Isabel Hardman

New year, new Keir: how the Labour leader will change tack in 2021

New year, new Keir: how the Labour leader will change tack in 2021
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Sir Keir Starmer will start setting out his vision for the Labour party in the new year, Coffee House understands. The Labour leader will ‘move onto another level’, according to party sources, talking about what life under a Starmer government might look like, and encouraging his frontbenchers to make policy announcements.

Up to this point, Starmer has had a strangely slow start as leader because he has been largely in reactive mode, responding to the government’s own response to the pandemic. This has made it easier for him to avoid awkward confrontations in his party over policy, with the stand-off over anti-Semitism being the only real ruction. He has focused largely on appearing competent and trying to prevent his opponents from defining him early, as happened with Ed Miliband. But there is a recognition in the Leader of the Opposition’s team that in 2021 he will need to move to a new phase which starts to show what he and the Labour party now stand for.

What that will involve is still being decided, but I understand Starmer will focus on the ‘politics of place and people’. This will include a switch from Labour sounding relentlessly negative – as it has done for the past decade – about people’s lives and the places they live. From now on, Starmer will stop telling people how bad things are and try to strike a positive note about the opportunities for their towns as well as the problems. A source close to the leader explains: 

‘Even if someone looks at their town and think it’s nowhere near as good as it was, they still have that pride about it and we want to be optimistic about that place.’

The focus on place shows the anxiety in the party that the ‘red wall’ seats lost a year ago are not any closer to returning to Labour. Despite some external polling suggesting that red wall voters might ditch the Tories, the party’s own internal polling and focus groups have made clear that these constituencies are still very much out of reach and that voters there resent Labour for forcing them to turn to the Conservatives for the first time.

The party will also try to attract the attention of these voters with announcements from shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds on violent crime and shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves on government waste. Both are areas the party has struggled to talk about for various reasons over the past few years in opposition. These announcements will then build up to a big vision speech from Starmer.

This is a sign that politics as usual is starting to return to Westminster after a strange year in which many of the normal rituals and flash points have had to be abandoned while the government fights the pandemic. But with the coronavirus vaccination programme now underway, voters will start to move out of survival mode and begin picking up messages about what the two political parties stand for. 

Boris Johnson is clearly looking forward to life returning to normal in Westminster, and Labour can’t afford to run behind. The party has a vast task in getting its ex-voters to give it the time of day, let alone support it at the ballot box again, and that means merely appearing competent won’t be enough.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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