Sir Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair. But he does pose a similar dilemma for the Conservative Party: how to challenge him and define his leadership. Blair scrambled the Conservative compass. Tories juggled several political strategies: New Labour was a hoax (a marketing ploy to mask Old Labour); New Labour was a reality but superficial (controlled by Old Labour); New Labour was really in charge (and posed New Dangers).
For some MPs, there is now a sense of deja vu. Thr Party is still searching for a strategy to define and defeat Starmer. This is most visible at PMQs. Prime Ministers Johnson, Truss, and now Sunak all flirt with different approaches. Trying variants of: a new leader with Corbyn’s agenda; a new leader with no principles or plan; and a new leader with new policy threats.
In an era where leaders personify their parties, critiquing and defining Sir Keir’s leadership style is important. However, the voter perception of him as ’boring’ or ‘bland’ is a strength and a weakness. Both teams are grappling with how to manage this aspect of his public persona.
Whilst tempting, it is a long-shot that voters will come to see Sir Keir as ‘son of Corbyn’. The attack that he is unprincipled and Labour has no plan for government is flawed, at least in part, as Ministers need to amplify and criticise the Opposition’s positions and proposals. Which leads to focusing on their agenda and defining it as a risk to the future prosperity and security of the country.
To be compelling, a narrative must be credible, accessible and memorable. There are two intuitive options to frame Starmer. First, that he tries to be ‘all things to all people’, signalling he is indecisive and incapable of providing strong leadership in tough times. Second, his ‘blandness’ does not mean his Party has a moderate platform. Instead, it masks a left-wing agenda posing clear policy risks (‘the danger is in the detail’).
The success of such narratives rest on many factors, not least characterising and popularising the costs of voting Labour. To date, the Conservatives have been slow to determine Starmer’s appeal and respond to it. In contrast, Labour has been quick to recognise that Rishi Sunak is an electoral asset and consistent and crude in their critique of him.
There is some method in Labour’s attacks. They know that, as things stand, Sunak outpolls his Party. They know first impressions count. And they know that voters who have yet to form an opinion of him, will do so over the coming weeks. After which point, it will be more challenging for either side to reshape his reputation. The Conservative Party can grow Sunak’s appeal, as part of a political strategy that motivates and connects with the ‘shared values’ of swing voters and party members, whilst rendering personal attacks as counterproductive.
The potential of any leader to transform their party’s prospects is conditioned by several factors. Without levels of voter trust, it is very difficult – no matter how talented or likeable the leader – to achieve electoral success. The 1997 General Election is a good case in point. Even though the economy was enjoying its longest period of low inflationary growth since WWII, the reputation of the Conservative Party was tarnished to the extent it was not in a position to bank any political credit.
Labour hopes for a similar scenario in two years’ time, to inherit a strengthening economy and a landslide election mandate, as the polls currently indicate. However, they need a two-point swing bigger than New Labour’s to secure a working majority. Team Sunak knows that election contests are invariably framed as ‘change versus more of the same’. In Starmer, unlike with Blair, Labour does not have a natural ‘change’ candidate. In fact, he feels to many voters like a very conventional figure, facing very unconventional times.
Team Sunak may be looking at something closer to the 1992 General Election experience. There the long Conservative campaign reversed expectations, tapped into unease about Labour’s credibility to run the economy and secured a fourth successive term. The Party was, of course, led by a personally popular Prime Minister with only 18 months on the job – who had previously enjoyed a brief stint as Chancellor.
Rishi Sunak’s path to a second term rests on a range of factors, many of which are beyond his control. This gives added significance to determining what he can do, such as defining his own agenda and that of his opponents. Such messaging needs to be compelling and delivered consistently and repeatedly. For as Mrs Thatcher used to say, “just when I am sick of saying it, the voters begin to hear it”.