Britain Wants Radical Change. Will Keir Starmer Deliver It?
As Britain heads towards a new Goverment, we republish Adam Bienkov's essay on whether the Labour party understands the growing public demands for radical change
Britain is broken and we need radical change to fix it.
That’s the settled view of the British public, according to exclusive polling for Byline Times earlier this year.
The survey, conducted by pollsters Omnisis, found that 77% of voters demand either radical, or significant, change to how the UK is run.
After more than a decade of austerity, stagnant wages and crumbling public services voters want to transform the UK and they’re prepared to vote for the party most likely to do that, our poll suggested.
The scale of this demand for change means the next election could be a genuine ‘1945 moment’. It gives an incoming administration an opportunity to radically reshape the nation, just as the Atlee-led Labour Government did when it formed the NHS and the welfare state out of the ruins of the Second World War.
There is little doubt in voters’ minds about why this change is required. After 13 years of Conservative-led Government, our poll suggests that very few voters still believe Rishi Sunak’s party is able, or willing, to offer the change they believe Britain requires.
According to our poll, just 13% of voters surveyed said the Conservatives would be most likely to offer radical change, with only 18% saying the Tories would be most likely to offer them “hope” for the future.
The reasons for this loss of trust in the Government are clear. In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, David Cameron repeatedly insisted Britain was “broken” and that only the Conservative Party could fix it. “Mending Britain’s broken society will be a central aim of the next Conservative government,” Cameron wrote in his foreword to the party’s manifesto.
Similar promises were made by his successor Boris Johnson, whose pledge to “level-up” the country is now largely forgotten. Johnson’s successor Liz Truss’ promise of a radical new economic settlement was also missed, with her Tufton Street-inspired libertarian policies pushing the UK economy into a mini economic crisis last autumn.
When Sunak became Prime Minister, he promised to reverse this decade-long decline in trust. Within weeks, he set out his “five priorities” for Government – which his team confidently believed it would be near impossible for him to miss. However, in reality, only one of his pledges is so far on course to being met, with the Prime Minister increasingly running away from what he promised to the nation
And as each of his pledges fade into the distance, so too does the PM himself, who has become an increasingly absent figure in Westminster. Despite promising a new era of “accountability” and “integrity”, Sunak has repeatedly avoided Prime Minister’s Questions and any other difficult sessions he might face in Parliament. Meanwhile his spokesman has refused to be drawn on the PM’s views on crucial issues of trust such as Boris Johnson lying to Parliament or seven of his MPs’ attempts to publicly undermine the Privileges Committee.
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As a result of this record, voters clearly believe Britain is in a substantially worse state than it was before the Conservatives took over.
According to other recent polling conducted for Byline Times, 55% of voters say the Conservatives have made their lives worse since 2010, compared with just 14% wh believe they have made their lives better.
Sunak’s Government appears to be doing little to disabuse voters of this perception.
Over the past year, rising interest rates, which first began to leap under Truss’ administration, have also added hugely to the cost of living for millions of already stretched voters.
As these difficulties grew, ministers have at every stage appeared determined to quell any real hope of significant change.
This can be seen most clearly in its handling of Britain’s quite literally crumbling public sector, which is now in line for an even larger period of austerity under the Government’s plans, should they win the next general election.
Starmer’s ‘Safety First’ Approach
Though Byline Times’ polling suggests the public does see the Labour Party as being much more likely to offer a real alternative than the Conservatives, voters remain unclear about whether Keir Starmer yet understands the scale of change required.
According to our polling earlier this year, voters are split right down the middle on whether Labour “understands the scale of change required in the UK” with 43% saying they do, compared with 39% saying they don’t.
These nagging doubts about the likelihood of real change under Labour are starting to grow, according to pollster Luke Tryl, who has been running focus groups across the country over recent months.
“Voters have definitely fallen out of love with the Government,” Tryl says. “And there is this general feeling that nothing works in the country. But when you ask people about Labour, they say ‘well, you know, I’m probably going to vote for them because we need a change and this lot have blown it, but I just don’t think they’d do anything differently or I haven’t heard them say they will do anything differently’.”
This perception that Labour is not offering the country real change may not entirely be an accident.
In recent months, Starmer’s team – now dominated by figures from the right of the party – has deliberately pursued a strategy of attempting to reassure voters that the party has moved on from what they portray as the economic irresponsibility of the Jeremy Corbyn years.
This strategy is backed by those such as John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former director of political operations, who believes promises of how Labour will reshape the country can only come after voters feel safe to vote for the party again.
“Politics is like the Maslow hierarchy, in that you first have to fulfil the demands of the public on security, be it economic security, border security or environmental security,”McTernan says. “Then once you’ve done that, you have to demonstrate competence, be it economic competence, or competence in managing the health service and education.
