By Alex Marsh
Polls suggest that since assuming the Labour leadership in April of last year, Keir Starmer has managed to largely close an 11-point deficit with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. In any normal time, this might have been considered a resounding success. But to only break even with a governing party that has presided over a botched pandemic response, resulting in over 100,000 deaths, is less than impressive.
Even more worrying for Labour is the data which shows that much of their increase in support comes from those who backed third party candidates in the 2019 general election, rather than from the Conservative voters Labour needs to win over to reclaim power. A leaked internal strategy presentation claims to offer Starmer a solution: his party must make ‘use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly’ if it is to appeal to disenfranchised voters in key ‘red wall’ constituencies.
The report appears to be motivated in part by an anxiety within the party that Labour is seen as unpatriotic by the general public. In his speech at the 2020 party conference, Keir Starmer asserted that Labour is ‘under a new leadership’, ready to take the party ‘out of the shadows’ and back into government, marking a shift from the Corbyn-era. The former Labour leader was regularly accused of siding with Britain’s enemies during his tenure, an image Starmer appears keen to shake off.
It is hard to know for sure how such a re-vamp of the Labour party brand will play with the electorate. Perhaps Starmer is taking inspiration from Boris Johnson’s 2019 general election campaign, in which the Prime Minister was never far from a lectern emblazoned with his red, white and blue ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan. And whilst Starmer has criticised Johnson on some aspects of his pandemic response, the Labour party has shied away from presenting an economic agenda radical enough to meet the severity of the moment.
The Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds recently claimed that Labour believed in ‘targeting a balanced budget over the cycle’, an expression that could have easily been uttered by a Conservative Chancellor at any time over the last decade. Aside from being out-of-step with the new economic consensus that has emerged as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, such statements, alongside Labour’s ‘patriotic’ re-branding, point to a leadership that is struggling to forge its own identity.
If Labour looks a bit like the Conservatives and talks a bit like the Conservatives, why wouldn’t a voter attracted by their message just vote for the real thing? At the same time, by amplifying a one-dimensional, flag-waving view of patriotism, Starmer risks appealing to the darker sides of British nationalism, something that is unlikely to endear the new leader to his base of young and ethnically diverse voters in metropolitan areas.
Some might argue that with a General Election not scheduled to take place for the foreseeable future, now is not the time for Labour to sketch out a specific policy agenda.
But the lack of a positive vision for what Britain would look like under a Starmer government only serves to reinforce Labour’s image as a party committed more to abstaining on key issues, as it did in the Commons vote introducing regional lockdown tiers in December, than offering alternative leadership at a time of national crisis. Empty symbols, such as a renewed focus on using the union flag, have the potential to appear disingenuous, only serving to reinforce this characterisation.
Ultimately, Labour’s new ‘red, white and blue’ strategy reveals a party that has forgotten what it should stand for. No serious opposition can hope to win power through a superficial makeover of its party brand alone. Instead, Starmer must do more to convince voters that he has a plan to change the country for the better.