Fri, 19 April 2024

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By Bishop of Leeds
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No 10 is within Starmer’s grasp – this is what he now must do


3 min read

Labour has lost four general elections in a row – it's last defeat in 2019, the worst since 1935. Many wrote off the party's future for at least a decade after the Conservatives' "historic" landslide victory.

Keir Starmer has had no easy ride since becoming leader. When I met with him at his London HQ during the leadership campaign, many of us were galvanized by his determination to get Labour into government. The energy of activists in the room or on the phone was palpable. And yet by the time the contest was won, the country was already in lockdown and Starmer could only make his winning speech from an empty room rather than the usual conference hall packed with supporters like me.

Like a phoenix, Starmer has taken Labour from the ashes of a humbling defeat to now sitting about 20 or more points ahead in polls. This rise is no accident. 

To send a clear message that the party has transformed, it’s time to change Labour's red rose

First, Labour's image needed to be detoxified. Second, the chaos and mismanagement of 13 years of Tory government needed to be exposed and at the forefront of the public's conscience. We are now at the third and final stage. The party now must show they are a government in waiting that can win.

Last week's reshuffle saw big promotions awarded to Pat McFadden, Liz Kendall and Peter Kyle – all government aides previously – and to Hilary Benn, a former cabinet minister. This is a team that can deliver because they have been there before.

There will be enormous pressure on Labour to reflect its lead in polls in the by-elections on 5 October in Rutherglen and Hamilton – last won by the SNP – and Nadine Dorries's Mid-Bedfordshire seat on 19 October. 

Labour's annual Party Conference in Liverpool is a pivotal moment for Starmer. He must maximise this opportunity and prove the doubters that he is the right man for the job.

To send a clear message that the party has transformed, it’s time to change Labour's red rose. The same rose has been used for decades. Nobody thinks David Cameron's decision to change Margaret Thatcher's freedom torch for a crayon coloured tree was why he won in 2010, but it gave the party a new look and they subsequently won four elections in a row. 

Britain isn't working. Conference speeches should minimise pointing out the government's many flaws and focus on simple, clear plans for what would look different if Starmer had the keys to No 10. Solid policies that stick in the public's mind (think “Get Brexit Done”) instead of a long wish list no one will remember.

There should be a unifying principle or mantra that pulls everything together. We’ve seen a lot of “build a better Britain”, which is crisp and evocative but it needs to be part of a wider narrative that speaks to the party’s greater vision.

People don't want to struggle or merely get by. An aspiring Labour government should focus on inviting the public to imagine a brighter future. This is about creating opportunities and fostering aspiration but it mostly means being positive. A government that puts sticking plasters on problems from the NHS, to small boats, to Raac in schools leaves Labour with plenty to do. But the party should let the Tories stand on their record of failed delivery, in-fighting and scandal and instead focus on themselves.  

If the public liked political bust-ups, the Tories would be miles ahead in the polls with near constant in-fighting and plotting. After a decade of incompetent nonsense mixed with broken promises, simple and effective policies that are actually achievable isn't just good politics but a welcome burst of fresh air.


Thom Brooks, professor of law and government at Durham University

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