedland urges Starmer to involve all parts of the party, including the left and right. In that regard, he suggests copying Biden’s decision to ask Bernie Sanders to set up a taskforce to develop policy ideas in certain areas – some of which were eventually accepted, some not.
As Ian Dunt, writing in the i newspaper explains, such a clear and forward-looking policy platform would also allow Labour to “redefine” the current culture war, rather than (as at present) trying to avoid it or embrace it – both of which risk leaving Remainers ‘uninspired’ or even repulsed, while leaving leavers ‘unconvinced’. Redefining the culture war means, according to Dunt, finding and adopting progressive policies that will win over support, even from leave voters.
“The culture war divide”, he argues, “is not as settled as we think”. Last year, when the Conservatives threatened to override part of the Brexit agreement, thus breaking international law, only 25 percent of voters said it was acceptable.
Furthermore, Number Cruncher Politics polling for Best for Britain revealed that international cooperation received enormous support from the public, with two in three people in favour of cooperation with the EU.
The same can be said for the Conservatives’ intention to erase curricula in British schools that focuses on the negative aspects of British heritage. When voters were asked if pupils should be educated on the impact of the Empire on slavery, 68 percent said they agreed, with just 15 percent disagreeing.
For years now we’ve repeated Jo Cox’s phrase that we have “more in common than that which divides us”. This was harnessed to avoid the culture war. But what if, asks Dunt, that idea could be weaponised against the Conservatives? What if there are areas of commonality which directly contradict the Tory agenda?
‘Progressive patriotism’ – such as that ideals epsoused so powerfully by Gareth Southgate and the England football players during the Euros – would allow Starmer to represent a cause, rather than simply defining himself as something he is not.
Chakrabortty agrees, arguing that, for the past year, the Labour leader has:
“Spent every minute of airtime showing the public that he is not-Corbyn and not-Johnson, and not-remain and not-opposition-for-the-sake-of-it. He has taken barely a second to define what he is.”
He rightly attacks Johnson as ‘Major Sleaze’, but never tells the public that he’s on their side, or that Labour can deliver the decency, honesty, and integrity that British politics so desperately needs.
Ditto with EU relations, the Labour leadership has spent the past year assiduously avoiding any mention of Brexit or the mounting evidence that it – or, more specifically, Johnson’s ‘thin deal’ – is hurting people up and down the country. This creates the impression that Labour doesn’t care.
Far better would be to regularly draw attention to the negative consequences of Johnson’s deal (including for the integrity of the Union – something Starmer has belatedly started to do following his visit to Northern Ireland), hold the government accountable against its broken promises to the British people, and at the same time point out that only a Labour government is capable of building a closer, more pragmatic and more trustful relationship with the EU.
Batley and Spen
Much of the commentary referred to in this article, and the one that preceded it, was penned before the Batley and Spen by-election held on 1 July. Labour (with the exception of those, like Angela Raynor and Andy Burnham, who had hoped to challenge Starmer should Labour have lost, and a minority of members on the far left of the party) and its leader were understandably ecstatic about holding the seat.
However, beyond giving Starmer more time and space to develop a winning strategy and tell the British people what he and his party stand for, the result does not change the basic arithmetic set out by Freedland, Dunt and others so convincingly over the past two months.
The Tories did not win Batley and Spen, but they did come alarmingly close, falling short by a mere 323 votes. The byelection saw a 2.9 percent swing away from Labour and towards the Conservatives, the largest swing to a governing party for 39 years, barring the win in Hartlepool and the Tory victory in Copeland under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017.
The Conservatives are still gaining rather than losing support after 11 years in power, and following a pandemic in which, as Johnson himself all but admitted in a message to Dominic Cummings, the UK had achieved the twin distinction of “being the European country with the most fatalities and the biggest economic hit”.