“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.