At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like the government’s clear failure to manage COVID-19 would make former supporters realise that voting Conservative in the last general election was a big mistake.
However, even though we have one of the highest death rates in the world, even after cancelling Christmas at short notice, the Conservatives are still neck and neck with Labour in the polls. There are some genuine swing voters, but many people claim they will always vote Tory, some out of habit, and others because they legitimately believe that the Conservatives are the best choice to rule the country.
Similarly, facts don’t seem to sway many Leave voters when it comes to Brexit. Remain supporters often say, “now this has happened, people will be regretting voting for Brexit.” Even as the lorries continued to pile up in Kent, my Brexit-supporting acquaintance reminds me how Brexit shows “working people are finally being listened to.”
This demonstrates that left-wing parties cannot rely on the Conservatives’ failures to show voters that they are the better option. However, this seems to be the strategy that the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has chosen. Starmer is known for the lawyerly, scrutinising style of questioning he uses in Prime Minister’s Questions. He focuses on Johnson’s incompetence – Heather Stewart in The Guardian explained that Labour found in focus groups that voters find Johnson likeable, so they have decided not to personally attack him and instead to demonstrate that he is not competent to be prime minister.
But demonstrating Johnson’s incompetence isn’t enough to swing a sufficient number of voters to get the Tories out of power. This isn’t exclusive to Starmer’s Labour. During the referendum, the Remain campaign focused on facts, listing the benefits of EU institutions, whilst the Leave campaigners got to the heart of what many working people wanted – jobs and a way out of poverty.
Nevertheless, I don’t think Corbyn-era Labour got this right either. Nationalisation and free broadband were good ideas, but they didn’t resonate with people. There wasn’t enough focus on how policies would bring millions of families out of poverty. If you are worried about putting food on the table, likely, nationalisation will not be your top priority.
Rather than wait for the public to pick up on Johnson’s incompetence, left-wing parties need to use compelling narratives to show how people’s lives will be better if the Conservatives are no longer in charge.
Some call this “framing” – cognitive scientist George Lakoff, in his book Don’t think of an elephant, demonstrates how a policy is framed affects how the public perceives it. He explains if you tell someone not to think of an elephant, they immediately think of one (hence the book’s title). While Starmer focuses on scrutinising the Tory government, he draws attention to their policies rather than Labour’s.
There is evidence both for and against the psychological basis of the framing method. Still, I think we can take from this that the Left should not be primarily focusing on Boris’ incompetence and should be building a compelling and truthful narrative about what the UK and the world will look like if you vote for them.
The School Strikes for Climate movement, for example, did a great job at challenging the public perception of climate change. They managed to increase the perceived urgency of climate change worldwide by framing it as an emergency. Meanwhile, Marcus Rashford’s campaign to expand free school meals drew strongly on story-telling narratives that won the nation’s hearts.
But, Starmer has failed to get behind progressive social movements like these. After exam results in August, Starmer wrote in The Mail on Sunday insisting it was a moral duty to get children back to school, rather than protesting with them on Westminster’s streets. Additionally, instead of throwing himself behind the Black Lives Matter movement, Starmer criticised the idea of defunding the police, saying that his “support for the police is very strong.“
If the Left wants to win, they need to understand the place of highlighting Johnson’s failures and think about building their own narratives for a better future to gain them support.
Ultimately, we have heard many different reasons for what motivates consistent Tory voters, especially those working class. To write narratives that mean something to these voters, the left need to research their beliefs and get to the core of what is important to them. I think many Tory voters want to see a better world, but don’t trust the Left to bring it into being. As per my previous point, although Corbyn’s Labour did offer change, the narrative they provided did not resonate as much as Boris’ “Get Brexit Done” slogan.
On New Year’s Day, we woke to yet another government U-turn, with the announcement that many schools across the country will be closed until at least the middle of January. This is something we all knew was coming for a long time, so it’s absurd that the government didn’t give more notice. Could it be that this time Tory voters will both register Johnson’s incompetence and decide he isn’t the right person to be Prime Minister? I doubt it.
The only way the left wing parties will overwhelmingly win over the public is if they present a compelling vision of what a better world will look like – the last twelve months has made clear that focusing on government mistakes won’t be enough.
Yet again, Labour aren’t doing this. In response to rising infections, Johnson initially insisted in early January that he would not shut all schools or trigger a national lockdown (before another U-turn). In response, Starmer chose to focus on Johnson’s incompetence, instead of showing us a full picture of Labour’s proposed restrictions.
Unlike The Green Party, Labour have also failed to adequately support the National Education Union’s decision to encourage primary school teachers to strike. Instead of focusing on schools, something that unites us all, Starmer instead highlighted that zoos were still open in Tier 4. It wasn’t until Johnson backed a lockdown, that Starmer decided he did too.
It’s time for the Left to take a stand.