In an open letter, editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL – the man who helped mastermind Labour’s last spell in power – offers his constructive advice to Keir Starmer on how to revive his party’s fortunes
I hope you are bearing up despite all the brickbats. You are experiencing something every Labour leader has had to contend with… they tend to get a far harder time, both from their own party, and from the media, than Tory leaders do.
It must be galling, to have all this thrown at you, while a Tory leader whose initial indifference and incompetence helped deliver the highest Covid death rate in Europe, whose lies pour out so brazenly, whose Brexit has created so many problems for businesses, and for peace in Northern Ireland, parades himself as master of all he surveys.
It must be especially galling when the qualities that led you into a successful legal career, and then into politics, are so at odds with the prevailing political culture as represented by Boris Johnson and his media supporters. You represent decency, seriousness, truth, a belief in rational analysis and systems, a belief in fairness and justice. That is not to be underestimated, and just as those qualities helped Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, they can help you against Johnson.
However, in any campaign, you have to analyse the world as it is, not as you want it to be. Just as Donald Trump changed something fundamental in US politics, so Johnson has done the same here, not least the realignment of forces recently divided between the Tories and the various manifestations of UKIP. The question is how to respond to that. The answer has to lie in who you are, what you believe, what you want to achieve, how you want to achieve it, and how the Labour Party becomes the effective vehicle for that. The strategy has to be crystal clear. Right now it is not. And strategy is based on squaring the circle between what the country needs, what voters want and what Labour as a party values. There are many hard choices in that mix.
The message, in the wake of defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, was to appeal for unity. That went somewhat awry in the reshuffle. But that storm will pass, and in any event, it begs a far more important question: Unity around what?
Unity of the party is not a message for the country. The country needs ideas, plans, policies, which speak to their lives, challenges and aspirations. Jeremy Corbyn may have got a lot wrong in leading Labour to such a dreadful defeat in 2019, but he was not wrong last Friday in saying if you are asking people to vote for you, they have to know what they are voting for. I would be hard pressed to articulate exactly what Labour’s central message was.
If unity is the driving purpose, where will the necessary debate come from to hone and harness those ideas, plans and policies? You cannot make change without argument. And Labour has to change if it is to have any chance of winning again. Your role has to be to lead and to shape that change, less concerned about whether the public is turned off by argument, than by whether come a general election, the public knows who you are, what you stand for, what a Labour government would do.
When people from the New Labour era come along and say, we need to re-run 1997, you say ‘no’; we can certainly learn from then, because New Labour secured our only wins in the last 11 elections, but 2021 is not 1997, 2001 or 2005; we need new ideas that understand and adapt to this new world defined by change. We need to accept too the need to use data and analytics about changing demographics far better, because like it or not, it delivered Brexit and it helped get Johnson into Number 10.
When the hardcore Corbyn supporters come along and say we need more socialism, and no change to the policies of 2017 and 2019, you say ‘no’ even more loudly; what kind of madness is it to think that a twice defeated platform is the one to present for a third time?
Labour’s problems run deeper than the identity of the leader. There is a real risk, unless the right decisions are taken now, that the problems are existential. This feels genuinely urgent to me.
No party has a divine right to exist, or to be a natural choice for government. As the Germans look to replace Angela Merkel, the Greens are now ahead of the once mighty SDP. Or look at what has happened in France. Four years ago, France had a Socialist Party president. As the next election looms, the party’s poll ratings are barely in double figures. Emmanuel Macron showed how quickly a new force can rise in the modern age. Labour’s sister party showed how quickly an old force can fall.
Far from accepting the policies of the past, they have to be reviewed, every single one of them, against an agreed set of values and a thorough analysis of the world of today, not yesterday. Johnson is the master of the three-word slogan and the hard-hat soundbite. But strategy is built on big arguments from which the snappy messages flow.
Can I suggest that what might play to your strengths is a return in politics to rich and thought-provoking speeches, over a period of several months. Going through one policy area after another, to adapt, to update, to innovate and yes, in some areas to dump, and to embrace the arguments that follow. The headlines might scream at the reaction to the change, but at least the public would start to see and hear what you are about. Do the same in relation to the need for a new culture in the party.
