The Opposition Trap
The next Labour leader will start with the opposite of a blank sheet: an overstuffed, losing manifesto
After a crushing general election defeat, the Labour Party faces a difficult path back to power under its new leader. In this special section, six writers examine the career and character of Sir Keir Starmer, outline the massive challenges he faces in making his party electable again, and advise him how to set about his formidable task
New leaders of the opposition have one thing in common: at the moment they get the job, all of them are proven winners. An air of smugness can be hard to disguise — at least among their victorious campaign teams and supporters, even if the candidates themselves are more magnanimous. And yet most of them turn out to be losers.
The job of any leader of the opposition is to become prime minister. But since Margaret Thatcher came to power, just two of the ten men (they have all been men) chosen to lead Labour or the Conservatives in opposition have made it to No 10. Two — Neil Kinnock and Jeremy Corbyn — lost two general elections before resigning. Two — John Smith and Iain Duncan Smith — never fought an election at all, although one of them had a better excuse than the other.
That poor conversion rate tells us something: leading the opposition is hard. In many ways, it is harder than being prime minister. Prime ministers can do things; leaders of the opposition can only say things. Prime ministers are always in the news, because so much of the news is about them and their decisions; leaders of the opposition have to fight for coverage. Crises test prime ministers, for better or worse, but they merely demonstrate a leader of the opposition’s irrelevance.
Meanwhile, an opposition leader must perform well in parliament and the media, manage a team, keep the support of the parliamentary party, build a policy programme that keeps members happy and voters interested, hold the government to account and do well enough in the polls and look like a plausible enough alternative prime minister to be allowed to stay in the job. Few opposition leaders have done all of these well; Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity among members meant that he didn’t have to do some of them at all.
New leaders are usually only there because their party has just lost. Labour’s next leader has a worse inheritance than most. Labour needs to gain 124 seats next time just to achieve an overall majority of one: all things being equal, you’d bet against it.
Because Labour loses elections so often, much of its internal culture revolves around debating which of its defeats were the worst and whose fault they were. Arguments that pretend to be about the future are mostly really about history, furiously litigated and relitigated by people for whom the ability to say “I told you so” is at least as important as getting into government, and for whom the biggest consolation of losing is the right to complain about the failings of the winners. No faction within the party is innocent of this, although everyone agrees that some factions are more innocent than others, while disagreeing about which ones. Most losing parties are under pressure to rip things up and start again. Ed Miliband won as the “change” candidate in 2010, but was criticised for not changing enough, and was succeeded by another “change” candidate who promised to change rather more, and did. In the 2020 leadership contest, by contrast, continuity has looked like the smartest play.
Miliband announced, shortly after becoming Labour leader, that he was starting with “a blank sheet of paper” when it came to policy — an unforced error which the Conservatives mocked for years. The next Labour leader will start with the opposite of a blank sheet of paper: an overstuffed, unsuccessful manifesto that, with the best will in the world, would need at least two terms of a majority Labour government to enact. And yet all the leadership candidates have committed to keeping most of it in place — although the more adept ones have managed to do so in as non-specific a way as possible.
This is because Labour’s members don’t just like Jeremy Corbyn’s policy programme: they believe it is uniquely popular too. Corbyn loyalists sometimes behave as if having popular policies is an innovation, rather than something broadly achieved at every election, win or lose, by almost every political party in history, with the exception of Theresa May’s Conservatives. Boris Johnson’s manifesto can be criticised for many things but not, surely, for being unpopular.
The next Labour leader would benefit from changing some policies, simply as a way of getting noticed. This need not mean moving to the right, or the left, or the centre: it merely means moving. Opposition leaders have few opportunities to make headlines, and keeping a policy is less newsworthy than symbolically dropping an old one or announcing a new one. Demonstrating that a rejected party has changed is an important signal to voters, but it creates a party management problem for a leader under internal pressure to show that things are staying the same.
The purpose of policy is not just to give a government things to do, but to underpin a story about what the challenges facing the country are — which ought not to be the same in 2024 as they were in 2019, let alone in 1997. Policy is diagnosis disguised as cure. Anything that doesn’t help to tell your story, however worthy, is a distraction (if you win, of course, you can still enact policies that are not part of your core narrative, but one of Labour’s recurring errors has been to get ahead of itself, acting as if making policy in opposition is the same as being a government that can pass laws).
For any political leader, defining the question of what the next election is about in a way that makes your policies the best answer puts you more than halfway to winning. It is a long time since Labour has succeeded in doing that.
Although a labour leader who can do this is likely to be able to put the prime minister under pressure, having the government use opposition rhetoric or adopt opposition policies is not winning. One of the consequences of having your clothes stolen is that you haven’t got any clothes. The test is not, as the jargon goes, to shift the Overton Window, so that things which would conventionally have been thought impossible become possible; it is to get into government.
After all, Jeremy Corbyn shifted the Overton Window: his approach to leadership can legitimately claim responsibility for the Tories abandoning their rhetoric of austerity and talking up public spending, for an incumbent government winning a landslide majority after nearly a decade in power, and for losing Bolsover. None of these helped. It is not enough to move the debate: you have to move the debate into territory where you can win.
Too many opposition leaders end up cast retrospectively as John the Baptist figures, preparing the way of a future prime minister. Witness Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters consoling themselves with the thought that they did at least move the Labour Party irrevocably in a more left-wing direction. While this may be true, it is too early to be confident that it is electorally helpful. Corbyn’s legacy may yet prove to be another constraint binding his successors as leader of the opposition, and keeping them there.
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