Joe Bishop discusses why it is important that the Labour Party creates a powerful narrative, capturing and shaping the public mood.
For Keir Starmer to become Prime Minister in 2024, something about Labour’s approach needs to be different. Since his election as leader, there has been encouraging and hopeful discussions around Labour’s future policy direction. However, it is important to note that it is not just policy that needs to change. Indeed, in Labour’s last four losing election campaigns, there was no shortage of innovative and exciting policies. Rather, the underlying absence in all of these elections was a convincing story. The stories about Britain told by political parties define election results. Compelling stories subtly change and influence the way voters think about politicians, their policies, and the country as a whole.
Telling a convincing story, creating a powerful narrative, capturing and shaping the public mood – this is what Labour has failed to do in recent elections. Take 2015, where despite the string of prescient policies, Ed Miliband had lost control of the narrative from the start. Cameron and Osborne told a compelling story about how Labour’s supposed financial recklessness led to the 2008 financial crash, and this story became so embedded in public discourse that even Miliband often shied away from challenging it, even though it was fiction; nothing more than a story. Such economic story-telling has defined Conservative electoral narratives since 2010, depicting Labour as untrustworthy with the economy. A brief look at issue-based polls shows that this narrative has convinced a large swathe of the electorate. It’s why criticism of Labour’s ‘Magic Money Tree’ in recent elections is so resonating, even if it is untrue. It’s also what legitimised a decade of austerity and spending cuts.
Under Boris Johnson, the Conservatives appear to have mastered the three-word story. ‘Take Back Control’, ‘Get Brexit Done’ - now it is ‘Whatever It Takes’. All are substantively meaningless, but all are also short, understandable, and agreeable. Labour’s 2019 election rhetoric, by contrast, was muddled and never managed to fully assuage electoral doubts over Corbyn’s personal leadership or mistrust over Brexit. Despite the strong foundation of the ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ narrative in 2017, Labour’s optimistic vision was perceived as fantastical, misjudging the public mood and the terms on which the election was being fought.
For too long now, Labour has struggled to both challenge the story told by the opposition, and to carve out their own compelling narrative. For all the faults of Blair’s New Labour, this era of the party was potentially the last to succeed in convincing the electorate with its story. Such a story was encapsulated in ‘New Labour, New Britain’. Again, despite the lack of a substantive policy foundation, this slogan exemplified the modernising rhetoric of Blair’s Labour, presenting Labour as the party of hope and change.
New Labour succeeded by telling a story about where Britain was, and where it needed to be, that resonated with the electorate, capturing and reshaping the public mood. We live in a very different Britain today, but the challenge remains the same for Starmer. Of course, there must be no reverting back to the ‘Third Way’ policies and rhetoric of New Labour; they were compelling not because of any sort of timeless appeal, but because they understood and captured the public mood of the day and the desire for modernisation and change.
It is important to note that this need for more convincing story-telling and rhetoric does not need to arise at the expense of substantive policy development. Instead, the relationship between the two ought to be complementary. A convincing story allows for the manifestation and legitimation of political ideas and policies amongst the electorate. As discussed earlier, for example, it’s what legitimated a decade of Tory austerity. Ultimately, in our democratic society, gaining public support for these ideas is what empowers politicians and parties to instigate policy change.
So far, there have been promising signs that Starmer’s approach is gaining traction with the public – presenting himself and Labour as a forensic, serious political outfit fit for serious times, in contrast to the showmanship of Boris Johnson. In Labour’s current narrative, Starmer is a politician of public service, whereas Johnson is one of self-service. Perhaps this ‘serious leader for serious times’ sentiment is the start of Labour’s new electoral narrative. Over the next five years, this narrative ought to form the bedrock of a compelling story about where Britain is, and where we want it to be if we are to convince the electorate to give Labour the chance to serve the country in government again.
Joe Bishop is currently an undergraduate studying Politics and International Relations at University. During his holidays he works for a Labour MP.
He tweets at @joe_bish0p