TLDR: Some thinking split into two sections. Firstly, how everyone says Labour needs to be more hopeful but virtually nobody is offering up anything apart from endless commentary. To show it recognises the shift in expectation in the country, I argue Labour should at least use its upcoming conference to unveil a new message - one firmly rooted in the party’s history, traditions and vision - to help it communicate to the country. Keir Starmer should pitch Labour as the only party that can 'Get Britain Working'. Confident, reaffirming and forward-thinking it can tell a story about how the party has the ambition, attitude, approach and some of the answers that can turn the country around. Secondly, a very crude example of how this narrative could play out as part of Starmer's speech and frame some of the big decisions and choices facing the party.
The story goes like this - Labour will probably win but not much will change
Every single piece of commentary on Keir Starmer’s Labour Party at the moment is the same. It starts by saying how over the past year, poll by poll, week after week, it just seems to be getting worse and worse for the government. The feeling that the Tories are now in terminal decline has become inescapable. Whether immigration, Brexit, health, crime or housing, the party seems to be out of ideas and out of time - stubbornly stuck polling way below 30%. Every one of its key pledges is still essentially heading in the wrong direction, and any suggestion of a resurgence ahead of the next general election now comes couched by commentators first with a pause, a deep breath, and then “well I guess, hypothetically speaking”. Despite Rishi Sunak’s best efforts, it even, as Sam Freedman said a few weeks ago on The Power Test podcast, seems as if the government itself has now given up and is just wasting time laying traps for its successor in the campaign to come.
Then it moves on to describing how whilst the public does seem to think a Labour government is now at least possible, as well as very likely, under the surface people aren’t necessarily all that enthusiastic about it. A few weeks ago Rachel Sylvester in The Times highlighted a poll that said whilst 79% of people think it’s time for change, just 37% say it’s time for a change to Labour - about the same figure the Tories faced at a similar point leading up to the 2010 election. Keiran Pedley in the Evening Standard picked up that nobody really feels they know what Labour stands for. Labour needs to find something more - for example Alastair Campbell, also writing in the Standard, said Labour can “win big”, but only if it can generate a sense of hope and optimism”. Ayesha Hazarika also told listeners of The Power Test that "Labour has got to find some feel good star dust” to make people feel excited and Robert Shrimsley in the FT rounded out by saying the same - arguing that the party needs to make sure the next election isn’t a “hopeless” one if it’s got any chance of winning convincingly and getting anything done. Some also give Keir Starmer some praise for Labour being back in a position to win, as former speechwriter Phil Collins, writing in The Times also suggested that the lack of intellectual heft or any solutions in dealing with this set of circumstances is more of a symptom of the wider centre-left than it is of Starmer.
That rationale continues, as the script says, of course, that it is no secret that any Labour government would face circumstances far from 1997 and after 13 long years in the wilderness - with the scars of the past few years lingering heavy - it is at least understandable why the charge that Labour isn’t being ‘bold’ or ’radical enough’ has so far gone unheeded by a party leadership with a three line whip on no complacency. Faced with a multitude of cross-cutting challenges, Keir Starmer has often found himself doing verbal summersaults and contortions just trying to answer any question about how Labour can “make Britain better”. In search of a goldilocks politics of not being too hot, nor too cold, his default position has been to try and be ‘just right’ - not really saying anything at all, at least, if he can help it. “Five missions” set out a rough roadmap for change in the form of some vague promises - but have only added fuel to the charge that Labour doesn’t really have much fire. A flutter of other small announcements have at best landed cold on fertile ground, and at worst created unnecessary scraps in a party still itching for a fight. Nothing has really set the world alight, with Keir Starmer still stuck walking a tricky tightrope trying to help a party that wasn’t even sure it believed in winning just a few years ago face up to the true scale of its potential inheritance. He does so too, it’s worth pointing out, whilst still finding his feet as a politician - let alone a Prime Minister in waiting or the leader of some kind of popular movement for change.
