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Labour’s campaign screws up

If they’re 20 points ahead in the polls and making mistakes, what will they be like under real pressure?

Keir Starmer visits Bristol Rovers football ground (Photo by Geoff Caddick/Getty Images)

A commanding poll lead is an exhilarating thing – when the electorate hates your opponent enough, you can do no wrong. It is a dangerous moment. When you are around 20 points ahead in the polls, the only way is down. But however much a party leader, campaign manager, or senior advisor knows that in their head, at some level there must also be that irrational spark of something more. What if this time is different? What if we can stay this popular forever?

Nothing that happens when a party is as loathed as the current Conservative Party will disabuse Labour of that notion: what in other circumstances would be a major gaffe, or even a terrible strategic error, will likely not move the polls a jot. It is like playing a video game on the very lowest difficulty setting and wondering why it’s so easy – right now, the atmosphere is incredibly forgiving of mistakes.

The danger of that situation, especially if it persists, is that you get sloppy. Either you stop noticing that you’re making mistakes, or you stop thinking that they matter. Given political gravity can reassert itself very fast, that can leave an operation badly off form just when it needs to be at its best.

All of which is to say: Labour has absolutely screwed up the last few days of the general election, and while it might not matter in the short-term, they need to stop making these kind of amateurish errors if the next government is going to be a successful one.

There are multiple screwups, each compounding the other, but they centre on one theme: don’t do what your opponent wants you to do.

Following the release of the Labour manifesto, which ruled out raising income tax, national insurance or VAT, Penny Mordaunt led the charge for the Conservatives in saying that these plans left out numerous other taxes, which the Labour party had not ruled out increasing.

This was an incredibly obvious ploy to keep the focus on the Tories’ central attack line: that voting for Labour means voting for a secret tax bombshell. This is hardly a new tactic – it’s been deployed by the Tories election after election, so Labour can hardly claim to have been wrongfooted by it.

Rachel Reeves had a perfectly good holding line against such attacks: given any particular tax, she would say that Labour had “no plans” to increase it, but that it would be irresponsible for her to set out an entire parliament’s worth of budgets during an election campaign. After all, there is no way of knowing what might happen between now and 2028 or 2029.

Had Labour just stuck to this stock response and pivoted to whatever it wanted to discuss, all might have been well. But once the Conservatives started listing various taxes that Labour hadn’t mentioned, journalists started asking Labour politicians why they hadn’t ruled out this tax or that tax.

This habit is perfectly acceptable journalistic practice, but it contributes to our substandard politics. Rather than trust the electorate to understand that manifestos aren’t five-year economic plans, or that circumstances change, reporters want the “gotcha” that gives a news line. This reinforces the idea that politicians are liars or snakes, while making it harder to govern responsibly. But that’s the nature of politics in the UK.

Labour’s big mistake was that when it was pushed to rule out additional tax rises… it started ruling out additional tax rises. Despite having worked for months (in places years) on its manifesto, Labour added ruling out taxing the sale of the home you live in to its pledge list.

What did Labour think would happen next when it decided to do this? Did it imagine that either the Conservatives or the media would stop asking about other taxes? Because of course the opposite happened – now that Labour has got into the game of ruling out additional tax hikes, any that it doesn’t rule out can be seized upon as a “planned secret tax hike”.

That has already led to Labour ruling out a council tax band revaluation, as if a tax based on house prices as they were in 1991 is some sacred aspect of our constitution instead of a symbol of decades of political failure and cowardice. A second day of tax concessions in a row guarantees at least a few more days of Labour tax narratives.

There is no sugar coating it: this is a fuck up, from beginning to end. It’s not one minister making a gaffe under pressure, it is a loss of nerve at the core of the campaign.

In a closer election, this could be calamitous: it is the exact trap into which Remain fell in 2016, endlessly parroting claims about the “weekly cost of the EU”, reinforcing Leave’s narrative every time they did. But Labour is 20 points ahead – the campaign error will be forgotten.

The bigger risk is that if Labour is incapable of holding its nerve and not making a rookie error when it is 20 points ahead in the polls and sailing to victory, how on earth will it deal with a real crisis?

Keir Starmer is promising to take on entrenched interests in planning, public service reform, House of Lords reform, and more.

Those will produce actual poll dips and acres of negative coverage. If his team can’t hold it together now, how will they ever manage it when things get difficult?

The temptation internally will be to brush this mistake under the carpet and move on. If Labour wants to be effective in government, it should resist that temptation and do a small internal post-mortem – why did things go wrong this time, and what can they change to make sure they hold their nerve next time?

If not, Starmer’s landslide could evaporate nearly as quickly as did Boris Johnson’s.

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