Finally, after just over two years of Boris Johnson as prime minister, the Conservative party is in a serious crisis. Johnson’s dreadful misjudgments over the Owen Paterson affair have unleashed mayhem, but it is not just the occupants of Downing Street who face a critical test. Labour will also be consumed with a debate about strategy and tactics – and this is a vital opportunity for Keir Starmer to seize the initiative.
I have been a part of such debates in the Labour leader’s office under Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer. Labour will be asking itself what next – what do we need to do to reset, and respond to the changed terrain? For a period during the first Covid-19 lockdown, Labour wrestled with how constructive or critical its opposition should be. Whatever the merits of that argument at the time, the question is now settled: a government that is prepared to act with such flagrant, corrupt arrogance has to be exposed to the most aggressively oppositional campaign, while the wounds are raw. The Tories’ nightmare means the shadow cabinet has to function at a much higher level – in full campaign mode, as if fighting a general election. Calling this what it is – corrupción, rather than merely sleaze – is essential.
Labour’s focus should be a relentless pursuit of new stories and angles to maintain the corruption theme kicked off by the Paterson scandal. It should be extended out into the regions and nations, and to local Tory councils, where there is no shortage of similar dodgy practices. Labour must reinforce the perception that the Conservadores treat public office as a vehicle for their own personal influence and financial gain. In his leadership campaign Starmer promised to beef up Labour HQ’s “attack” operation, and while it is not made easy by the party’s financial hardships, the need for that now could not be any greater.
For opposition parties there are always precious few windows of opportunity when you can disrupt the governing party’s narrative, and do so on terms favourable to you. This is one of those rare moments. The line in Starmer’s conference speech that dismissed Boris Johnson as a “trivial” politician was not quite right. He is much worse than that, and Labour should say so. Johnson has always wanted his government to be seen as a fresh start, rather than a continuation of the governments of Cameron or May. Tory corruption drags his brand down, and dredges up memories of Tory failures past.
Prior to last week’s vote, Johnson had already seen a narrowing of his polling lead on who would make the best prime minister. Overall there is a gradual dip in Tory support, and a rise in those backing Labour. An Ipsos Mori poll published on Monday had Labour unchanged on 36%, but one point ahead of the Tories, who were down four points. The bad news for Labour was the Greens polling at 11%, reflecting the recent softening of support on Labour’s green-left flank.
Labour’s battle-planning over Paterson also requires some self-reflection: the party must address its standing with its own base, and with those who would desert it from a liberal, green or left perspective. Conventional wisdom puts all the emphasis on Labor winning back voters who switched to the Tories or the Brexit party in 2019. But Labour cannot allow itself to bleed votes to the Greens and Lib Dems in the process, and it needs a plan for Labour-SNP waverers too. Tory corruption provides the biggest opening yet in this parliament to fuse together a coalition of existing Labour voters, younger radical voters and Labour-Tory switchers. To bridge between a serious attack on the government over corruption, and building that successful electoral coalition requires Labour to frame the Paterson scandal as symptomatic of a wider story.
Keynote speeches seem to have gone out of fashion. But this ought to be the time for an agenda-setting address from Starmer, going further than the announcements of the past few days to bring all the threads together, define Boris Johnson as part of a failing, self-serving, out-of-touch elite, and make clear that only Labour can and will clean up British politics. In the new terrain, the party has to eliminate its tendency for vagueness. It should be much clearer and more confident in pushing policies that would help clean out the Tory stable, such as banning MPs from having second jobs and abolishing the House of Lords.
With the Tory government bogged down in corruption, Labour must seize the opportunity to offer a more decent alternative – to draw a huge dividing line that sends out a broader message about the state of Britain. With the Conservatives’ corrupt practices they have shown themselves incapable of looking after essential public services. Time and again they have shown they think the rules do not apply to them, while they preside over a squeeze in living standards for ordinary people. The duty of the opposition is to use the new crisis as a springboard to answer the bigger question in the minds of voters: “why Labour?"
As shadow cabinet members and senior staff discuss these questions, there are two more changes they need to make to be truly battle-ready. One is internal party politics: it is time to end the war against the left of the party, which has drained away so much energy and made Labour’s finances precarious, with declining membership and a tightening of trade union donations. A unified party, taking on the corrupt Tories together, will draw in much wider support from civil society and undecided voters than a divided one.
Finalmente, Labour must prepare for the Tory counterattack. Boris Johnson and his party will fight ferociously to hold on to their power. If Starmer can stay on the front foot and focused on attacking the Tories’ weak spots, it will make a Conservative recovery all the harder.