Finally, every article then makes the point, that with such a commanding and consistent lead in the polls, when the Tories are at such a low point, and the whole of the country feels like it has ground to a halt, Starmer and his party need to contend with a new reality. The tide has turned, the mood has changed, with eyes and expectations now firmly on Labour. The once uneasy sense of possibility about the party scraping over the line and grasping the keys to Number 10 has now given way to one of almost undeniable inevitability. Gone are the days when the shadow cabinet could just hide behind the usual soundbites about how “it’s really the government that should be answering the questions” and that the party will reveal its offer “when the time is right”. People - rightly - now want to see, hear and taste what Labour actually plans to do with power - not just that it finally, desperately, wants it. Waiting around any longer risks giving credence to a dangerous idea that the party doesn’t really have a plan or much to say - dampening enthusiasm, creating unnecessary risk and, most importantly, ignoring the fact that there is much to fight for.
And that’s where it ends.
Everyone has the same prognosis, but none a prescription.
So what can actually be done to move things forward?
John McTernan, the former Blair and Gillard adviser, writing in the Guardian last week, at least went further. Labour’s “excessive caution”, he argued, is bleeding the party of any confidence, ensuring whatever it does say, doesn’t actually say very much. Instead, the party must grasp the opportunity to “define what it stands for”, “hammer the Tories” and “own the future”, leaning in to the idea of making the next general election a “referendum on Net Zero”. It’s certainly the most compelling of everything I’ve read so far and Net Zero may indeed be a convincing and attractive issue for Keir Starmer and Labour at the next election, but it articulates best how the party can go about changing the country for the better, rather than offering an emotionally gripping answer to the bigger case of why. The party doesn’t need to take the risk of banking everything on one big policy - it just desperately needs to find something resembling a political argument that people understand, defines the choice in an election campaign and packs a punch or two against a Tory Party likely going for broke. As the always insightful Tom Hamilton said back in October - just having radical policies isn’t enough, they “must dramatise a political message, and be deployed in a way, and at a time, that ensures they will be heard”.
Having spent a few years hobbling around trying to find the right words to describe why it exists, to date the centre-left, if it has found an answer at all, only seems to have landed on reheated Milibandism. ‘Building a better Britain’, Labour’s current offer, is fine but heading into a general election, the party needs to find a much more convincing and authentic narrative. One that balances, as all the commentary rightly points out, the reality of the Britain the party stands to inherit, with a much needed and demanded sense of hope. Something that can help Starmer not only win, but govern. 'A better Britain' is a noble cause, but things will be tough for Starmer. A new Jerusalem is not going to be built in a day.
Far from the idea that things can only get better, the party instead needs a way to be able to articulate the difficult choices and priorities to come. History suggests that to be impactful, and successful, such an argument would be set in its traditions and history - whilst showing that it fundamentally understands, and is relevant to, the views of the British people. A new, new Labour, it would also seek to create a much clearer political contrast with the Conservatives that also tells the story of Keir Starmer, his record and his vision. It would bring to life, or at least some definition and much needed support, to the party’s policy offering and help resolve the fact that Starmer remains a man without an ideology, a faction or a loyal following, packaging up his words to help people understand a little more what the next few years and a Labour government will be about. Most of all, it would give a frame for the first term - nobody expects things to be rosy, but they do need to feel things are heading in the right direction.
In fear of ending this note here, and joining the commentary of just offering more words without any ideas, I believe Labour should pitch itself as the party that can 'Get Britain Working'.
A new mantra for both the moment and a movement
Active, purposeful and easily recognisable, it is a frame that lays an argument about the journey ahead, speaking much more to Labour’s challenge today than simply saying the party can ‘fix’ the country. It can help Starmer communicate simply that his party will do whatever is required to get Britain back on track, and most of all make that argument with an inbuilt sense of both security and ambition - particularly, as Collins remarks in his article, giving space to bolder policy of taxing idle wealth at the same rate as hard work. It can help tell a story in itself (for example, the classic ‘Keir Starmer mentions the word ‘work’ 55,000 times in his speech’), as it is both defensive and proactive, helping Labour tackle perceptions and stake a claim.
