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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Keir Starmer needs to focus on policy

Starmer must not get distracted by the assumption that Labour are home and dry

Image: The New European

There is a fascinating and, from a Labour perspective, rather alarming reality developing on the political landscape right now. It was abundantly clear in a series of talks I did last week; two, in Harrogate and Leeds, alongside my podcast co-presenter Rory Stewart; three in schools; three more at book tour events in Scotland.

As regular readers know, I like to ask audiences for a show of hands from time to time, and among my current favourites are these: 1) Who will be prime minister in 2025 – Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak, or someone else? And 2) Who among you can explain to me what Labour’s economic policy is?

The answer to number 1 never got below 70% for Starmer. In Harrogate, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh, which meant well over 2,000 people in total, it was closer to 100%. So the assumption is that Labour are home and dry, Starmer will be in No 10 sooner rather than later.

However, the numbers raising their hands in answer to question number 2 was alarmingly low, closer to zero than to 10%. That is a disconnect which has to be repaired quickly. Developing the theme, Rory Stewart asked both Yorkshire audiences – and one has to assume that people who pay good money to hear us talk are more interested in and informed about politics than most – if anyone could identify any of the five Labour “missions” at the heart of the party’s campaign strategy. One hand went up in Harrogate and my jokey aside – “ah, you must be a Labour candidate” – turned out to be accurate.

There is no doubting the widespread mood that the Tories have got to go. But for Labour to make the kind of change that is going to be needed to get the country unstuck means there has to be positive buy-in for the change on offer, and you cannot get that buy-in without widespread understanding of what it is.

When I raise this point with Labour frontbenchers, they insist the party has plenty of policy, but it is hard to get a hearing for it. I don’t buy that. Yes, the media is biased. Yes, the Tories can get up attack lines via their cheerleaders to help drown out Labour messaging. But there is such a public hunger to hear more from Labour right now and it is up to the party, not the public or the media, to satisfy it. Starmer’s NHS speech on Monday was a sign he gets it, but there has to be a lot more of the same from here on in.

A similar point was made by George Osborne when Rory and I interviewed him for our LEADING podcast. Osborne, a politics obsessive, said he continued to follow the debate closely, but that if anyone asked him to explain Labour’s overall strategy in a sentence, he couldn’t, and that the same went for their economic policy, health policy, education policy or pretty much any other policy.

It would be tempting to dismiss his views as those of a tribal Tory, and the architect of austerity to boot. But he was also highly critical of Tory strategy, and both parties would do well to listen to his advice. It would seem that the politically engaged public are listening. To my utter amazement, his interview has overtaken Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerry Adams and Bernie Sanders to become our most downloaded yet.

Of course, it could be that this is just part of the general growth of the podcast’s listenership, which has risen steadily since we launched it. Then again, it might be because he is saying something worth hearing.

While I am being uncharacteristically charitable towards Tories, here is another one. I spoke on a panel with Abi Brown, the recently defeated Tory leader of Stoke-on-Trent’s council. Very bright, clearly passionate about her city and its people, her commitment undimmed by election defeat.

Honest too. So when I asked her if she felt the government had a proper strategy to deliver on its much-vaunted “levelling up” slogan, after a longish pause came the reply: “No, not really.”

At Derby Book Festival I did another show of hands in answer to the question: “Is Brexit going well or badly for Britain?” Result… Well: 0%; Badly: 100%. It was exactly the same in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Indeed, asking the very question is a good way of raising a laugh.

A reminder of the line I strongly urge Labour to have in their manifesto at the election: “We accept the result of the referendum. But Brexit as delivered, far from working, is daily damaging the real interests and needs of the people of this country, in ways large and small. Therefore, as a matter of urgency, its workings must be reviewed and, where necessary, new arrangements negotiated and put in place.”

It is the absolute minimum required to meet the new mood in the country about this act of national self-harm.

All Saints Catholic College, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, has one of the highest proportions of children on free school meals in the country. Yet their last Ofsted report was outstanding, their results superb, and you don’t have to spend long in the school to see why.

I had a Dutch journalist with me as headteacher Andrew O’Neill gave us a tour, and neither of us could believe the calm in the school and the exemplary conduct of the students throughout.

The school choir was a revelation. After they sang – beautifully – Gloria in Excelsis Deo, I asked how many were learning a musical instrument. A forest of hands shot up. Some were learning three or four. I asked – joking – if anyone was learning the bagpipes. No, said one of the boys, but we did visit the National Piping Centre in Glasgow on a school trip, and the teacher then produced a practice chanter, the small pipe on which the bagpipes are taught. So for the next ten minutes, I was playing requests.

Andrew O’Neill was named headteacher of the year in last year’s Pearson National Teaching Awards, having in a few years turned a school in danger of closure into one that parents are clamouring to get their children into. Meanwhile, the Tory government’s “favourite head”, Katharine Birbalsingh, was burbling an absurd anti-woke, pro-nationalism speech to that weird and wacko conference in London under the banner of “National Conservatism.”

Rarely have two educators exposed so clearly the difference between populists and progressives. Populists who love to inflame fellow believers with slogans, myths and love for a past that never was; and progressives driven by a genuine belief in equality of opportunity, and an understanding that nowhere is that more important than in education.

Oh, and can you imagine the outcry in the right-wing rags if Mr O’Neill had taken a day off from teaching to rant and rave at a conference proclaiming the values of “National Socialism”?

On Saturday, the current Conservative government overtook New Labour in terms of its longevity in office. You can read about the vast progress and advances made during the 13 years of New Labour in many, many places, not least volumes 1-8 of my diaries. But in the interests of balance, I think I should set out the achievements of the Tories and their five prime ministers in their 13-year omnishambles.

Thanks for nothing. Oh, sorry… gay marriage. Let’s give them that. Yes, gay marriage. Er, that’s pretty much it.

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