Governments-in-waiting set the agenda
Ed Miliband is unfairly maligned. It’s true that he couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich gracefully. It’s also true that he was always a bit of a wonk and, in the testosterone-fuelled world of Westminster and electoral politics, a bit beta. Even now, his brother is shorter odds to be next Labour leader than he is (50/1 and 80/1, respectively), despite his not having been an MP for seven years, while Ed is once again in the Shadow Cabinet, albeit invisibly so.
All the same, when the younger Miliband led Labour, his party was ahead in the polls for about four years, sometimes by double figures for prolonged periods. Granted, it wasn’t ahead when it really mattered in 2015 and Labour went backwards in seats in that election (mainly due to Scotland), and part of that must be down to him but for all that, his leadership was the last time that Labour did opposition politics properly.
It’s easy to write off the Corbyn years as an aberration; a period in which policies were designed for the conference hall rather than the electorate, and a rag-bag bunch for former fringe members grabbed control of the party machine and inevitably crashed it. What is pertinent now though is that Labour still isn’t doing opposition affectively.
Eight months after the 2019 election, Labour has yet to score a single lead in any opinion poll. If anything, after a period of relatively close shares, the Tory lead is now edging out again. By contrast, Miliband recorded Labour’s first lead within five months and by eight months was consistently ahead. Why?
Put simply, the government is controlling the political agenda. The response to Covid-19 has inevitably dominated the government’s actions almost since it was elected and that’s the kind of thing that goes above partisan knockabout but that’s no reason not for the usual rules of government-and-opposition to apply. (That said, though the Brexit transition is still due to end in less than five months – the extension clause was eschewed – and there is, as yet, no deal – that issue won’t go away.)
Effective oppositions set the terms of political debate. Labour did it in the mid-1990s, when they portrayed Major’s government as weak and beset by sleaze. Cameron did it to Brown, by laying the economic narrative of not having fixed the roof while the sun was shining, which established the ground rules for both the 2010 and 2015 elections.
They do so by establishing in the public mind a few basic themes, which are backed up by enough evidence to make them clearly credible, and then tying pretty much every story that they run with into one or more of them – and then repeating them again and again, until people are bored of them – and then repeating them some more. That’s how people remember them. Only by doing so do the campaigns take on a life of their own and the media (and, now, social media) will take those themes up and run with them too. Starmer’s Labour has completely failed to do this.
The contrast with Miliband and those before him is probably not coincidental. Like Corbyn, Starmer is not a typical political, although whereas Corbyn was always an activist rather than a greasy-pole climber, Starmer didn’t become an MP until he was 52 and had a very successful career outside party politics beforehand. What they do have in common is that they’ve never really been involved in the nuts and bolts of successful day-to-day opposition politics. And it shows.
So, what should he be doing? Firstly, Labour needs to be stating not just that things are a mess but why the government is at fault for them being a mess. Just because Britain has one of the worst excess death figures from Covid-19 and one of the deeper recessions, that doesn’t mean people will necessarily blame the government. Many countries are suffering and the public in general does not go in for detailed comparative analysis. Labour – both directly and through its allies in the media – need to be making the point that things could have been much better
That ties in to what ought to be the first of two overriding themes: you don’t know what you’re doing. That the government is incompetent ought to be an easy sell, although low general expectations do bring their own problems: if many members of the public expect all governments to be a bit rubbish, the opposition needs to establish why this one is particularly poor and why they’d be better. Even so, U-turns, comparative failures and so on ought to make that narrative easy.
And secondly – but arguably an even more potent theme – should be “one rule for them, one for you”. Hypocrisy and entitlement is rightly viewed dimly by the public, and there are so many offerings that this government is making that could feed into that picture, yet Labour’s either letting them go entirely or is addressing them on a case-by-case basis without building the bigger picture.
In short, Labour is going wrong by being far too passive and far too reactive to events. It’s fine to be supportive of the government where circumstances demand it but there’s no reason why that should undermine the more general criticisms. Until Labour learns that lesson, it will make precious little headway.