Sir Keir Starmer has had a rough start to 2020. The Labour leader has taken a battering in the past few weeks for a perception that Starmerism has no impetus or direction, leaving some pundits to question whether he has cut through beyond the SW1 bubble.
While much of this criticism should be dismissed when it comes from Labour’s far-left faction trying to spark tribal warfare, it should be heeded when it comes from some of the country’s more sensible political commentators.
George Osborne, regardless of what you think of his politics, was a brilliant shadow chancellor and played a key role in crafting a communications strategy that defeated Gordon Brown’s government.
He wrote in the Evening Standard recently that “any opposition that has won office in my adult lifetime has done much better” than Labour currently and that Starmer “has made no impression” on the public in the past year.
This is perhaps a little overstated as Starmer’s efforts to cleanse the party of antisemitism and boot out some of its toxic elements, the party’s former leader included, will doubtless have made an impression on the wider public. However, the point still stands that there isn’t enough of a clear Starmer agenda beyond the assertion that he is not Jeremy Corbyn.
All this has led to a mini-reset for the ex-QC, with the Sunday Times reporting that he has drafted in former Tony Blair spin doctor and cabinet secretary Lord Peter Mandelson to help advise on communications and strategy. The leader of the opposition will also give a speech on the economy on Thursday in a bid to boost his pro-business credentials.
However, it won’t be enough for Labour just to pitch itself as a bit more pro-enterprise and a bit less keen on command and control socialist policies to gain economic credibility in the public’s mind. The party needs to show it fully grasps the UK’s changing economic landscape and can usher in the next 20 years’ of growth for all parts of the country.
One way to do this would be by pitching Labour as the party of artificial intelligence (AI) and IT, ensuring that Starmer gets ahead of the curve on the coming technological changes to the UK’s economy.
The party’s last two election winners, Blair and Harold Wilson, should provide a map for how Labour can win elections from opposition. Wilson and Blair won in 1964 and 1997 respectively by running campaigns that framed themselves as being at the vanguard of a changing Britain. Wilson’s vision that the UK should harness the “white heat of technology” intersected with the beginnings of a counter cultural revolution in the UK that transformed society. Much of Labour’s 1997 rhetoric pushed Blair as a young, charismatic leader who understood a rapidly modernising country far better than the grey and tired John Major.
An equivalent strategy for Starmer could revolve around policies that increase investment in science and technology to put the UK at the forefront of the coming AI revolution. This would show he has a vision for the future and that he understands the UK’s largest economic opportunities and challenges over the next few decades. It would also provide numerous occasions to talk up how the UK can succeed post-Brexit and reposition its economy away from Europe.
AI is an area of particular interest for Boris Johnson as evidenced by his 2019 UN General Assembly speech, which was almost entirely devoted to the subject. A senior British diplomat based in Washington recently told me that the Prime Minister wanted the UK to be at the forefront of AI development in order to influence the global rulebook for the emerging technology.
What better way for Labour to show economic competence, creativity and vision than by placing its tanks right on the Prime Minister’s lawn and pushing itself as the party of AI and tech?
One potential setback could be Labour’s links to the unions who would doubtlessly push back against any support for increased automation in the workplace. However, this should not be such a hard sell. Starmer could simply tell union leaders that one party is going to grasp the nettle and usher in the next technological revolution and who would you rather do it, us or the Tories?