The Shadow Chancellor’s response to Sunak’s updated support package this week was well made. Ms Dodds has been saying much the same these past few months, if sotto voce. Perhaps because of this – and despite Starmer generally getting the better of the PM at PMQs – Labour has not broken through in the polls. The Tories’ large leads have largely evaporated so that is something. But the question remains. Why hasn’t Labour made more of an impact?
This government has not been noticeably competent. Test’n’Trace has hardly covered itself in glory, especially for the amount of money spent on it. Too often exaggerated promises have been made and remained unfulfilled. There is more than a whiff of “one law for us, one law for you”, cronyism and possibly worse about the government. Policies – whether on Covid or exam results – seem to change with dizzying speed. U-turns are sufficiently frequent to give campaigners hope that a bit of public pressure will effect changes to apparently impregnable positions. Tory MPs have been muttering about Boris not being quite up to it. He has not grown into the role, seems on occasion rather overwhelmed by it. The government seems to court unpopularity over matters which are easy to categorise as heartless: no holiday meals for poor children, for instance. Even its stand off with Andy Burnham seemed designed to undermine its commitment to “levelling up” the North.
So why has Labour not broken through?
A few reasons suggest themselves:-
- Politics is not normal during a pandemic. Whether or not you support the government, at some level you want it to succeed because the consequences of it not succeeding could be so terminal – for you and yours. Final judgment and a turn towards an alternative may only happen when this emergency has been dealt with, much like voters chose Attlee once the war was won, however grateful they were for Churchill’s efforts during it. If this view is correct, Starmer’s main job is to make Labour a serious electable force for when the public look for an alternative in a post-Covid world. Boris may end up regretting trying to make himself the next Churchill – a mascot for hard times, to be discarded as soon as the shape of the future has to be decided.
- Voters are giving the government the benefit of the doubt. Labour don’t have an obviously more attractive or effective alternative, however easy it is to criticise the government And such criticism easily looks like pointless or pedantic carping or made with the benefit of hindsight.
- Labour still has the legacy of the Corbyn years to overcome. He may be gone but the habit of voting Labour has been broken. Being “Not Corbyn” will not necessarily be enough to get former Labour voters back. If there is one thing political parties should have learnt in the last 5 years, it is that no party can take its traditional voters for granted. Disillusionment with Labour may have been exemplified by Corbyn but arose from a wider range of factors than simply Corbyn’s unsuitability. It is unclear what Starmer’s Britain will look like. Until it does, there is no real reason for voters to embrace his party with any great enthusiasm or, indeed, at all.
- There has been no Black Wednesday moment epitomising government humiliation. Nor some phrase summarising its unacceptable distance from life’s realities, such as the “Crisis, what crisis” headlines during the Winter of Discontent. All governments are currently struggling with the pandemic and its economic consequences. However poor Johnson’s government has been, it is not easy to point to one catastrophic mistake or disaster, not one that is visible anyway. (Its approach to the elderly and sick in care homes is probably one such but cannot easily be summed up in a phrase or image.)
- Equally, Labour have not come up with a memorable phrase or description with which to summarise the government’s failings, one which resonates – both in its description of the government and of the alternative on offer. “In office but not in power” summed up the Major government and was all the more cutting for being delivered by a Tory. “He follows his party; I lead mine” contrasted Major’s helplessness with Blair’s control. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” combined compassion with toughness. One of Labour’s particular difficulties is that while there is plenty to criticise in how the government is behaving – almost too much – many of the criticisms (its authoritarianism, its contempt for laws and conventions, its cronyism, its spectacular waste of money) are remote from everyday concerns. It’s fair to criticise Sunak for being slow to help struggling businesses but once he has helped, what is left? What matters to people is that he has helped; the faffing around beforehand will likely be forgotten.
- It is harder than it seems to attack shameless politicians with scant regard for the truth. Their very slipperiness and disregard for any sort of rules of behaviour makes catching them like trying to nail jelly to the wall. A certain degree of shamelessness in return is needed, a willingness to be politely brutal and ruthless and get into the gutter for some hand-to-hand combat without appearing to (see how Ed Miliband recently discomfited the PM). Starmer, Rayner and Dodds have, despite some individual successes in debates, yet to find a consistently successful way of exposing the government in a way that resonates with ordinary people, which allows people to feel: “They’re speaking for me.” It’s not an easy line to tread. The sort of forensic skill a certain type of lawyer has is not always enough. It risks appearing dry, pettifogging, overly concerned with details. It does not always lend itself to the sort of bruising attack needed with just the right amount of righteous anger or contempt. It needs to sound like the authentic voice of the voters it is seeking to represent. Hard but not impossible.
The most effective oppositions have been those where there has been a strong central partnership between Leader and Shadow Chancellor: Thatcher and Howe, Blair and Brown, Cameron and Osborne. Blair also benefited from Prescott as his deputy and Shadow at Transport during a period when there were a number of transport disasters which could – and were – plausibly blamed on under-investment by successive Tory governments. All 3 and Robin Cook were relentless in their attacks on a government which seemed increasingly hapless in the face of events. There was strength and depth to the Opposition, a clear message and they were good at getting themselves in front of the public day in day out hammering away.
The same cannot yet be said of Starmer and his team, however good individual members are. Perhaps they are too cautious, too afraid to be seen to be playing “politics” during a crisis, too concerned with being serious and grown-up. But the government is willing to play politics, use its powers to their fullest extent (even beyond what the law allows), gambling on a too timid Opposition, a lack of scrutiny, bullying of anyone else and using Covid as the justification. It is quite shameless in advancing its agenda.
Labour needs to be equally hard-nosed and ruthless about fighting back. Being appalled and disgusted and despairing is not enough. Time for Starmer and his team to find their inner bruisers and deploy them.