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‘Labour simply has more seats to lose in Leave-voting areas’

Ian Sinclair talks to STEVE HOWELL, Corbyn's former deputy director of strategy and communications, about what Labour’s strategy should be as Britain stands poised to go to the polls again

“LABOUR’S narrative will have to be sharper this time”: Steve Howell on the looming general election.

Having run a communications company for more than 20 years, longstanding Labour Party member Steve Howell took leave of absence to work for Jeremy Corbyn as deputy director of strategy and communications. 

He played a key role in Labour’s extraordinary general election performance in 2017, writing a book about his experience, Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.

With Boris Johnson’s Tory government hanging by a thread, Ian Sinclair asks Howell what the party’s strategy should be in the looming general election.

Ian Sinclair (IS): In your book you highlight the importance of “storytelling” in political communications and how Labour’s 2017 campaign had an “overarching narrative.” Can you summarise what this was?

Steve Howell (SH): It sounds obvious now, but it was encapsulated in the slogan “for the many, not the few,” which struck a chord because it expressed the idea that the great majority of people were being held back by a system serving the top 1 per cent. 

The EU referendum had divided people into Leavers and Remainers, and Farage was pitting “left behind” areas against everyone inside the M25. 

The challenge for us was to bring to the fore the common interest of working people and show, for example, that a young person in a former coalfield struggling to find a job and a young person in London with a decent job but struggling to pay the rent were both getting a raw deal from a system and government working for a small elite. 

The manifesto was at the heart of the narrative because it painted a picture of how a Labour government could begin to remake the country to serve all working people, the real wealth creators.   

IS: When I interviewed you for the Morning Star in June 2018 about Labour’s future electoral strategy, you said: “An election can’t just be a rerun of the previous election.”

With current political events in mind, what do you think the Labour Party’s strategy should be in the looming general election?

SH: Labour faces two main challenges: firstly, the Brexit divide has deepened since 2017, and, secondly, the Tories are claiming that austerity is over and trying to steal our thunder on issues such as NHS spending. 

The latter is actually a sign of how the 2017 election was a game changer because the Tories know they have to make concessions — Corbyn-lite as the Daily Telegraph calls it — and I think Labour can relatively easily show that the Tory plans don’t go anywhere near far enough to undo the damage they’ve done over the last nine years.

The toxic divide over Brexit is, however, more difficult because Labour is itself divided on the issue. Johnson’s narrative is simple: Parliament has been obstructing Brexit and he’s going to get it done come what may or, if we are already out by the time the election is held, claim credit for getting it done. 

The fact is, of course, that the Tories wasted three years producing a deal that was defeated by their own MPs and then by voting down every alternative, and Johnson himself was complicit in all of that. 

In theory, Labour has an obvious counter-narrative — that once the Tories lost their majority in 2017, they should have started talking to Labour about a deal that would meet its objectives of protecting jobs and rights. 

But, in practice, that attack line is undermined because Labour Remainers see obstructing Brexit as a badge of honour and dismiss the idea — despite it being central to the 2017 manifesto — of a Labour deal being worth pursuing. 

In other words, the Labour Remainer and Johnson narratives are mutually reinforcing, and that’s damaging to Labour in Leave-voting seats.

This difficulty was partially resolved at conference with a policy that offers Remainers the promise of another vote and Leavers the prospect of a Labour deal. 

The trouble is that this will only work as a credible narrative in Leave areas if Labour is seen to believe in the second part of the pledge as a positive option, which means that prominent Remainers have to either buy into it or step aside. 

Labour should make clear that the team it will send to Brussels will be negotiating in good faith and will recommend a deal if it meets Labour’s aspirations.

The clarity and consistency of our Brexit position is crucial because mixed messages will undermine Labour’s ability to get across its wider narrative about transforming Britain. 

All the issues that faced the people of Britain in 2017 still apply and with even greater intensity: global trade wars and economic stagnation are threatening jobs and living standards, the crises in our schools and the NHS have deepened, the need to tackle climate change has gone from urgent to emergency, and so on. 

All these problems can be traced back to the same source: a society in which billionaires and bankers call the shots and pursue profit with little regard for people or the environment. 

Labour’s narrative will have to be sharper this time in exposing Johnson for what he is — a servant of those interests. 

IS: You mention the Labour conference policy of offering a public vote between a credible Leave deal and Remain, with Labour’s recommendation decided at a special conference after a general election. 

Remainers argue the polling data shows this position will hinder Labour on the doorstep. What’s your reading of the situation?

SH: I haven’t seen Labour’s private polling and most of the other polling is shaped by the agenda of whoever commissioned it. 

Nevertheless, I think it’s clear from both the local and the EU elections in May that Labour would risk losing more seats in Leave areas than it would gain in Remain areas if it goes all-out Remain.

In the local elections, the 22 districts where Labour lost five seats or more were all in Leave-voting areas and only 22 per cent of those seats went to the Lib Dems and Greens.

The EU elections three weeks later saw the Brexit Party, the Tories and Ukip win, between them, around 60 per cent of the vote in the former coalfields of Yorkshire, the Midlands and north-east. 

Historically rock-solid Labour seats in places such as Barnsley, Wakefield and Hartlepool would be at risk if Labour became a Remain party.

True, some Labour seats in London and the south are vulnerable to Remain voters switching to the Lib Dems but 163 of the 262 seats Labour won in 2017 are in the Midlands and the north. 

Labour simply has more seats to lose in Leave-voting areas — as well as many with the most potential for us to gain: 35 of the 45 most winnable Tory-held seats voted Leave.

IS: It is likely Corbyn will be attacked on “defence” and foreign policy issues during the general election. How should Labour frame the discussion on these issues?

SH: My view is that we should try to broaden the discussion. The debate in Britain is still largely locked in the mindset of the cold war, but the world has changed: there are now more nuclear powers, more sources of conflict and more global challenges.

The Tories occasionally pay lip service to multilateral nuclear disarmament, but they have always refused to take part in genuine negotiations and boycotted the talks that led to the UN’s adoption of a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons in 2017.  

A Labour government should use Britain’s permanent membership of the UN security council to be a force for multilateral initiatives to ease tensions and reduce the danger of war. 

Specifically, I think a Labour government should push for a summit on nuclear arms reduction involving all the established nuclear powers. 

And the framing of this in the campaign should be about how we can prevent a global nuclear catastrophe, countering the pointless macho debate about “pressing the button” to launch what even former Tory defence minister Michael Portillo has called “unusable” weapons.

Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics, published by Accent Press, can be purchased from www.steve-howell.com

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