Political strategy concerns itself with two things: mobilisation and persuasion. For the past ten years – arguably longer – the Labour Party leadership has concerned itself primarily and almost exclusively with mobilisation. Appealing to like-minded segments of voters who, broadly speaking, hold a deeply held, socially liberal, metropolitan outlook (forgive the cliché, but it’s true) and almost always putting their priorities at the top of the party’s electoral offer.
I can think of few examples where either Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn sought to appeal to swing voters by putting their priorities ahead of the priorities of ‘the base’. The defenders of each of these failed projects will no doubt be able to pluck out some evidence of tactical divergence from ‘safety-first’ electoral politics. But, on the whole, satisfying the base has trumped any serious strategic attempt to persuade those who are not already putting their cross in the Labour box.
I use the word ‘failed’ because however you want to explain it, or however unfair you think it might be, these projects left Labour in opposition in Westminster and saw Labour relegated to the political irrelevance that is third-party status in Scotland. And it is exactly because Keir Starmer is switching the party’s strategy from one that is exclusively about mobilisation to one that is about persuasion that some within the party have attacked the Starmer project in recent weeks.
Some of the party’s base see any use of the Union Jack or talk about controlling borders as being the politics of the right. For the rest of us, you do not need to be Sir John Curtice to know that our country’s flag is a symbol of national pride, and the question of closing borders during a pandemic is just plain and simple common sense.
Starmer inherited a party that some say has a brand problem. It is not so much a brand problem as a fundamental problem of product. It does not matter how good a salesman you are. If you are a market trader selling fruit and veg and your stall is giving off a pong, your customers will vote with their feet. It is no different in politics. On substance, Starmer inherited a product rotten to its core. That much, he knows. And he knows, given his focus, that the strategy of persuasion is the only path to victory. More of the same ‘comfort-zone’ politics will leave the door open to a fifth consecutive Conservative government.
Starmer should double down and go much harder on his persuasion strategy. But for him to do that, he needs to have the support of a highly effective shadow cabinet team – something that he does not currently have. It is a strategic priority that must be rectified quickly. Some will say wait until after the May elections. This kind of cautionary advice should be rejected. Most voters cannot name a member of the shadow cabinet anyway. That has to change. In sport, when players on the pitch are not pulling their weight, winning managers waste no time in substituting them when it is necessary, not when it is convenient.
That there are shadow ministers briefing against the leadership says more about those individuals than it does about the leadership. Where are the shadow ministers bringing big, bold, front-foot, electorally ambitious interventions? Already, I can hear the cautionary rebuttal of ‘we won’t get it through the leader of the opposition’. Make the case and fight for it. If it is the right electoral course of action, people like Starmer’s policy head Claire Ainsley will not need too much convincing. And if it is not, ask yourself why you are proposing it. If it is to satisfy stakeholders or pressure groups, get your coat and join a lobbying firm.
The political problem for Labour is not Starmer. He won a convincing mandate from across the party to become leader, and has made great strides in the polls on pretty much all strategic measures of electability – though there is so much more to do. But he cannot do it on his own. He needs a team that combines the experience of delivery, bringing back some big hitters of years gone by, and the ambition and dynamism of some of the newer intakes to parliament – those who would become cabinet members in 2023/24.
A bold and ruthless reshuffle may be hard on some of his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but it would send a signal to swing voters that ruthlessness is yet another strength in Starmer’s armoury – something that they will admire. And it would enable him to double down on a persuasion strategy that is firing on all cylinders.