Nick Tyrone

Starmer needs to be more like Blair to beat Boris

Starmer needs to be more like Blair to beat Boris
(Getty images)
Text settings

If Keir Starmer has a strategy, it's this: to paint his party as more competent than the Tories while keeping his head down on almost everything else. The aim of this is to ensure Labour can crawl across the line come the next election, winning a majority with a bit of help from the SNP. There's a big problem with this approach though: it's the same one that failed to work for Ed Miliband.

To beat it, Boris Johnson need do little more than recycle the Tories' 2015 campaign, which depicted Miliband in Salmond's pocket, substituting Sturgeon in his place.

The other problem with the 'do as little as possible' strategy is that it will almost certainly result in the break up of the Union. And what then for Labour? Beyond the obvious ideological horrors of the Union falling apart, losing Scotland would also presumably lose Labour their majority in the rest of the UK, making the whole thing a short-term bet at best.

So what should Starmer do if he wants to win in 2024? The answer is simple: look to another former Labour leader for inspiration. Not Miliband, of course, but Tony Blair.

I don’t mean copying Blair’s specific policies – it’s not 1997 – and, of course, Starmer would be wise not to repeat a mistake as cataclysmic as invading Iraq. No, what he should do is borrow some of the ways in which Blair successfully attacked the Tories 24 years ago. Why? Because the voters Starmer needs to form a majority government are almost identical to the ones Blair managed to get onside in order to win three general elections in a row.

There are three types of voter Labour HQ is currently focused on either winning back or keeping in the fold: people in red wall seats they lost to the Tories in 2019; southern English suburban voters, mostly in the Home Counties; and the left of Labour. 

Starmer can’t please all three of these groups at the same time. It’s impossible. However, he can win over red wall and Home Counties Remain voters simultaneously, if he goes about it in the right way. There is a widespread assumption that these voters are too culturally dissimilar for this to work. But Blair's approach suggests this is wrong. 

With the Tories all but abandoning small businesses in the wake of the Brexit deal, Labour could mop up with the large portion of the electorate who either run or work for these companies. To do this successfully, Starmer has to have policies that genuinely help these people. This could mean tax breaks or cutting red tape. In short, it is about doing things that Tories might normally be thought of as doing but aren't. Starmer can’t just pay small business lip service, he needs to announce policies that will be anathema to large portions of the Labour left and seem like he is dead intent on seeing them through in office. If he holds his nerve and does so, the rewards could be great.

Starmer also needs a line on Brexit. He clearly wants to avoid the topic altogether; yet being able to reach small business owners and employees requires him to attack the current settlement while not seeming like he wants to plunge us back into the Remain v Leave wars of 2016 – 2019. The good news for Starmer is that there is much more room to roam on this than he currently seems to believe. After all, avoiding EU relations altogether is not going to be a realistic option for the next three-and-a-half years for Starmer if he wants to win. 

As Blair did, Labour also needs to hit the Tories on crime and justice issues. Yes, this is another area in which he will need to pull the Labour party far to the right of where it has been for a long time. But there is no other option. This goes hand in hand with establishing a foreign policy prospectus for Labour that is well to the right of where the party has been recently as well.

There are a lot of similarities between red wall voters and Home Counties swing voters. Both want better public services, while not having their taxes massively increased. Both are passionate about their country and want the best for it. Both care about the fate of small business owners and those who work for them. It isn’t as difficult as some in Labour think then to woo both groups of voters in large enough numbers to win an election again. It’s just that the model for doing so – Tony Blair – is so toxic, it terrifies them.

As for the left of Labour, here’s where the Blairism really comes into its own: they need to be taken for granted. Yes, some might go Green in local elections, but the next general election will be all about Boris vs Keir. How many lefties are really going to back Boris? Not many. 

So just as Blair did, Starmer needs to focus solely on the swing voters and not worry too much about keeping his base happy. If he can use the basic outline of the Blair strategy with updated policies for the 2020s, he can win. In fact, it’s probably his only hope. And the price for doing so won't be the end of the Union.

Written byNick Tyrone

Nick Tyrone is a former director of CentreForum, described as 'the closest thing the Liberal Democrats have had to a think tank'. He is author of several books including 'Politics is Murder'