For Labour, “responsible” is the watchword in 2021

By Dan Julian, Senior Account Executive, Cicero/AMO

Since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn in April 2020, Sir Keir Starmer has made ‘competency’ the dividing line between himself and the Prime Minister. If you look at the polling, this tactic seems to be bearing fruit. The Labour Leader is seen favourably by a plurality of voters, with fewer respondents having a negative opinion of him. While his own ratings have dipped since the early months of his Leadership, Starmer still outpolls Boris Johnson on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister – the first time this has happened since Gordon Brown’s honeymoon period in 2007.

But this hasn’t been enough to shift the polls decisively in Labour’s favour, with both parties still neck and neck in most surveys of voting intention. This has required a change of pace from the Leader’s team, who have opened the New Year looking to get on the front foot after months of limiting their criticism of the Government to what they see as ‘constructive opposition’.

If 2020 was about treading water and beginning to restore the Party’s reputation in the eyes of voters, 2021 marks the start of the second phase of Keir Starmer’s leadership – rebuilding Labour’s economic credibility. Speaking at a recent Cicero/AMO webinar on Keir Starmer’s first months as Leader, former Gordon Brown pollster Deborah Mattinson made the point that Labour needs to address this issue quickly if it is wants to win the next election. Otherwise, a fifth defeat beckons. 

For this reason, the theme of responsibility was at the very core of Starmer’s speech last week on protecting families’ incomes once the lockdown ends. By declaring Labour to be the ‘party of families’, Starmer looked to position the party as the only one who can be trusted with the economic recovery. This was even more the case when the Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds delivered the Mais Lecture a couple of days later.

Channelling her inner Gordon Brown, the former academic turned politician spoke of the need for a more resilient economy which, she said, can only be achieved through “responsible economic, fiscal and monetary policy” – a message she reiterated this week when speaking to the London School of Economics she delivered a speech titled ‘Rebuilding the UK economy for a more secure future’.  Where Brown spoke of “prudence”, Dodds now speaks in terms of “responsibility”.

Dodds’ pitch also came with an extra focus on interventionist economic policies, aimed at winning back voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats that have been attracted to the Conservatives by Boris Johnson’s boosterism’ rhetoric. Calling for “muscular industrial and competition policies”, needed to preserve the UK from threats to its economic competitiveness, Dodds will hope Labour’s economic policy she is beginning to sketch will appeal more to those voters Labour has been losing steadily since 2005.

Starmer meanwhile has also tried his hand at foreign policy. Giving a speech to the Fabian Society’s New Year’s Conference last weekend, the Labour Leader outlined his vision for ‘Global Britain’, calling for the UK to not shirk its international responsibilities, especially on foreign aid. Starmer spoke of “a country that keeps our word and defends international law” – a clear rebuke of the Prime Minister’s actions over the Northern Ireland Protocol last year and his plans to cut the international development budget, breaking one of the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges.

As the year unfolds expect more interventions like these recent ones from Labour’s big hitters. With speeches already planned on Government waste and procurement, foreign policy and more, the theme of ‘responsibility’ will continue to be the golden thread linking them all together. If in the late 1990s the buzzword was ‘prudence’, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will look to be ‘responsible’ in 2021 and win back the trust of voters.

Photo: Keir Starmer MP speaks at Labour in the City event hosted at Cicero/AMO in July 2017

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Dan Julian

Senior Account Executive