Last week in an op-ed in the Sunday Telegraph Keir Starmer claimed that Labour will be “the party of the family.” The following day, he gave a speech which mentioned the word ‘family’ or ‘families’ 17 times and framed the Government’s plans to increase council tax and cutting Universal Credit as landing a ‘bombshell’ bill on struggling families.
This may strike the reader as a rather bland and non-controversial way for the Leader of the Opposition to style his attack on the Government, after all, would any politician style themselves as explicitly ‘anti-family’?
But this new emphasis on families does mark a shift in the tone of the Labour Party compared to the politics that predominated under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Just consider the party’s much-maligned 2019 announcement that Labour would repeal the married couple’s tax allowance in the name of equality and fairness and you see what I mean.
Giving this prominence to ‘family’ may provoke a backlash among Starmer’s critics from the left. For some the notion of ‘family values’ bears the taint of a religious and reactionary conservatism which seeks to persecute and exclude non-traditional households and LGBTQ+ individuals.
Others will associate the invocation of the family with Thatcher’s creed of economic individualism, where ‘there is no such thing as society’, only individuals and families. Starmer’s new mantra comes at the potential cost of worsening already fraught relationships with the hard-left faction within his party, so it is worth examining what strategy is guiding his decision to break with past orthodoxy.
The person behind this change in tactics is probably Claire Ainsley, the Director of Policy for the Leader of the Opposition’s office. In her 2018 book ‘The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes’ Ainsley presciently observed that for Labour (or any other party) to win, they need to tell a convincing story about the identity of the party and who they advocate for, rather than just firing off a barrage of individually popular policies.
Most important of all for Ainsley is the need to connect with the values the working-class hold dear, which according to YouGov polling include ‘fairness’, ‘hard work’, ‘decency’, and above all else: ‘family’. Family while an important value for all occupational groups was seen as relatively most important by respondents from social grades C1, C2 and E (manual workers and those on low incomes).
The Labour Party’s attempt to frame the 2019 election in terms of social class, rather than the less divisive language of ‘family values’ may have contributed to the mass exodus of socially conservative working-class voters in Red Wall seats to the Conservative Party.
Viewed in this light, Starmer’s adoption of ‘the family’ shows his dedication to winning this group back.
Predictably, the strategy has been more successful in spooking the right than enthusing the left. The Guardian and the New Statesman, both left-leaning publications, were broadly supportive but calling the leader out on his lack of policy detail. By contrast, an op-ed for the right-leaning Telegraph warns that the Conservative Party’s ‘complacency’ has created a weakness for Starmer to exploit.
Indeed saying the Conservative Party has been ‘complacent’ might be putting it too charitably. Recently, in a series of unpopular policy proposals and unforced errors, they have allowed Starmer to repeatedly position himself as the defender of blameless struggling families.
In no particular order, these errors include plans to raise council tax, the plan to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week, the scandal of inadequate food parcels sent out to children, and the endless bad publicity generated by the struggle over free-school meals for vulnerable children.
All of this has helped clear the field and allowed Starmer to advance his claim that Labour represents Britain’s families better than the Conservatives.
This must be viewed as a fragment of the Herculean task that stands before Starmer: reconnecting with Labour’s working-class voters whose support has been eroded over decades.
To do this, he will need to break the perception that the party is solely directed by ‘metropolitan elites’ who either do not understand or do not care about the values of the majority of British people.
Labour has a mountain to climb, but embracing the language of families and family values is a step in the right direction.