Lessons from 1997: Keir Starmer’s narrative problem

Thinking back to the New Labor election campaign in 1997, Nick O’Donovan emphasizes the importance of ideas for opposition parties.

“Vote Labor and win a microwave”. To some, this damning assessment of Labor’s 2015 election rhetoric seems even more relevant today. Commentators such as James Meadway, former adviser to the Shadow Chancellor during the Corbyn years, diagnose a ‘suspicion of ideas‘ among current Labor leaders. Starmer has policies, these critics argue, but no vision.

Approaching the 25thand anniversary of the election that brought New Labor to power, the contrast between past and present is stark. The third way, the knowledge economy, the post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory: if you can disagree with the analysis, if you can criticize the results, New Labor definitely had a philosophy of governance Claire. This philosophy underpinned everything from sound bites (‘education, education, education’, ‘new Britain’, ‘young country’) to detailed policy proposals (the New Deal for jobs, the Sure Start centres, the Wired Up Communities Initiative). It contained an analysis of Britain’s place in the world, an account of the limits of the markets and an understanding of the future of growth.

According to Blair, the emergence of a new knowledge-based economy meant that innovation and skills were increasingly at the heart of Britain’s prosperity. In a 1996 speech to the CBI, he asserted that “wealth and living standards in the 21st century will be based on knowledge and its application to the goods and services that British businesses have to sell in the country and abroad. foreign”. Left to their own devices, households and businesses would not invest enough in education, research and digital infrastructure. Therefore, the state had a vital role to play in positioning Britain at the forefront of the global knowledge economy.

Admittedly, not all of the policies implied by this analysis have been successfully executed. For example, the individual learning accounts that were supposed to underpin adult education were quickly abandoned due to fears of widespread fraud. Critics might also argue that Labour’s knowledge-driven growth strategy hasn’t gone far enough. Although spending on education increased as a percentage of GDP after 1997, it remained below levels in some other advanced democracies (notably the Nordic states).

However, even this fiscal caution could be tied to Labour’s underlying analysis. While knowledge-based economic theory of growth emphasized the importance of social investment by the state, it also argued that capital and labor were internationally mobile (and therefore that levels taxes should be kept low) and that higher interest rates would discourage long-term investment. – the long-term investment necessary for innovation (and therefore public borrowing had to be kept at a low level).

In contrast, Starmer’s team seems to believe that the narrative doesn’t matter. They seem content to focus instead on popular individual policies, such as the windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas, an extension of the warm house rebate, large-scale investments in insulation homes and a reversal of public sector outsourcing. Pressed on Labour’s narrative problem at a political science conference, party leader Anneliese Dodds dismissed the Third Way as “academic jargon” of little interest to voters.

But effective opposition is not just about explaining to the electorate what you are going to do. As Blair and Brown understood in 1997, it is also about explaining to the electorate what you won’t To do. While ruling parties can tell their track record, opposition parties need a narrative. Without a cohesive story to connect the dots between individual political ads, there is a risk that voters will fill in the blanks themselves, cunningly aided by rival politicians. In today’s electoral arena, Labor must reassure centrist voters that it has turned its back on Corbyn, while assuring voters who flocked to the party under Corbyn’s leadership that he broke with Blairism. Without a narrative, the doubts the two groups harbor are easy for Labor opponents to exploit – especially in an age of targeted social media messaging.

Storytelling doesn’t have to be rocket science. If you look a little closer, it is possible to spot the beginnings of a program behind Labour’s current policy announcements. Like Blair in 1997, the Starmer team argues that there are idle and underutilized resources that are going to be wasted in the UK economy, which can be mobilized for growth through strategic state intervention. For Blair, this meant upgrading the skills of the lowest paid and unemployed, so they could access the knowledge jobs of the future. Today, lack of skills remains a problem, but there are demand and supply issues. The city-centric growth of the past forty years has left too many communities with insufficient purchasing power to inspire local business investment and individual entrepreneurship. The result has been closed shopping streets and severe inequalities both between and within regions.

Higher minimum wage levels in the private sector, better paid public sector workers operating in the daily economy, public investments in ecological sustainability, more generous social rights (including pensions) and market policies Smarter audiences could all help push places left behind (and therefore the country as a whole) onto a faster growth trajectory. Upgrading the Labor track could be one element of a wider economic agenda, joining the dots between different policy areas and linking them to a deeper analysis of Britain’s past, present and future .

Ironically, however, Labor’s narrative deficit may not be a problem entirely of its own creation, nor one that it itself is capable of solving. Looking back to the 1997 election, it is striking how New Labor’s philosophy of government was not so much invented as assembled. Blair and Brown’s vision of knowledge-based growth drew on a variety of sources, including the OECD, the Clinton administration, academic economics, think tanks, business groups, labor unions, the work of newspaper columnists and media commentators. This meant that New Labor was tapping into ideas that were already part of the mainstream political debate, ideas that already possessed intellectual weight and widespread credibility. (So ​​was Thatcher, who could refer to Milton Friedman and the Institute of Economic Affairs.)

By comparison, a figure like Ed Miliband frequently had to act as his own intellectual vanguard, coming under fire for championing then-old-fashioned analyzes such as his producer-predatory account of British capitalism. While he may have won the battle of ideas – the idea that not all companies promote the common good is now widely accepted, reinforced by examples such as P&O – Miliband lost the 2015 elections. complaints about Labour’s current lack of narrative, few complainants offer alternatives. For all the great political ideas emerging from progressive left think tanks, commentators and academics, they too are guilty of ignoring the big picture.

Maybe the Labor Party won’t need a philosophy. It’s certainly possible that anger at the Conservative Party’s constant trickle of misdemeanors, coupled with an emerging cost-of-living crisis, is enough to push Starmer over the line. But otherwise, Labor will have to tell a better story if it wants to win power.


About the Author

Nick O’Donovan is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. His first book, Chasing the Knowledge Economy: A Sympathetic Story of Highly Skilled, Highly Paid Hubriswill be released by Agenda in May 2022 and is available for pre-order now.

Featured image credit: Derek Camacho at Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

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