Labour’s New Focus on ‘Competence’ Will Find Its Limits Once the Economic Downturn Hits

by Oliver Eagleton

6 September 2020

August brought two related developments for the Labour party: its poll rating rose to 40% — the highest level since June 2019 — and its comms machine adopted a relentless focus on ‘competence’.

Rather than engaging with the substance of government policy (on reopening schools, exam results and migrant crossings), Keir Starmer has spotlighted its ineffectual execution: ‘incompetence has become this government’s watchword’, ‘the Tories’ incompetence is holding Britain back from recovery’, ‘young people’s futures cannot be held back by the Conservatives’ incompetence’, and so on.

If its recent popularity surge is anything to go by, the Labour leadership has made a perceptive calculation: in an age of widespread cynicism about electoral politics, many people don’t care that what the government is doing is ‘wrong’ (this is taken as given). They care that government cannot do what it sets out to do. Efficiency has more cut-through than ethics.

This new framing has reversed the relationship between the two main parties. From 2016-19, Theresa May contrasted her steady, competent administration to Jeremy Corbyn’s daring and transformative platform. Her successor shattered this distinction by promising to break the Brexit deadlock and ‘unleash Britain’s potential’, not through greater managerial competency, but through energetic chauvinist self-confidence. Boris Johnson’s appeal was based on the conviction that EU negotiations could be streamlined by an optimism of the will, and regional inequalities redressed by an invigorated post-neoliberal Conservatism.

Against this bold vision, Corbyn’s charge that Johnson was obscuring the technical details of the Brexit process (that it would take longer than anticipated, that the threat of No Deal remained high, that it involved selling off the NHS) looked like nit-picking and fear-mongering: a reversion to the capitalist realism that his leadership sought to unravel.

Yet Johnson’s bravado was soon punctured by the pandemic, which shifted public attention onto a series of unglamorous necessities: a timely lockdown, a workable contact-tracing system, adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and sizeable testing capacity. Since the ‘New Deal’ Tories failed to meet these vital requirements, it made sense for Starmer to present himself as the practical, capable alternative. Labour are now the effective operators, equipped to deal with the crisis, while the Tories are blue-sky thinkers who cannot deliver on the detail. Starmer is using May’s tactics against Johnson’s quasi-Corbynism.

The ‘competence’ narrative is not just a response to the Conservatives’ hapless Covid-19 policies, however. It is primarily an attempt re-legitimise Labour. According to Starmer’s staffers, the plan is to gain credibility by avoiding significant policy decisions and cultivating a professional image. Then, sometime closer to 2024, the party will use its newfound authority to roll out manifesto pledges which the electorate will take seriously, rather than dismissing them as empty sales-pitches. It is supposed that this will rectify the fatal flaw in Labour’s 2019 strategy, which assumed policy proposals would be considered on their own terms, when in fact they are coloured by the party’s broader reputation.

‘You can set out a different ideological view once you’ve established competence,’ said one strategist. ‘That comes first.’

This sequence – competence first, policy later– might have some purchase in the present moment, but it fails to consider how the impression of political competence will be constructed, or compromised, in the post-Covid era.

To understand the government’s waning popularity since March, it is necessary to pinpoint which of its policies have been susceptible to Starmer’s accusation of incompetence: herd immunity, test-and-trace, facemasks, A-levels. In other words, the Tories have appeared most untrustworthy when it comes to managing the pandemic and its administrative fallout.

But compare this with the widespread support for Rishi Sunak’s spending policies (many of which were, incidentally, designed by Corbyn and John McDonnell), and it’s clear that perceptions of ‘Tory incompetence’ are far from homogeneous. The public generally believes we should have locked down sooner, received clearer messaging and protected school students from algorithm-induced misery. But the public is overwhelmingly in favour of the furlough scheme, VAT cuts, state-sponsored apprenticeships and Eat Out to Help Out. As a result, Sunak – credited with these stimulus measures – is the country’s most popular politician, while Johnson – tarred with the government’s public health mismanagement – has seen his approval rating drop.

This disparity has crucial implications for Starmer’s communications strategy, which has so far involved foregrounding Johnson’s U-turns (or tergiversations, as the PM himself might call them), whilst staying silent on Sunak’s policy decisions.

During a pandemic, the former holds more weight than the latter. Efficiency in limiting the impact of the virus is paramount; hence the failure of Sunak’s popular budget to halt the downward trend in Conservative polling figures, which may yet be accelerated by the onset of a second wave. But once the UK completes its emergence from lockdown and the recession begins to bite, this emphasis on technical capability will be diminished. At that point it will be far more important, from an electoral perspective, to adopt an ambitious and imaginative policy programme than to demonstrate one’s proficiency in implementing WHO guidelines.

Once revitalising the post-Covid economy becomes the dominant national issue, the question of competency can no longer be separated from that of policy: building a reputation for competency will rely on the communication of meaningful and creative policy ideas. Labour cannot establish credibility and then set out its vision, because its level of credibility will be determined by the vision it sets out.

We have already gotten a sense of the PR-savvy steps (like infrastructure projects or discount dining) that the Tories will take to rebrand as a paternalist anti-austerity party. Sunak has vowed to tackle the crisis ‘unencumbered by dogma’, ready to break with the Thatcher-Osborne legacy and lead a highly interventionist recovery. This is mostly bluster: the relief package to date has been inadequate, its dividends flowing to multinationals and consultancy firms instead of renters and the unemployed. But even if the Tories ultimately exacerbate the unequalising tendencies of the recession, they will provide just enough eye-catching progressive policies – a green investment scheme here, a wealth tax there – to blow Labour’s thrifty, overcautious approach out of the water.

As James Meadway has written for Novara Media, the Johnson cabinet knows how to utilise austerity as a political weapon: it will make cuts that harm its rivals (eg to the London transport budget) and spend where it’s expedient (say, to retain the support of Leave-voting northern constituencies). This patronage model will be particularly useful in the coming downturn, when stimulus measures designed to boost confidence in a ‘levelled-up Britain’ will coexist with targeted ‘shock doctrine’ techniques to push privatisation and neuter the government’s opponents.

If Labour is to counter this programme, it needs to present a viable alternative based on redistribution, nationalisation, debt forgiveness, job creation and welfare expansion. This return to socialist principles is, ironically, the only way to substantiate Starmer’s avowedly antisocialist accent on ‘competence’. Without it, the party’s polling gains will prove ephemeral.

Oliver Eagleton is an editor at New Left Review and a regular contributor to Novara Media. His first book, The Starmer Project, is out now with Verso Books.

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