It is no secret the Tories have wanted to steal the idea of work from Labour for years - and have also tried to paint Labour as the party of ‘shirkers’ in an attempt to position themselves as the true party for working people. But with the cost of living spiralling, mortgages going through the roof and the NHS on its knees, the idea the Tories are the people’s party is for the birds. So too, with the country crashing down around them, is the idea that the Conservatives are the ones who know how to get the country back up on its feet.
'Get Britain Working' can also help Labour accentuate its greatest strengths, and play into Starmer's (and Rayner’s) authentic ability to talk about work and the working class - something that Freedman also sees as an electoral winner. It’s a neat wrapper to put around the party’s eventual policy offer and its missions - and could even help Starmer deal with those tricky so-called 'culture war' questions; putting himself on the side of the people who want to work through challenges, difficult discussions, proper thought through proposals and get change that everyone can get behind, rather than the petty posturing and politics that is likely to come from a Sinking Sunak.
It opens space for Labour to align itself with non-partisan thinkers and ideas about 'what works' and brings a kind of roll-your-sleeves up energy that speaks to Labour’s history and belief in collective action in a real contrast to both the government and Rishi Sunak, who most people don’t really believe has done a hard days work in his life. It leaves it open for Labour to be able to work with others and, is even an oven ready three word slogan - with an added touch of nostalgic sentimentality - something Benedict Pringle says, is key to political messaging these days, it is as a mantra for both the moment and a movement.
Most of all, it is the siren call of the British people:
“For the love of god, will somebody just Get Britain Working.”
With Labour conference now just a few weeks away, and those growing doubts about Labour’s ability to excite, Starmer has to turn up with more than just another go at the whole “my dad was a toolmaker” and “we can build a better Britain” schtick. It’s time to really go for it. People may want easy answers, but hope for the future will only come through hard work.
Keir Starmer has shown he is a man that personifies this challenge, who doesn’t shy away from taking tough decisions and isn’t prepared to lose. But he needs, and deserves, a better way of articulating his true voice with a message that can calmly, but confidently, help him make his claim to become the country’s next Prime Minister.
'Get Britain Working' could be the beginning of a lot more to come, as something that supports Starmer personally, that tells his story, shares a vision for what the Labour Party is about and helps people understand and be energised for what the next Labour government can actually do, rather than what it can’t. It may not be the lofty political rhetoric of the left - and some undiluted argument about socialism - but that’s exactly the point. Labour needs to speak the language of the country, and use it to help define the choice at the next election, as well as the decisions it will have to take in power. Hope through hard work is a message that took Justin Trudeau, with a similar centre-ground pitch, to two electoral victories in Canada. It can do the same in the UK for Keir Starmer.
I’m not suggesting a new slogan will fix the many real challenges that commentators are rightly pointing out faces Labour in the next few months and years. Particularly to the question of how it governs without any money. But framing this, and its potential response, is an essential step in communicating better with the country that it seeks to govern. At the very least, it would show that the party recognises the shift in expectation for it to show a little bit more initiative and to at least feel like it can be more confident in taking its pitch to the people. To date, nearly everything the party has said has been generic, or bland. A change of tone can help it take things up a gear, explain its intentions and frame a political battle for change.
It can't hurt, at least.
A new narrative in action - the words of a speech
So just imagine it for a second. Keir Starmer is stood outside the Liverpool docks.
Labour and British flags are waving in the wind.
He grips the podium, surrounded by his Shadow Cabinet.
The backdrop, and placards held by the crowds, are emblazoned with three words:
Get Britain Working.
“From the trains and Brexit, to Westminster and the government; the mood of the country that we all see - that I feel and hear every day from every body - is that nothing works.
And whilst it’s definitely got a lot worse recently, I’m also clear this is a message we’ve been hearing time and time again, for a very long long time.
Even if things are working in Britain, it certainly doesn’t feel like they are working for you.
Politics, the economy, our immigration system, housing and energy bills.
It feels like Britain is broke.
Britain - oh how things used to be.
Some turn away in desperation -
Whether that’s a call to literally break up our country by voting for independence, to upend the foundations of the country in a siren and lost call for socialism or authoritarianism, or, even, to just simply, in their view, rejoin the EU.
Everything would magically be fine again they say.
And, it’s almost understandable…
But when things aren’t working - you don’t just give up or walk away.
