Labour’s leader, guided by policy chief Claire Ainsley, is focusing on values rather than policies.
8/31/20, 5:00 PM CET
Updated 9/1/20, 2:33 PM CET
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer | Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
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LONDON — Labour’s new leader Keir Starmer is on a surprisingly Trumpian mission: (Re)build the wall!
The so-called red wall — a collection of once-solid Labour-voting constituencies in the Midlands and north of England — was laid waste by Boris Johnson in his 2019 election victory. It was the culmination of a decade or more in which old party loyalties based on class have loosened and given way to cultural divides on identity, immigration and Brexit, divides that placed millions of Labour’s traditional working-class, socially conservative voters firmly in Johnson’s camp.
Winning back those voters is mission critical if Starmer is to stand any chance of becoming Britain’s next prime minister — and, in his first five months since taking office, his team has had them firmly in mind.
One of their top priorities, senior aides said, has been the task of “establishing Keir” — a one-time chance at a good first impression, demonstrating that their man is someone whom voters that abandoned Labour over the past decade will be prepared to listen to at the next election in 2024.
Many of these voters — left-wing economically, but socially conservative, patriotic, proud of the armed forces, on low to middle incomes — live in the so-called red wall areas. Repeatedly over the past five months, Starmer has tried to put down markers about his political and moral values in a way that is, according to aides, a sincere reflection of what he thinks, but is also clearly targeted at the hearts and minds of the kind of voters Labour, like so many on the left globally, must win back.
“First and foremost, the public need to see that Labour is changing and that’s what we’re trying to demonstrate” — a senior Keir Starmer aide
There have been op-eds in right-wing newspapers about the sanctity of the World War II generation and the importance of hard work, family and individual opportunity; an attempt to forge better links with the armed forces; open invitation Zoom meetings where he has emphasized that he’s listening to the communities some say Labour took for granted. He’s also highlighted his own “patriotism” — something Jeremy Corbyn, rightly or wrongly, was widely perceived to lack — and made clear that Brexit, which he vehemently opposed, is now yesterday’s battle.
It’s a strategy informed, according to senior aides, by the work of Starmer’s influential Director of Policy Claire Ainsley, who has long argued that Labour needs to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their heads.
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In her 2018 book, “The New Working Class,” Ainsley invokes the work of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his “moral foundations” theory — the idea that people’s political choices are based on core moral values, among them care and fairness, but also principles typically associated with the right, such as respect for tradition and loyalty to community and nation. Individual policies are obviously important, Ainsley argues, but they are only as good as the values base that voters believe they grew from. “The context of what and whom the electorate thinks the party or candidate stands for,” as she wrote in the book.
The approach is now being put into practice. “First and foremost, the public need to see that Labour is changing and that’s what we’re trying to demonstrate,” said one senior Starmer aide. “But people also need to understand that Labour is trying to build people’s trust again. There’s no point having a policy if people don’t trust you to implement it — or believe that you’re ever going to be in power to do it.”
Or, in other words, to rebuild the red wall, you need to start with the “moral foundations.”
On the surface, the approach seems to be working.
The Conservatives’ poll lead has narrowed (to equal pegging, according to one Opinium poll from Sunday’s Observer) and Starmer has had considerable success ramming home a narrative about an “incompetent” Johnson government failing in its duty of care during the pandemic. It’s an argument that appeals to two of the core “moral foundations” that Haidt says underpin the way people make political judgements: One, respect for authority and two, a desire to see that their leaders’ care about the people.
Another recent YouGov poll putting Labour neck and neck with the Tories on competence (traditionally seen as a Conservative attribute) was a cause for satisfaction in the Labour leader’s office, the senior aide said.
Starmer has been “incredibly successful” in landing the argument, said Chris Curtis, research manager at YouGov. “This is clearly a long-term game plan but already we might be seeing the makings of a successful strategy. Starmer is now ahead of Johnson when we ask who is the country’s preferred prime minister, and while it is only a small lead, it is significant given no Labour leader has managed to consistently match or surpass their Tory counterpart on this metric in well over a decade.”
