The same, only different – from Tony Blair to Keir Starmer

“The same, only different.” This is the advertising slogans I remember most clearly from the later 20th century (the 1970s most likely). I can’t remember what it was for, and a Google search doesn’t help. It was not one of the era’s more successful slogans, evidently. The advertiser was trying to say that its product had been improved, but without saying that it had been rubbish beforehand, or to put off loyal customers. I have often used it in connection with the Labour Party led by Tony Blair in the mid 1990s. As Sir Keir Starmer attempts a relaunch with a big speech today, it seems appropriate again, as indeed I was saying last week.

The same as what? In my original analysis of Mr Blair, I meant that the Conservatives. The party was making a pitch to “Middle England” voters who had been voting Conservative, and needed to reassure them that his party stood for a was a triumph of style over substance. Labour’s policies, notably on taxation and spending, were almost the same as the Tories. The key differences could be confined to four points that could be put on a small pledge card, alongside a fifth that said there would be no increase to income tax. Tories worried about putting “clear blue water” between them and Labour, but when they tried, Labour either immediately adopted the policy themselves, or let the Conservatives dig deeper into a hole with an unpopular policy. It was an extraordinarily disciplined effort, resulting in the most spectacular election victory of modern times, but which left the party with a weak mandate to actually do anything radical.

On reflection the slogan also applies to Mr Blair’s message to party activists. His policy stance displayed a marked turn to the right, in favour of the neoliberal orthodoxy. But Mr Blair maintained that the party retained its ultimate objective of getting a better deal for the working classes; it was just the tactics that were changing. He wrote the slogan “For the many, not the few” into the party constitution.

Mr Blair’s highly managed approach to politics invited distrust, but in both these messages he was as good as his word. In his first term he implemented austerity policies just as severe as the Conservatives were proposing, and was careful about raising taxes. In 2001, when the public had got used to Labour being in charge, he won another big election victory, but took a distinctly more socialist approach. Over the next two terms, Labour ramped up public spending and invested in public services. Anybody who did not think this approach was of the left only has to compare it with what followed. The problem was that he, and Gordon Brown his Chancellor and successor, and just as much an architect of this strategy, chose to avoid raising taxes on income and spending, and instead focused on the bubbly capital markets. When the crash came a massive hole was left in public finances. Mr Brown’s progressive cuts of the basic rate of income tax to 20% were a massive misjudgement.

What of Sir Keir? It seems to that he is trying a similar trick. His speech today was long on vague talk of transformation and a “fork in the road”, but his policies sound distinctly close Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, which are a distinct turn to the left for that party. He made working with business a central theme, and stressed sensible management of the nation’s finances. But the comparison with Messrs Blair and Brown does him no favours. These two offered the public clear messages of what they were about, especially Mr Blair. Even before he was leader, he offered us “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. As the election approached it was “Education, education, education”. On the radio this morning the Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds was offered the chance sum sum up what Labour now stood for in a sentence. She waffled; I really can’t remember what she said.

But it is early days and this is not the mid 1990s. The Tories then were led by the uncharismatic John Major. Often the public go for opposites – so the best way to oppose the charismatic Mr Johnson might be something much more competent and mundane. It worked for John Major in 1992 after all, contrasting with his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, as well as the Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Still, clarity of message can’t hurt. The real test of that is that it must upset people, especially on the left. Only then will the public understand that Labour has moved on from the crazy years of Jeremy Corbyn, and that the party will deliver what Mr Johnson say he wants to do, but is too chaotic to succeed. The same, only different.

Sir Keir Starmer must take tough decisions on personnel and policy

Recently I wrote that Boris Johnson is in a strong position politically, notwithstanding all his ms-steps on Covid-19. This was based on British success on the vaccine, and that, for most people, Brexit is not proving to be a disaster. This now seems to be accepted political wisdom. I didn’t talk about another reason he is in a strong position: the disarray of the opposition parties in his English heartlands.

This weekend’s papers are full of despair over Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer; his honeymoon is well and truly over. It is even worse for the Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, who never had a honeymoon. Journalists want to see opposition led by charismatic leaders, and neither fit the bill. But I have a huge respect for both men: the main problem with each of them is the weakness their parties.

Ever since the 2010 General Election, Labour have been chasing a chimera: the “progressive majority”. This is the idea that most voters do not want to see a Conservative government. At first the idea was used to push cooperation between Labour and the Lib Dems. But under Ed Miliband, who took over in 2010, the idea was that Labour should harness this majority on its own, by crushing the Lib Dems and Greens; there was no need to chase marginal Conservative voters and so compromise “progressive” values. This strategy was carried forward by his successor, Jeremy Corbyn. They both managed to crush the Lib Dems and Greens, but this turned out to help the Conservatives more than their own party.

Sir Keir now accepts that he has to hone his party’s appeal to conservative voters. But after a decade of the party polishing its “progressive” credentials, it is far from clear that he is taking his party with him, or that he knows how to build the trust of these voters. His early strategy was to show that he is more competent and a stronger leader than the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He may have succeeded, but it clearly isn’t enough. The commonplace complaints are that he lacks vision, and that his team is weak. Of these criticisms, the second is probably the most important for now. None of his front-bench colleagues has made much impression, either because they aren’t really up to it, or because Sir Keir isn’t giving them enough scope. The Conservatives have their weakest front bench for some time, but even they are doing better than Labour. They have Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and even the Health Secretary Matt Hancock is showing some grit. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, seems to be completely useless to professional types like me, but it would be dangerous to underestimate her appeal to conservative voters.

Sir Keir needs to take some decisive action on his team. But he also needs to set out some kind of a story on policy. Many are urging him to adopt reform to the British constitution (with an eye on the Scots), but this looks like a dead letter to me. The English grumble about this, but have no real appetite for change. Whatever he does has to be both conservative and painful. The pain – by which I mean upsetting a lot of his activists – is necessary, otherwise the public will not believe that anything has changed. The model for this is the way Tony Blair engineered a fight over Clause 4 to the Labour constitution in the 1990s. Accepting Brexit is not enough. A tough stand on immigration and jobs for working class Britons looks like one promising angle. He will probably have to shadow Tory policy on tax and spend too even if they privately think it’s nonsense. Complaints about “austerity” will have to be struct from the Labour lexicon.

What of the Lib Dems? Going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 exposed fatal weakness in the party’s core support, and both the other parties took advantage (roughly speaking, Labour took the votes and the Tories took the parliamentary seats). They then went all out to stop Brexit, which brought about a revival, but failure leaves them bereft. Many of their former supporters see no compelling reason to support the party rather than Sir Keir’s Labour. Alas the party will have to learn patience. They will only advance on the national scene if the other parties give them the space. If Labour follows my advice and takes a sharp turn to the right, something like the gap that the Lib Dems exploited in the 2000s will open up. Until they do, the party has to concentrate on local government to secure its political base.

There is an obvious further point to make. If both parties are weak, then it makes sense for them to work together. A formal pact is almost certainly a bad idea, but some kind of informal carve-up of seats (as per the 1997 general election) may have something going for it. If Labour adopt a more conservative policy stance, and the Lib Dems present themselves as a more progressive junior partner, they may just be able to get the best of both worlds. The Greens might be brought in to try and scoop up hard left votes.

But if Sir Keir continues to dodge tough questions on personnel and policy, he will do enough to keep the Lib Dems and Greens on the floor, but will be quite unable to challenge the Conservatives for power. Mr Johnson has some big difficulties ahead, not least Scotland and Northern Ireland, but England looks his for now.