We work hard to fix them.
That’s how we do things.
Labour, my party, was founded - not, as is often characterised too easily, only as the party of equality, of fairness and for many - socialism -
But of work and the working class.
That’s why Labour - the party of work - is the party that can Get Britain Working again.
And most importantly, together, we can get it working for you.
Because the hope our country needs is not found in pamphlets, on protests, in the past or, even, through prayer.
But by using the power each of us has to make things better.
That’s why I got into politics.
It’s what politics should be about.
And look, I could stand here and say Britain will be ‘fixed’ magically overnight, with a shiny new government.
That certainly would be easy - it's certainly what people want me to say.
But it would be a lie.
In fact, the challenges we face at home and abroad today are more difficult and complex than at any time in our history since World War Two.
And they have been made worse by the actions of the Tories in government at every turn.
But at each defining period in our history, when the country has called, when it has urged my party to serve, Labour has always been prepared to do the hard work to govern and lead in the interests of the British people.
That is exactly why, when things got tough, and the country rightly turned away from Labour, I didn’t give up on my party - or let my party give up on our country.
I worked hard.
With thousands of activists and members - colleagues on this stage - and so many others from all over the length and breadth of Britain to step up and change Labour, so that it can change the country we all love again.
I got my party working so that it can work for Britain, and now it’s time for Labour to get Britain working for you.
I’ve shown over the past three years since becoming leader of the Labour Party that I can turn things around.
I don't want praise, nor pity.
And yes, I’ll admit it - I sometimes get angry and annoyed when people stand in the way of change.
Particularly when people claim that this all, of course, is very easy and if only we did it their way everything would be fine.
Sometimes, that means I’ve taken hard decisions and, occasionally, shut people down.
But that's because I’m clear:
I will work with anyone, regardless of party, of background, where you were born, where you are going or even what you think of me -
As long as you are prepared to do the hard work.
To not just luxuriate in political daydreams.
To not stand on the sidelines when their is work to be done.
I want to work to Get Britain Working.
Because we’ve got to Get Britain Working.
Because we can’t wait any longer.
After 13 years, failed years.
It’s time for change.
It’s time to do things differently.
It’s time to get to work.
That work starts by making government work.
My team - this team - is ready on day one.
Ready to hit the ground running - to step up and serve, and to get to grips with the many serious, big, tricky and tough issues facing the country - whether that’s the cost of living crisis, childcare, health, housing, transport, climate or immigration.
And let me say, actually - because it’s a big change too - we are not all career politicians.
Most of all we want to show that not all politicians are the same.
I’ve been mocked for saying it - but I won’t shy away from saying it again and again.
My inspiration and belief in work comes from my father - a tool maker who worked hard for himself, his family and yes, as a result, his country.
He was a working man -
A working class man.
His example introduced me to the dignity of work, but also the indignity of work - when far too many treated my father differently, precisely because of his work.
It gave me an experience of the inequality that too often comes from work and, whilst certainly no sob story about my background, the circumstances of far too many people still in this country today.
In that I want to not only pay tribute to, but also thank, in particular, my Deputy Leader.
Who, like me, can get a bit angry at times.
Can say things other politicians from central casting may not have said.
But I know that only comes from a frustration of not just seeing, but living the story about how working hard in Britain doesn’t always mean you get on.
The last Labour government made much of opportunity.
In the same way, the next Labour government - my Labour government - with Angela leading the way on redefining the world of work, will do the same.
With a clear dividing line between us and the Tories.
One of the first things we will do is look at tax and ensure that work, not unearned wealth, pays and gives people the opportunity to not only survive, but thrive.
We will also ensure that it is easier to work.
Using that money from idle wealth to fund the biggest comprehensive offer on child care in our country’s history.
Powering up our economy and building the next generation of homes, the renewable energy market of the future, as well as laying the ground for the rail and tech infrastructure that will keep Britain working not just for now, but for the next century -
New jobs, higher wages, skilled work - the economy of the future.
That’s the promise of work, that’s the promise of my government.
Because I’m not afraid of a big challenge.