Starmer has also, officials close to him said, been determined to speak directly to Conservative voters and to show that they might just have values in common with a leader of the Labour Party.
A particular coup saw his op-ed in the Daily Telegraph — on the need to care for war veterans — make the front page on the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Three months later, Starmer was again venturing into choppy editorial waters, the right-wing Mail on Sunday newspaper, in which he argued against the government’s then-policy of grading teenagers’ exam results according to an algorithm (the government U-turned the next day). The op-ed mentioned “fairness” (one of Haidt’s six moral foundations) and “opportunity” (a cherished Tory principle) four times each.
Internally, Starmer has had success in driving through his agenda with important appointments to key roles. Morgan McSweeney, his chief of staff, is a former director of Labour Together, a group that spent the Corbyn era biding its time and planning for how the left could rebuild its voter coalition and succeed in the future. Aides also point to the recruitment of David Evans — an experienced party official who held senior roles under Tony Blair — as Labour’s general secretary, as a key moment in Starmer’s battle to “get the party to where it needs to be in four years’ time,” as one official put it.
Conservatives have noticed the extent to which Starmer has changed the tenor of Labour’s message.
“I think it is a shift toward a greater respect for tradition, a greater reverence for the nation, a more patriotic politics that [Claire] Ainsley represents and has spoken about,” said one former senior Conservative adviser.
Brexit remains a minefield for Starmer when it comes to courting Conservative and Leave voters.
“[Her] analysis of Jonathan Haidt’s work is really noticeable, not least because Haidt showed repeatedly … that people are more instinctively small-c conservative than small-l liberal in lots of their views … I think it is interesting that Starmer is taking that on board. That wasn’t apparent before he became leader … but is becoming an increasingly important part of his political message.” Starmer’s team declined a request to speak to Ainsley for this article.
Up against a Downing Street led by iconoclastic top aide Dominic Cummings, which prides itself on taking on established institutions — be it the civil service, the BBC, the courts, parliament — there may even be a space for Starmer to appear more small-c conservative than the Conservatives.
“It is a very powerful posture for him to take as an opposition leader,” the former adviser said.
Others, particularly on the left of Labour, are not so impressed.
“I think he’s in danger of falling into a Tory trap on culture wars, taking the bait every time that there is essentially a confected culture war row in order to shift the attention to the government’s failings,” said one former adviser to Corbyn, citing a particularly soul-sapping debate in late August over the singing of “Rule Britannia” at the BBC Proms (a spokesperson for Starmer told the right-leaning Sun newspaper there was nothing wrong with “enjoying patriotic songs”).
And while Starmer himself is polling well, Curtis said that there is not yet any evidence that the party itself had made any inroads among the very voters it needs to woo back.
“Starmer’s personal polling is very good, [but] this still isn’t yet translating into a detoxifying of the Labour brand, particularly among more socially conservative Tory voters,” he said. According to a YouGov poll in August, just 13 percent of Leave voters think Labour is “in touch” — barely improved from the 9 percent who thought the same when Starmer took office in April.
No more Mr. Brexit
Brexit remains a minefield for Starmer when it comes to courting Conservative and Leave voters. As shadow Brexit secretary, he was a key advocate of the party’s policy shift to backing a second referendum — a handicap (as far as rebuilding the “red wall” is concerned) that Ainsley’s appointment may have been designed to correct.
In her former role as executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation think tank, Ainsley focused on the extent to which the 2016 referendum had highlighted the need for social and economic reform to improve the lives and life chances of people in Leave-voting areas — an analysis, the Conservative adviser noted, not so distant from that of former Prime Minister Theresa May.
Indeed, like May, Starmer now takes the view (despite his previous support for a second referendum) that Brexit means Brexit. “Leave-Remain is over,” the senior aide said. “We’re out, no chance of us going back in so we’ve got to focus on what the future looks like.”