It means understanding both the threats but above all the opportunities of the technological revolution that is changing our world faster than in any period of history. Labour needs to be leading in that debate, on the opportunities, and showing how technology genuinely can be harnessed for ‘the many not the few’. It is key also to the debate about the climate crisis, and the bold leadership and policies that will be required to resolve it. But it will require big and difficult choices across the whole range of the policy debate, education and health included, relations between state and business, relations between state and states. There is not an area of our lives unaffected by these changes.
Labour has to capture a sense of excitement about the possibilities of the future, not merely be the earnest voice pointing out the failings of the present. It also means making a proper assessment of why, for all his many undoubted faults, which make people like me and you wonder how on earth he became prime minister, Boris Johnson has an appeal to many. It can be captured in three Ps, two of which Labour needs to embrace– positivity and patriotism – and one – populism – which it does not.
You will never out-populist Johnson. You will never out-lie him, and nor should you. But you have to more than match him on energy and passion. And on patriotism, the public were not wrong in sensing among Corbyn’s Labour that many didn’t really like the country. On positivity, in so far as Labour has had a message on Covid, it has been to spend more and lockdown more, when it should have been about how better to get out of the crisis, not stay longer in it.
There is another area where Labour needs to be very wary, and that is the so-called woke agenda. On the one hand, woke has been weaponised to suggest anything but a right wing populist agenda is somehow out of touch, anti-British. On the other hand, moderate mainstream opinion is sometimes alarmed and at times even scared by the politics of identity, gender, race, culture.
The Tories are stoking culture wars because they think they can win them; Labour shouldn’t help them. You can disagree with elements of the recent race report without comparing its authors with the Ku Klux Klan. You can have different views to JK Rowling on trans rights without suggesting her books should be burned. You can criticise incidents of violence in the police, or bad behaviour in the military, without believing, let alone saying, all cops are bastards, or not supporting our armed forces. These are givens among the vast majority. Labour should be the voice of fairness, reason and common-sense on this, not the echo of the loudest, most militant voices in the debate.
You and I have had disagreements on Brexit. I can’t help but be amused every time I hear pundits painting you as a hardline Remainer when we had a fair few arguments about the People’s Vote campaign, to which Labour shifted reluctantly amid the chaos of the Brexit process. Even I, unhappy though it makes me, accept that Brexit has happened, but we cannot pretend the problems it has created do not exist.
As you know, I was not persuaded it was the right thing to vote for Johnson’s Brexit deal, and I think the elections in England suggest few who voted Brexit were won back by that move. Indeed, it is interesting that Labour did so well in Wales, where first minister Mark Drakeford has been very vocal in calling out the failings on Brexit. Labour has to lead the debate about what kind of relationship we now have with the EU, and how we resolve the problems Brexit has created.
There is another message in Drakeford’s success; yes, that incumbency in a crisis helps, as it did both Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, but also, that authenticity matters too. Drakeford could hardly be more different to Johnson in terms of his style and manner. He is calm, measured, reasonable, fact-based, and competent. The very things that people like in him are the things many in England appear not to care about when seeing Johnson. And by the way, when it comes to Johnson’s character, it is the chaos and mess he leaves in his wake that should be the focus of attack, because it produces bad government.
So it is vital to be yourself. Only you can know whether, deep down inside, you feel you have what it takes to take on such a ruthless, shameless opponent. If you do, then you have to go for it, with everything you have, using your considerable strengths to full effect. Do not tolerate second-rate or complacent. Do not duck argument but embrace it. But above all think big and bold in terms of the new political landscape you want to paint, and paint it. Big brush strokes, but with the analysis and the detail built in en route to a manifesto.
PS. One final point … though Hartlepool and some of the local elections hurt, though Scotland shows no sign of coming back to Labour at the pace it needs to, the Tory claim to be the party of the whole country is false. There is a majority against them to be harnessed. That means looking to work with other parties and causes, not trying to destroy them because they are somehow not ‘pure.’ You need to offer leadership to them too.
Good Luck. Your country needs you.
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