It is why, as a lawyer, I didn’t just fight big battles or make noise, I did the hard graft on thousands of cases, often in the most difficult circumstances, on some of the most complex issues, helping fight the corner of those most in need.
I took on some of the biggest and most powerful organisations in the country, if not the world.
Then, leading this country’s prosecution service - where I worked hard to lead a team of thousands, to reform criminal justice, keep dangerous criminals behind bars and make Britain safer.
I’ll work every day to address the issues facing our country - just like I did on those cases as a lawyer and working as the country’s Director of Public Prosecutions.
That’s also why, when I saw my party making what, I thought, was a mistake for the country over Brexit - I stood up.
I said what I thought, I fought for what I believed was right -
For what our country needed and I worked hard to try and fix it.
Because you - deserved better.
Nobody should be losing their job, or their home, because of Brexit.
That’s why I want to get the economy moving and deliver the growth that can lower prices and put money back in your pocket and drive the investment and change Britain needs.
And yes, that includes dealing with the complications of Brexit.
It’s something this government has failed to do, and I believe there is a better way.
Not rejoining the EU, but talking, like adults, with businesses, communities and our friends around the world to get Brexit working for Britain.
And if we do, we can build a better Britain.
Because there are a lot of things that can make Britain better.
And I’ll always be ambitious for what Britain can be.
But to build a better Britain, we must begin by getting Britain working.
We need to get the NHS working for the many of you who are just simply waiting for an appointment or an operation.
You’ve been let down.
And you deserve better.
On day one, my government, with Wes Streeting leading on health, will begin to deal with the crisis in front of us not burying out heads in the sand like the Tories.
There are many ways we can transform our health service and lots we need to change.
But right now, our plan for an NHS fit for the future means bold and big decisions today.
Part of that is having a fairer immigration system that works better for Britain.
The idea that we are needlessly shutting people out of the country based on arbitrary targets and false promises is lunacy when it means cancelled operations, no appointments at the GPs and an NHS on its knees.
Even the government knows this, because it is hurriedly and scurridely trying to get people to come to Britain - but it doesn’t have the guts to admit it.
Because that’s the thing - politicians - aren’t ever brave enough to say:
We need a better immigration system to get the country working so that we can help people in need - whether that’s an operation, or care -
As well as helping some of the most desperate people on the planet - fleeing from war, disaster and poverty across the world, who want to come to Britain because they want to be British.
To work hard, get on and help build a better future for themselves, their family - your family - and this country. Many who have also dedicated their work, and even risked their lives, to support Britain and our allies in Afghanistan and around the world.
We also need an immigration system that works for those who cannot stay here.
The delays, the inhumane treatment of many -
Sinking boats and bungled barges.
That is no way to treat anybody -
And that’s not the Britain I know and love.
So let me be clear.
They deserve better.
Britain can be better.
We must do better.
And we will.
Britain - leading, not following.
Stronger at home, and more respected abroad.
An NHS helping people stay healthy.
Childcare enabling people to work.
An economy building the Britain of the future.
A fairer country, that everyone can be proud of.
The Britain we can build together, if we work together.
A better Britain.
A Britain that works.
A Britain that works for you.
And yet, some will say, how different will things really be?
Is this even possible?
This all sounds good, but what does Labour really think?
Because you’ve heard it all before -
I’ve heard it all before.
But what I can say is -
That the roots and traditions of my party, the life experiences of my family, the stories that I’ve heard across the length and breadth of this country - they all tell me one thing.
It is perfectly possible.
But only if we work for it.
Every day, on every issue.
This is going to take every one of us, and everything we’ve got -
But if there’s one thing I know about Britain and the British people.
It’s that we don’t give up.
We fight for what we believe.
We work to make things right.
And together - we can get Britain working again.
I don’t ask you to blindly put your faith in me or my party.
I won’t stand here and pledge wild fantasies and visions of some perfect country or a far flung future where everything is rosy and we’re all one big happy family.
It’s going to be tough.
But what I will promise you is to work on your behalf.
To work with you.
To do everything I can.
To dedicate everything we’ve got.
To do this.
We can make it happen, but only if we work together.
So join us.
Let’s get to work.
And together -
Let’s Get Britain Working.”