The Tories have missed Starmer's Achilles heel

21 September 2020

8:54 PM

21 September 2020

8:54 PM

The main Tory attack on Starmer since he became leader of the Labour party is that he is ‘too much of a lawyer’; dull and metropolitan. The problem with this line is that it complements the narrative Starmer is trying to build himself, namely that he is competent while Boris is not. As such, it is worse than ineffective as a strategy — it is actually counterproductive. What is strangest about the continued use of the lawyer strategy is that there is an alternative attack on Starmer staring the Tories in the face, one they have not yet touched.

When Sir Keir ran to be Jeremy Corbyn’s successor, he rolled out ten pledges that at the time he said would define his leadership of the Labour party. For centrist dads like me, those who think that perhaps Starmer represents the great hope for centrism, the ten pledges make for uncomfortable reading. For they are not Corbyn-lite in content — they are full-fat Corbynism through and through. Nationalising rail, mail, energy and water; income tax increases for a lot of earners; putting some version of Corbyn’s Prevention of Military Intervention Act into law; taken to its full potential, the ten pledges are a recipe for a socialist nightmare.

It is also the only even remotely fleshed out policy agenda the Labour party actually has at the moment. If the Tories stopped with their self-harming ‘Keir Starmer is nothing but a very competent lawyer’ routine and instead turned fire on the ten pledges, essentially painting Keir as nothing but the continuation of Corbynism with better sartorial sense, I think they could be onto a winner. Not just because it would mean the Tories trying to halt the effectiveness of Starmer’s ‘under new management’ framing — instead reminding people of what they didn’t like about Labour under Corbyn — but because attacking the ten pledges would cause the Labour leader multiple other problems.

As Labour’s online conference begins, so too do questions from the Labour left about whether or not Starmer intends to stick to his ten pledges. Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union — a union which disaffiliated from Labour under Blair and returned when Corbyn became leader — put it succinctly over the weekend when he said that the online conference would be ‘a chance for Keir and the shadow cabinet to prove to members that there will be no retreat on the policy pledges he was elected on’. This led to Starmer being asked in interviews about the ten pledges and whether he still meant to abide by them — leading to the Labour leader having to obfuscate, clearly not wanting to have to answer that question just yet.

Starmer is in such a strong position, he could weather discomfort from the left of his party reasonably easily. The bigger problem a sustained Tory attack on the ten pledges would present is it would force Starmer to define his policy agenda way before that is desirable. And the reason the Labour leader wants to delay having to have a solid set of policies that will truly define his leadership is obvious when you think about it. If he sticks with the Corbynist agenda, he alienates a huge chunk of voters he needs to reach by the time of the next general election. If he announces a more centrist agenda, he risks alienating the membership, which is the only group of people that can truly threaten his leadership before the next election plays out. For Starmer’s purposes, waiting as long as possible to announce what a Labour government under his leadership would do policy-wise is the best strategy; the ten pledges being repeatedly brought up undermines that in a way nothing else would.

It might be too late to switch to this strategy under Boris Johnson’s leadership. Telling people Labour wants to create socialism in one country when you’re sort of doing the same thing in a slightly different way weakens that attack. Yet with a more traditional Tory leader, one who took it as their mission to rebuild a Covid ravaged country under the flag of free-market principles, they could use the ten pledges as a battering ram against Starmer.

A Conservative party that could sell small state government as a good idea again might be able to sufficiently scare enough people about Starmer being some sort of Chavez by stealth. Whoever is Tory leader this time next year, the Tories need a new strategy for dealing with the rise of Starmer. One way or another, using the Labour leader’s ten pledges against him has to form some part of that if the Conservatives wish to avoid watching Labour open up a large lead in the polls.

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