“It is only then when you’ve shown you can provide security and competence, that you get to talk about the kind of world we will build together.”
For Starmer, this ‘safety first’ approach has involved rowing back from many of the pledges he made during his leadership campaign, as well as some of the pledges he has made since.
On everything from tuition fees to the environment and public spending,Starmer has gradually chipped away at the differences that remain between the Opposition and the Government. This has not only caused anger on the left of the party – many of whom feel betrayed by Starmer – but also growing doubts right across the party over whether it will offer real change to an electorate that increasingly demands it.
Tryl says this lack of a radical offer is now being noticed by voters, who ar increasingly wondering exactly what benefit, if any, a vote for Labour would bring.
“It’s clear from our focus groups that no one thinks Keir is like Jeremy Corbyn, so he’s achieved that bit of his mission,” Tryl says. “But people now say, ‘well maybe he’s not like Corbyn, he seems more sensible, but there’s nothing to be excited about either’.”
A relentless focus on reassuring voters can sometimes backfire.
Over the summer, Labour came under attack from the Conservative Party over what it described as its “links” to the environmental campaign group Just Stop Oil. In reality, no such direct links between the two organisations exist, with the only tenuous connection being that both received funding from the green energy mogul Dale Vince.
These attacks, which were amplified by Conservative-supporting newspapers, has led the Labour Leader to become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of environmental activists, saying at one event that “I just wish Just Stop Oil would just stop”.
However, at some point, somebody close to Starmer appeared to get carried away with this strategy.
In one briefing to The Sunday Times, it was suggested that the Labour leader had told his Shadow Cabinet that he was no longer interested in the party’s green agenda or attempts to offer “hopey change”. In comments that quickly went viral, Starmer was also said to have told his top team that he hates “tree huggers”.
This statement was leapt on by the left of the party, as well as its opponents in the Greens and SNP, who painted it as evidence that a vote for Labour was a vote for no real change at all. Even some of Starmer’s most loyal supporters now view it as a significant own goal.
“That story should have been jumped on and killed [by the Labour leadership],” McTernan says. “It was hugely damaging to our potential reach to young voters and to greener voters of all ages. Whoever selfishly briefed that to The Sunday Times, to try to have a kick at [Shadow Climate Change Secretary] Ed Miliband and secure their own position in the Shadow Cabinet, should be taken out and shot at dawn.”
The briefing was apparently based on the fact that some of Starmer’s own senior advisors believe the party’s green agenda is a “distraction” from the party’s core message on the economy. However, Tryl suggests this view is out of touch with how the public now views the issues of the environment and climate change.
“It’s like imagining an electorate from 10 years ago to think that climate is not a top issue for voters”, Tryl says. “That’s just totally wrong. In all our polling, after the cost of living and the NHS, it is always reliably number three or four on the list of people’s priorities.”
Interestingly, Tryl says that despite how green issues are often portrayed as being somehow a middle-class, metropolitan obsession, concern about them is even more firmly felt in exactly the sorts of areas Labour most needs to win back at the next election.
“‘Red Wall’ voters are among the groups most likely to want action on climate change because they have quite high threat perception,” he says. “For the same reason they want to stop violence and crime in their local area, they also want to tackle climate change. This is not a fringe issue.”
Labour was initially slow to deny Starmer’s tree-hugger comments. Asked about them, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves merely reasserted her opposition to groups like Just Stop Oil, saying: “I love a tree, but what I don’t like is needless disruption to people’s lives”.
However, a spokesman for the Labour Leader later told Byline Times that The Sunday Times’ claims were “completely untrue”.
The damage may already have been done – not least because the reported comments chime with ongoing doubts about the party’s now- delayed commitment to spend £28 billion a year on green projects. Pushed on this by the BBC, Reeves would say only that though she was “confident we can” still reach the target, doing so would be “subject to our fiscal rules” which are “non-negotiable”.
For many in the party, this focus on ‘fiscal responsibility’ risks getting its priorities all wrong. As Andrew Fisher, who was Labour’s former director of policy under Corbyn, recently observed, “the Green Prosperity Plan was pitched by Reeves as the tool to revive the economy.
“Now Labour is saying it must be delayed because the economy has to revive first. Labour in effect is saying, ‘I’m sorry we can’t implement the solution because the problem persists’. It is stupidly illogical”.
‘Making Brexit Work’
This conflict between taking the big steps required to revive Britain’s stagnant economy, and not wishing to scare off Conservative voters, has led to Labour taking an even more cautious approach on the question of Brexit.
