For the first time in several years, British progressives are feeling optimistic. The Labour party started the year around 20 points ahead of the Conservatives, and looks like it will end 2023 around 20 points ahead of the Conservatives. At the moment, Labour seems to beon course to defeat the government in a general election which must be held before January 2025. During an economic crisis swing voters tend to blame whoever is in power at the time, and incumbent governments of all political hues across Europe and America have been suffering politically. The Conservative government in the UK has been no exception.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has tried several different tactics to try to change his political fortunes. He has taken a hard line on immigration, and during the summer he moved towards undermining existing climate change policy, in line with other right-wing populist parties in Europe. In the autumn, his government announced tax cuts to try to alleviate the cost of living crisis.
But Labour has found ways to negate these policies. None of these tactics have worked.
Sunak’s choice to focus on immigration was understandable given it has proved a difficult issue for progressives across Europe and America. By introducing increasingly harsh measures on immigration (including deporting asylum seekers who arrive in Britain in small boats to Rwanda), he hoped to paint Labour as being soft on migration. But despite these measures, migration has risen to record levels. The government is attacked from the right for not sorting out the problem, and from the left, for being inhumane. Only 8% think that the government is handling the immigration well. At Labour Together, whenever we have polled Labour policy in this area, it beats the Conservatives because people feel that they have let the system get out of control. If anything, the issue of immigration offers an opportunity to Labour to set out their own, more realistic, plan to tackle illegal migration.
Similarly, the cost of the climate transition is also becoming a favourite target for right-wing populists. The Conservatives have started to water down their original commitments on climate and attack Labour’s plans as too costly for ordinary people to bear.
At Labour Together we have carried out message testing to counter this narrative. We found that talking about the jobs created by the climate transition was less persuasive. But what really worked was talking about energy security, making the case that investing in home grown renewables will make the UK less dependent on foreign autocratic forces such as Vladimir Putin.
Alongside this work, we started developing a wider policy and communications strategy based on the idea of security. This reflects both the immediate financial insecurity being felt by many voters but also a more profound sense of uncertainty resulting from the shocks of the last few years, including the Covid pandemic and the rising geopolitical threats from China and Russia.
By security we mean predictability, resilience, reliability and control – all things which have been in short supply in the UK over the last few years. Security is important because it makes other things in life possible. In our research we found some respondents want to have fun again, some want to create a fairer society, some want their hard work to be rewarded. Because security is the foundation for such a wide range of hopes and dreams, a politics of security unites a wide range of voters.
We also think it can provide a framework for policy, whether that is on climate and immigration, dealing with the cost of living crisis, the collapse of public services or the crisis around the lack of housing, where young people are priced out of the housing market and have to rely on renting privately and face unpredictable rent rises.
This leads to a point that is often made by progressives – that the far-right has better narratives than the left because it identifies enemies – particularly migrants and minorities. There is no good fairy tale without an enemy to defeat. But who is our enemy?
One answer is that the far-right themselves is the enemy. But I’d argue that this is too narrow. The centre-right often enable the far-right and in some countries have gone into coalitions with them. In the UK, the Conservatives have essentially become a centre-right and far-right coalition inside one party. We need a narrative which can attack the centre-right as well as the far-right.
The advantage of the security narrative is that it is aiming an attack at both. It argues that the centre-right’s obsession with free markets, with prioritising tax cuts over public spending and keeping the state small, has resulted in voters feeling deeply insecure. That insecurity could be about lack of housing, or poor public services, or concern about their wages not rising as fast as prices. It also says that the far-right is creating fictitious demons to slay, rather than offer believable, concrete solutions to their problems.
For the first time in 13 unlucky years things are looking up for progressives in Britain. There is still work to do to develop a really coherent policy platform that ties back to a convincing narrative on security, but maybe, just maybe this time next year we will have a Labour government in power in the UK and a recipe for success that can serve as beacon of hope for European and American progressives.
Image by atlascompany on Freepik
This article was produced with the financial support of the European Parliament. It does not represent the view of the European Parliament.