‘People want us to say something more ambitious’: Inside a Labour party desperate to win power

‘Keir said he wanted to paint his vision in primary colours, and then getting to policy detail closer to an election. But it doesn’t feel like we are even doing the primary colours’

‘People want us to say something more ambitious’: Inside a Labour party desperate to win power

Kier Starmer has been accused of going missing but he is pinning his hopes of victory on being less hated than the Tories (Photo: Lindsey Parnaby/Getty)

By Chloe Chaplain, Arj Singh, Hugo Gye

Labour is being “outflanked on the left by the Government” due to the leadership’s refusal to dominate the debate on the cost of living crisis, backbenchers have warned.

What has been perceived by some as the party’s failure to step up this week – allowing headlines over skyrocketing energy bills to be dominated by Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey and former PM Gordon Brown – must be changed if Labour is to inspire voters and win the next elections, MPs said.

The Labour leadership, under Sir Keir Starmer, has a forensic focus on deliverable policy. And it is preparing unveil a long-awaited cost of living package which will focus on support for the vulnerable and plans to reduce energy usage.

But, for some Labour activists and politicians, this is wasted if the leadership is not able to grab hold of the political debate when the country is being thrust into crisis.

“There is the thing Keir said ages ago about painting his vision in primary colours, and then getting to the policy detail closer to an election,” a Labour backbencher said.

“But it doesn’t feel like we’re even doing the primary colours. Our only real policy on it has been the VAT cut… well Liz Truss is offering more than that at the moment.

“Technically speaking, we are being outflanked from the left by the Government. Not really an ideal place for the Labour Party to be in.”

They said Labour-supporting constituents were crying out for more leadership from the party on cost of living issues.

“There’s clearly that appetite from people who want us to say something better and more ambitious,” they said.

Another backbencher said: “I think you’ve got a belief within the leadership’s office that you do not say too much, do not promise too much, watch the Tories fall into disarray, profit from that… and think that will be enough when it comes to an election.

“What that misses is that you actually need to give people a reason to leave their homes to go to the polling station and vote for you. That requires some ideas and a vision and a clear message.”

Some in the Labour movement have backed the “Enough is Enough” campaign, which is demanding urgent action to ensure fairer bills and wages. One of these is Labour MP Zarah Sultana.

She told i the Labour leadership is too focused on testing out policy ideas through polling and focus groups which, she said, is holding it back from being reactive.

“We are going through an unprecedented cost of living crisis, people are really scared and the Labour leadership has been completely missing in action. People need the party to be standing up for them and it simply hasn’t been doing that,” she said.

“Put bluntly the leadership just doesn’t have a clear vision or message. Not being Boris Johnson wasn’t enough. Now Boris is going, you can’t keep putting that framing of ‘we’re not Boris or we’re not the Tories’ – the country needs to see a real alternative.

“Every MP is getting emails, talking to constituents that are in really desperate situations. There is a real exasperation.”

Keir Starmer with shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves (Photo: Getty)

Sir Keir’s office is adamant that the decision to delay a full announcement on Labour’s energy policy was deliberate – claiming that allowing the Conservative leadership contenders to take the flack for their own plans would help discredit them in the eyes of voters.

“What’s that old saying about not interrupting your enemies when they are making a mistake?”, a source close to Sir Keir said.

“The longer the Tories, especially Liz Truss, dig their heels in the better that is for us.”

Labour sources also said it was always the party’s plan to wait for the latest energy predictions before announcing policy. It’s all part of the strategy of well-thought through and tested proposals to ensure any future manifesto is watertight. And it’s a deliberate step-change from former leader Jeremy Corbyn’s emphasis on vision and ideology – without the forensic detail.

But is it really working? After 12 years of Conservative power, dominated by crises, scandals and political misjudgement, you would be forgiven for thinking Labour would be skipping ahead in the polls now. Instead, less than two years out to the next election, it would seem the party’s tentative 10-point lead – against an essentially leaderless party – is actually falling.