Though multiple opinion polls show voters are now overwhelmingly clear that Brexit has failed and want to rejoin the EU, Labour has continued to insist there will be no reversal of Britain’s exit. This positioning has been partly helped by the reluctance of most of the party’s political opponents to take a different position.
“I think Keir is understandably operating on the basis that there’s nowhere else for remainers to go,” Britain’s leading pollster John Curtice says. “Also, it is the case that if you look at the 160-odd constituencies that Labour needs to win to get to a majority, they are rather more pro-leave than the rest of the country. So you can certainly see why they have tried to appeal to those kinds of areas.”
But at the same time as Starmer has insisted he wants to “make Brexit work”, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has insisted that forging closer relations with the EU would actually be the top priority for the next Labour government.
This ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ approach to Brexit has led to some confusion about where Labour really stands on Europe. This can be seen in polling commissioned by Byline Times showing that most voters still believe Starmer would in reality take Britain back into the arms of the EU.
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‘Power Without Ambition’
Similarly confused messaging has surrounded the party’s tax and spend policies.
Though Labour has attacked the impact of a decade of austerity on public services, one press briefing this year suggested the party would match the Government’s own spending plans after the election. This is only likely to bemuse voters, says Tryl.
“At the moment, saying you’re mirroring the Tory spending plans is just saying you’re mirroring the plans of the people who’ve got us into a massive mess,” he explains.
However, for supporters of this approach, such as Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, it amounts to not wishing to give “false hope” to the electorate. “That’s why we are being so careful to only make promises we know we can keep,” he wrote in the Guardian.
“The only thing worse than no hope is false hope.”
Streeting is right to believe that voters are cynical about big promises from politicians, given how many have been broken over the past 13 years. But though they may well be wary of being offered more“false hope”, it is clear they also require a real sense that the country is likely to improve. As Tryl puts it: “I think a big part of the despair and gloom that the public are in at the moment is because people were promised a new settlement post-Brexit with ‘levelling-up’ and it hasn’t been delivered. So voters are more cynical than they were before. However, there does need to be some level of ambition.”
Starmer supporters insist this ambition does still remain. However, the Labour Leader’s supporters say he is wary of spelling out their big plans for the country when there is still some distance to go until voters go to the polls.
“We have to remember that we’re [still some time] from the election,”
McTernan said. “So if we announce a good idea… it will be nicked by the Government, and if we announce a bad idea at this stage then it will be attacked by the Government. So either way, it’s too early.”
The other risk for Labour is that public demands can often be contradictory.
“The thing about the voters, which is why I love them, is that they often want more than one thing at once”, McTernan points out. “So they say they want more trains but they also want lower fares, but they don’t want to pay more taxe to subsidise people having either lower fares or more trains. So the point of being in politics is that your job is to balance these competing demands, and that’s not always easy.”
However, the risk for Labour is in trying to please those voters who still have doubts about the party and trying to inspire hope in those already longing for change, it ends up pleasing neither group – and those voters seeking radical change may end up looking for it elsewhere.
“The threat for Labour is that many of the voters they lost in 2017 and 2019, who are not yet feeling like they want to come home to Labour, will either become disillusioned with politics in general or go to another party like Reform UK,” Tryl says.
“I think Labour are really underestimating that risk.”
Right now, its strategy appears to be working, however. The Conservative party has been behind in the polls for over two years, with even the slight recovery made by Sunak since Truss’ resignation now mostly lost. As a result, growing numbers of Tory MPs are abandoning Parliament, with some triggering by-elections rather than waiting around for what looks like. an inevitable defeat at the next election.
However, with a Labour government now looking all but assured, the focus is increasingly shifting towards exactly what Starmer plans to do with it. The answ
er to that question, as it stands, remains unclear – leading some to suspect Starmer doesn’t really plan to implement any real radical change to the UK at all.
Doing so would be a mistake, however. Asked by Omnisis whether the UK needs radical or significant change, or just better management of the status quo, only 11% of voters chose the latter option. If that is all a Starmer-led Labour government ends up offering the country, it will leave many voters deeply disappointed.
“The point of the Labour Party is not just to get into government, but to do something useful and lasting while it’s there,” Fisher says. “Otherwise what is the point? Of course, it’s true to say ambition without power is futile, but the reverse is equally true: power without ambition is useless too.”
Starmer’s supporters say such assessments are premature. With more than a year to go until the next election, they insist there is still plenty of time for the Labour Leader to spell out exactly how he plans to fix ‘Broken Britain’.
But with that time gradually running out, the choices Starmer makes right now will decide whether British politics will embrace its new ‘1945 moment’ – or whether we are heading for yet another wasted opportunity to genuinely transform the UK.
This is an edited version of Adam Bienkov’s column from the August edition of Byline Times.
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