Keir Starmer’s honeymoon period as leader of the Labour Party appears to be over. He had a robust start when he took over in April 2020, winning over large swaths of party members and outperforming Boris Johnson in polls on “most trusted” and as “preferred choice for prime minister”. Now, a recent poll of polls shows support for Starmer falling since the peak last summer. Part of the problem is his branding. There seems to be a lack of clarity over what he stands for and his overall message to the electorate.
It is of course difficult for Starmer to make an impact on the electorate during this unprecedented time. The government is dominating the agenda in the pandemic. At the peak of the crisis, Starmer sought to portray himself as offering constructive criticism and cooperation with the government. But at this point, a year in, he has landed in a position of failing to offer an alternative agenda. He is reactive rather than proactive. As a result, voters are hard pressed to identify what is different about his offering.
‘I’m not Jeremy Corbyn’
The leadership contest that propelled Starmer to power came about after an election in which Labour recorded its worst result since 1935. In the early days of his leadership, a key part of Starmer’s political brand was therfore to assert, through as many means as possible: “I am not Jeremy Corbyn”. When giving his first speeches as leader, he’d stand behind a lecturn bearing the tagline “A New Leadership” as he asked voters to “take another look at Labour”.
He made clear appeals to voters lost to the Conservatives in the north of England with talk of values and a vision for Britain that was intended to reflect a patriotic spirit that some clearly felt had been missing from the party under his predecessor. He promised Labour would be “bold and radical” under his stewardship..
But as voters were instructed to take a second look at Labour, what would they see? What was on offer? Beyond the “not Corbyn” message, it is not clear.
In January, Starmer attempted to provide some insight into his brand strategy beyond the “I’m not Corbyn” period. He vowed in a speech to “secure the economy”, “protect the NHS” and “rebuild our country” after the pandemic.
But these goals are so broad and uncontroversial as to be essentially meaningless to a voter. They are universally popular and, again, are essentially the same as what the governing party is selling.
Building a brand
Political brands are important because they have the potential to simplify the decision-making process in the mind of voters. They help cut through the noise and jargon and resonate and build relationships with the electorate. A strong political brand wins over hearts and minds. It provides a positive vision, an engaging identity and an inspiring agenda that can be easily understood. Tony Blair achieved this in the dying days of John Major’s government and David Cameron accomplished the same in his first year as opposition leader.
In the absence of a strong brand, Starmer’s opponents have sought to establish one on his behalf. The prime minister can regularly be heard calling Starmer “Captain Hindsight”. The aim is to present Starmer as opportunistic and reactive. His brand, in Johnson’s framing, is to put forward alternatives only after the fact.
This reactive approach is, it could be argued, an important role for the opposition leader to play. The job involves holding the government to account on actions already taken. But the fact that Johnson has managed to turn Starmer’s approach into a powerful negative slogan shows again how adept he is at political branding and how far behind Starmer is.
The prime minister has taken advantage of Starmer’s pledge to “work together” with the government through the crisis to make him look weak.
But given the biggest test of all – a general election – is a long way away, perhaps Admiral Foresight would be a better brand for Starmer. He may be prioritising the 2024 general election rather than short-term success. It, does, after all, take time to rebuild trust and and revive a tarnished brand.
Labour needs to reposition its identity and credibility and the plan may be to build a brand around the themes to come. The years ahead will bring new hardships as the fallout of the pandemic makes itself felt. The government is popular now – but these years might open up space for Labour to differentiate itself more clearly.
Nevertheless, Starmer needs to tell the electorate what he stands for rather than what he doesn’t stand for. He needs to clarify how he has listened and changed the Labour brand. And he needs give voters specific reasons to identify with Labour. Detailed policies or a clear vision are needed sooner rather than later. The general election may be years away, but the first big test of Starmer’s leadership is just weeks away in the form of local and regional elections in May.
Christopher Pich does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.