The party is getting on an election footing by compiling dossiers against Government rivals, curating its image as financial sensible and getting ready to pounce on traditionally Tory policy areas where the Government has been failing, such a crime and immigration.

Sir Keir does not know yet who he will be up against – Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss. But ever since the Owen Paterson affair last year, when Mr Johnson’s premiership began to look pretty precarious, Labour has been burrowing away potentially negative information about his likely replacement.

And in the lead up to the election a team of Labour researchers will be scouring over the record of the newly formed Government in order to prepare attack lines. “That’s definitely what they do so I am sure they have got something up their sleeve,” one Labour source said. “There is a whole group of people who do that.”

If it sounds like Labour is gearing up for a dirty tricks campaign, it’s because the party knows these things end up being a game of who is disliked the least.

Dr Will Jennings, polling expert and professor at Southampton University explained that Sir Keir does not have to be popular, he just has to be the least unpopular – which, according to recent YouGov polling, he is.

“All you need to do is look back at the last election where disliking Jeremy Corbyn was a big factor. Keir Starmer has not got amazing ratings, but it’s all relative,” he said.

“Boris Johnson’s ratings in 2019 were worse in Theresa May in 2017. There is the myth he was deeply popular, but he was just more popular than Corbyn.”

But a Labour backbencher said they did not think these kind of tactics would be enough to cut through the political apathy, and encourage disheartened voters to back Labour.

“I think there is a very safe game being played but I don’t think it’s working,” they said. “People just identify you as boring as bland, don’t know what you stand for. And unless we actually have policies, I think just not being as unpopular, is just not going to cut it.”

One thing everyone does agree on is that this election is going to be dominated by the economy. The party that is perceived to have the best grip on the looming financial crisis will be the party that wins. This is why Labour has been carefully creating its new message around economic growth and stability. And the incoming PM will have little time for anything else.

“You’re going to have an NHS crisis and an economic crisis. Even if well-managed, they are going to take up a huge amount of focus,” Dr Jennings said.

“The scope for promises about tax cuts or other sorts of policies or any other sort of cultural politics are really going to go out the window. This belief that there’s going to be a kind of honeymoon period – I mean, they are in denial…”

By the time we get to the next election, the Tory PM may have run out of political capital responding to the recession alone. Then they would be faced with a tough contest on two fronts – fighting for both traditional Tory seats and newer Red wall areas.

A red wall Tory MP said it would be “difficult” for the Conservatives to win. “Everything depends on the economy,” they said. “If we get that right then we are okay, nothing else is going to matter really.”

A senior Labour MP added: “It’s going to be about living standards, getting people into work and fixing the NHS. It’s like when Bill Clinton took on George Bush after 12 years of the Republicans – ‘it’s the economy stupid but don’t forget health’.”

Healthcare is familiar stomping ground for Labour – but this election could also represent an opportunity for the party to encroach on traditionally Tory policy areas like crime and immigration.

Adam Hawksbee, deputy director and head of levelling up at influential Tory think-tank Onward said the Conservatives could fall flat on issues like crime and immigration – both top of Conservative voters’ priorities in both the Red wall and Southern heartlands.

“But the party doesn’t have a great story to tell on these issues,” he said. “The next PM needs to have a laser-like focus on addressing this, or it will be a vulnerable flank for Labour to exploit.”

“There has been a tendency in the past of immigration being a really tricky topic,” one Labour source said. “But the idea now is that we have a plan, we have a plan that will work.

“There is no slogan that is going to fix this. It’s about being realistic – if you sound tough without having the stuff to back it up, it comes across as hollow.”

In the meantime, can Sir Keir sell a strong enough vision whilst keeping a grip on the restless left-wing of the party?

As a Tory MP put it: “The leadership election is destroying us but I still think it’s amazing that despite us tearing chunks out of each other Labour still seems to be cocking things up for themselves. It is spectacular. Keir Starmer is such a gift, long may he reign.”

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