Opinion

Keir Starmer is canny enough to know that fear is the Tories' best friend

This country needs change and the Conservatives will resort to tried-and-tested scare tactics. Labour must hold steady

Keir Starmer addressing a business conference in London, February 2024

Keir Starmer addressing business leaders at the Kia Oval, London, earlier this month. Image: Toby Shepheard/Story Picture Agency/Shutterstock

In 1991, the Conservative Party looked finished. They were fresh out of ideas: recession was in the air, they were miles behind in the polls and they had replaced an iconic leader with a weedy prat. Sound familiar?

Labour, meanwhile, had overhauled their image as dangerous leftists and looked like a government in waiting. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Spoiler alert: the Conservatives comfortably won the following year’s general election. Here’s how they did it.

In January 1991 Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman, held a strategy meeting at Hever Castle in Kent. The keynote speaker was Washington pollster Richard ‘Dick’ Wirthlin, architect of Ronald Reagan’s two landslide presidential victories in 1980 and ’84. He delivered a rousing and ruthless speech in which he explained that all was not lost for the Tories: all they needed to do was start a war.

Wirthlin’s electoral MO was to focus on whichever area his candidates had the most credibility. But after a rocky few years, the polls suggested that the Tories were trailing Labour in credibility on almost every pertinent issue.

In fact, the only policy area that the public trusted the Conservatives over Labour on was defence. Wirthlin suggested that it could be salient if PM John Major was to contrive an armed conflict. When Patten and Major suggested this might be a bit extreme, Wirthlin shrugged and told them they clearly weren’t serious about victory.

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 book cover

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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