May is a good month for political anniversaries. This week, in 1979 and 1997, saw the first election victories of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But while Thatcher is idolised and evoked by Tories, much of Labour still disdains its only successful leader born in the last 100 years. No matter that for three elections Blair made Labour the natural party of government, his crime was building success on the values of voters rather than the concerns of activists.
Yet from the outset, this was Blair’s secret sauce. Standing in the hall in Blackpool as he delivered his first conference speech as Labour leader, you could feel British politics shifting. His version of national renewal wasn’t a think-tank pamphlet but improving everyday lives. To parents of children in failing schools, to victims of crime scared to leave their home or middle-income families hit by tax rises, his message was clear: “The Tories have failed you, but Labour is on your side.” Segment by segment, he rammed the point home. “Labour is on your side . . . your ambitions are our ambitions . . . your concerns are our concerns . . . your aspirations are our aspirations”.
The party’s current leader, Keir Starmer, has broken with the disavowal of Blair, and been endorsed by him. Starmer has surrounded himself with aides from Blair’s New Labour rebrand and purged the Corbynites who so alienated voters. But even against a tired, divided government with an unpopular leader who has raised taxes amid a cost of living crisis, doubts remain over whether he can, like Blair, topple the Tories.
While Starmer enjoys poll leads and can expect some success in this week’s local elections, there is little of the enthusiasm the electorate had for Blair. Starmer’s electoral challenge is greater but, as important, voters evince no clear sense of him. His sometimes contorted positions, siding initially with teachers over parents during lockdown or stumbling over trans rights, suggest calculation rather than belief. Blair knew where he stood and, for example, was visibly on the side of parents and patients over public service unions.
Tories are planning scare campaigns, depicting Starmer as weak and likely to be held hostage by leftwingers or the Scottish Nationalists. Similar tactics failed on Blair because voters believed he was the man he seemed. This is the first lesson Starmer must learn from New Labour. If he fails to define himself, his opponents will do it for him.
He must also tell the right story. The other key lessons from Blairism are reassurance, reclaiming the centre ground and appropriating and reframing your opponent’s successes.
Reassurance is the foundation. After a seismic shift like Brexit, voters want consolidation, not more upheaval. Blair and his team spent most of their time emphasising what they would not be doing. They would not raise income tax; they would not be soft on law and order or join the euro. Looking now at Blair’s famous five election pledges, it is striking how incremental they were; emblematic policies to signal priorities.
Reassurance also means not ducking difficult issues. From Brexit to immigration, the lesson is to address them head-on and show leadership by demonstrating why borders will be more effectively policed or the Brexit settlement improved under him. This helps create the trust that permits more progressive positions. He might face charges of insufficient radicalism but there is no win in insisting that the voters you need are less conservative than they are.
Next, Labour must decide what to accept of the Tory agenda. Brexit will not soon be reversed. Promises of levelling up, more police, control of immigration, performative patriotism and more money for public services mark the current centre ground of politics. Boris Johnson’s platform is not where it is by accident. The Conservatives’ biggest weakness is not their agenda but the charge that they are failing to deliver and that people feel poorer.
One way is to reframe the debate around security. This is not merely security from crime, but also economic security, job security or the confidence that the NHS or social care will be there for those in need of it. For many people, especially older voters who tilted heavily to the Tories in past elections, Brexit was a reaction to the loss of old certainties. But the insecurity remains — especially as inflation bites.
Underpinning it all must be a credible economic strategy with a vision for growth and to address future challenges. The cost of living crisis is a strong attack line for now, but Labour wins when people want better public services and they must be funded. Taxes are already high and Johnson will cut them before the election. So Starmer must use tax to indicate his dividing lines and whose side he is on.
Starmer is, at least, ruthless. A close ally observes “I’ve known him for years and I’m still surprised by just how much he is all about winning.” Yet internal ruthlessness does not win elections if voters see it is based on electoral calculation alone.
This government is beatable. But the biggest lesson from Blair is that voters want a leader whose core instincts they trust. Blair’s policies were built on that foundation but Starmer still seems evasive on issues that animate his members. While his tactics may be right, his efforts will count for little until voters are convinced that their ambitions are his ambitions; their concerns his concerns, their aspirations his aspirations.