Isabel Hardman

Voters still aren’t listening to Labour

Voters still aren’t listening to Labour
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Sir Keir Starmer has launched Labour's local elections campaign today, focusing on the need for a 'proper pay rise' for NHS staff. Of course, local government has nothing to do with the way NHS pay is set in England, but that's by the by if you're an opposition trying to turn every poll into a referendum on the government.

Starmer's call for Boris Johnson to give nurses and other health service workers a 2 per cent pay rise is in keeping with the approach he has taken over the past few months which is to look for a government problem and hitch a ride on that, rather than go on the offensive with distinctive policy offers. It's hardly a surprise that the opposition is taking this strategy at this stage in the parliament, as there is little point in setting out lots of big policies this early. But it has led to rumblings within the party that Starmer is being far too safe as Labour leader.

His allies retort that they need to convince the public of just this point – that Labour is safe after five years of being wildly unpredictable under Jeremy Corbyn – before trying to woo voters with anything particularly distinctive. The phrase that you hear over and over again from frontbenchers is 'we need to earn the right to be heard'.

The question is at what point will Starmer and co know when voters want to hear from them again? They're unlikely to get an answer in this election, partly because the 'covid-secure campaign' means there won't be very much interaction with voters at all. Politicians are the most in touch with their voters immediately after an election, as they will have spent weeks pounding the pavements in their constituencies and having conversations on the doorstep. Except this time round, there isn't really a doorstep, and most campaigning is taking place in what's known as the 'air war' of broadcasts, speeches and social media, rather than the 'ground war' of local contact. The closest most of them will get to constituents is through phone banks. 

Social media is, as we have learned from the past few years of elections, an unreliable way to learn what voters are thinking and what they're annoyed about. The doorstep isn't all it's cracked up to be either – remember how surprised many Labour MPs were to have held onto their seats in 2017 – but it's still more useful than looking at Facebook, which is often dominated by noisy obsessives rather than the all-important swing voters. 

Either way, the May result will give many in Labour the evidence they think they need to be able to argue that the party is or isn't following the right strategy. Adopting a noisy national approach will make it even easier to use the local elections as a gauge of how Starmer is doing generally – even if it's not really clear whether voters are yet listening very much at all.

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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