In 2019, Ainsley’s think tank conducted research in nine towns and cities aimed at understanding what people in the “left behind” communities actually wanted from the U.K.’s exit from the EU — findings that now inform thinking in Starmer’s team about Brexit.
Anand Menon, director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, which partnered with Ainsley’s JRF on the study, said that in the minds of voters they spoke to, Brexit was associated with a perceived remoteness of the political establishment — “a perception that traditional politicians have failed to listen to us and what we need is politicians who do what people say.”
Any Remain voters hoping that Starmer might become a champion of a campaign to rejoin the EU will be disappointed, Menon said. “If his path to No. 10 lies through the red wall, then that is precisely what he should not be saying,” Menon said. “That’s fighting yesterday’s battle in the face of those who left Labour because they thought Labour was hindering parliament’s ability to deliver on Brexit.”
In a way, the dominant place of the pandemic in the national conversation has allowed Starmer to dodge sustained scrutiny of his Brexit position (he said during the leadership campaign that it’s “for our kids to decide what our future relationship” with the EU will be). But that may change as the end of the transition period looms this winter. If news bulletins are full of truck queues at Dover, Starmer will no doubt be asked more often whether he thinks Brexit is a good idea at all.
The challenge of reconciling two sides of a voter coalition whose priorities and values have come to differ so much … will remain a fiendishly difficult balancing act.
In that scenario, Labour would, the senior aide said, focus solely on the government’s handling of Brexit, rather than reopen the question of Brexit itself.
But where, some observers have pointed out, are the policies?
Four years out from an election, Starmer’s team is relaxed on that front. Others, particularly on the left, fear he is at risk of only ever reacting to the news agenda, never setting it.
“Many of the issues that Corbyn championed, they were ones that were controversial but had majority support,” the former adviser to Starmer’s predecessor said. “Support for public ownership, taxing the rich, radical action on climate change … The more you get to public conversation on those things rather than some confected row over whether something’s going to play at the Proms, the better.”
The former adviser compared Starmer’s approach to that of Joe Biden, and characterized it as simply seeking to be “less offensive than the other side — so that you get fewer people who hate you and therefore vote for the other side.”
When the policies come, they are likely to be more modest in scope and number than Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto, a document that many Labour defectors, according to research by pollster Michael Ashcroft, cited as a reason for voting for someone else — because they considered it undeliverable.
They will also be rooted in the day-to-day concerns expressed by voters — a key pillar of Ainsley’s approach to policymaking. Starmer’s team are making use of focus groups and polling to inform their approach (although not with the almost daily regularity of Downing Street). Another influential document in the Labour leader’s office is an election post-mortem by Labour Together (a group led by McSweeney during the Corbyn era), which concluded the new policy agenda needed to be, if nothing else “credible and deliverable.”
But for many on the left of the party, the risk, as they see it, is that by being too cautious Starmer will lose the support of the other half of Labour’s voter coalition: metropolitan liberals hungry for radical solutions to the climate crisis and to social and economic inequality.
“In the cases of both Biden and Starmer, [the more cautious] strategy may win electorally. I really hope it does,” the former Corbyn adviser said. “But the world is changing dramatically whether we like it or not: the fallout from the pandemic; the rising new Cold War with China; the reality of the climate emergency. These are serious mega-trends which are reshaping the world. My fear is that if you don’t have the main progressive party in the U.K. actively shaping the public debate on these issues and putting forward a vision of what a different country, a different world could be, then the world gets shaped around you.”
For now, Starmer’s team will feel satisfied that they have laid good foundations for rebuilding the Labour vote — and will be loath to take advice from their predecessors after the failure of 2019. But the challenge of reconciling two sides of a voter coalition whose priorities and values have come to differ so much — the challenge for left-wing parties everywhere — will remain a fiendishly difficult balancing act, and one that could define whether Starmer will ever hold the keys to Downing Street.