If campaign messaging is too subtle then the chances are that the electorate won’t even notice it, so in his first speech of 2022 Keir Starmer kept things very simple. Standing in front of not one Union flag, but two, an immaculately turned-out Labour leader in notably perky form told an audience in Birmingham today: 'We are patriotic.'
'The Labour party is a deeply patriotic party rooted in the everyday concerns of working people,' he added. And he sought to embody this alleged spirit of patriotism in a 'Contract with Britain' which he said would be both 'solemn' and 'binding' and based on three core principles of security, prosperity and respect.
Though he specifically name-checked Birmingham as 'the birthplace of the industrial revolution', Starmer’s real regional audience was surely in the adjacent Black Country in which Labour lost a slew of seats to the Tories in 2019, including Dudley North, West Bromwich East, West Bromwich West, Wolverhampton North East and Wolverhampton South West.
As recently as last spring, these Tory gains seemed secure as Andy Street was re-elected West Midlands Metro Mayor on the back of culturally conservative Black Country votes. But recent polling suggests red wall constituencies, such as these, are back in play for Labour after a disastrous spell for the Government.
Tory strategists following proceedings online can have been left in no doubt about Labour’s plan of attack in the run-up to the next general election; emphasise the sleaze and setbacks that afflict all incumbent parties, play the 'time for a change' card and try to convince voters that it has successfully addressed its own weaknesses.
Given that there is a limited amount they can do about points one and two, it is the third leg of this stool that the Conservatives must demolish: the idea of Starmer’s Labour as a moderate and patriotic force that can be trusted with power. Fortunately for them, there is plenty to go at. For starters, when pressed by the BBC’s Vicki Young to give any specific example, related to policy, of his party being patriotic, Starmer couldn’t do so, instead weakly referring to 'the values I have underlined'.
And on the key principle of 'security', there was an elephant in the room amid Starmer’s talk of prioritising the NHS and employee workplace rights: when it came to immigration control the Labour leader had nothing whatever to say other than one fleeting reference to ensuring 'our borders remain safe and secure'.
Given that the voters he needs to win back don’t think our borders are safe and secure as things stand, it was extremely telling that he felt unable to make this an attack point against the Tories. After a series of notorious incidents in which those who have come to Britain (or their offspring) have unleashed terror attacks in the UK – and amid the ongoing chaos in the English Channel – this self-professed Labour patriot chose not to identify the shambolic immigration system as an obvious source of insecurity for millions of his compatriots. This is in spite of the very latest YouGov issues poll showing it to be the number one concern of the Leave voters he must win back.
Starmer has clearly decided that a goalless draw is available on the issue given the miserable performance of the Government on it and is therefore content to be part of a conspiracy of silence. If the Conservatives allow him to get away with this then 2022 really could be the year in which the Labour leader becomes a genuine contender for power. Rachel Reeves versus Rishi Sunak during a living standards crisis is not the usual mismatch on economic policy, while Wes Streeting seems capable of reviving the idea of the Tories as unreliable custodians of the NHS and Yvette Cooper is probably bright enough to tie Priti Patel up in a good few knots on law-and-order.
So Labour’s mania for open borders is the thing that can unravel its claim to be patriotic and show its thinking to be in breach of a social contract based around the idea of national public services funded by a system of national insurance and intended for the benefit of British nationals. Highlighting it would also open the door to a discussion of many of Labour’s other anti-British attitudes, such as its policy commitment to 'conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule' (a clear precursor for the payment of taxpayer-funded reparations).
But to mine fully this seam of electoral gold, the Tories must first start delivering on immigration control themselves. A new round of briefings emanating from the Home Office that suggests the daily trashing of our asylum processes by young men paddling across from France cannot be addressed until after the French presidential elections at the earliest is not going to suffice on that score.
If Starmer is able to get away with presenting his Labour party as following in the patriotic footsteps of the post-war Attlee government, as he did today, then 'time for a change' could prove an irresistible rallying cry come polling day. The Conservatives have the tools to stop him from doing so. They simply need to resolve to use them.