But it turned out that they were. Following the win-at-all-costs principles Wirthlin espoused, the Tory leadership and their ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, identified taxation as Labour’s Achilles heel. An adman with no policy remit or economic experience totted up estimated costs of every policy idea in the Labour manifesto then divided the total by the number of taxpayers in the UK. On this basis, the Tories stuck up posters stating everyone would pay £1,250 more in tax per year under a Labour government. It was bollocks, but that didn’t matter: it sparked a narrative that would eventually lead Major back into Downing Street for another five years.
I wrote about this in 2015 in my book, Mad Men and Bad Men, which traced the election strategies of the main parties since 1979. Having spoken to all the main players in those campaigns, examined polling data and electoral outcomes, I learned three things that always held true: 1) The Conservative Party exists above all to hold and retain power; 2) The British voting public is motivated above all by fear; 3) It ain’t over ’til it’s over.
In 2024 those same rules still apply. Once again, the polls say the Tories are heading for meltdown. And once again, Labour have changed their image. The next election campaign will be fought on fear, not hope. The Conservatives know they can’t run on their own dismal record, but that Labour still put the willies up a significant proportion of the English (it’s always the English who stuff up UK election results) electorate.
Right now, there will be a room full of posh Oxbridge graduates digging into Labour’s policy plans to find anything that might help fuel the fear. It might be something about reversing Brexit. It might be something about immigration. It will be spurious but that might not matter: floating voters rarely examine noisy political rhetoric under a microscope.
So when people on the left get their knickers in a twist about the failure of Starmer to pitch ‘bold’ or ‘radical’ ideas, know that this is not because he is dim or gutless. It is because he knows the country needs change. Even if you’re not perfectly aligned with Starmer’s politics, almost anything is better than the dangerously incompetent and morally bankrupt gang of spivs and grifters who have governed these last 14 years.
Change for change’s sake isn’t always desirable. But in Britain, in 2024, it very much is. Starmer knows what that adman at Saatchi & Saatchi knew in 1991: voters scare easily. So don’t give them anything to be scared about.
Read more from Sam Delaney here.
Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Constable £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
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