Discover more from Dominic Cummings substack
How could Labour win? Swap dud 'dead player' Starmer for a Midlands woman, shift HQ to a Tory-held Midlands marginal, focus on econ & crime
'Live in the village', focus on public, marginalise trans/BLM nutters
‘Thank God I’m up against Keir and haven’t got to deal with Blair or I’d be totally fucked.’ Boris-Self-Aware-Mode, July 2020.
‘Live in the village, don’t attack the village.’ Colonel Boyd.
IF UNINTERESTED IN UK POLITICS DO NOT READ.
I discuss some basics a winning political party needs to do, how Starmer is a dud, and what I would do if I were a Labour MP focused on winning. And I digress into stuff on politics and government I think you might find interesting.
I would ditch Starmer immediately and install a Midlands woman who can build a team and focus relentlessly on target voters.
Conventional wisdom is that ‘the Conference shows Boris is unassailable’. Wrong. Unlike Thatcher or even May he does not have strong personal loyalty. Even Osborne had a stronger personal following than him. His grip is entirely transactional therefore very vulnerable to events. He’s only ever 4-6 polls in a row away from a leadership crisis and, when in self-aware-mode, he knows it.
The trajectory of the PM is clear — no plan or grip, just crises and media entertainment. The trajectory of Labour is unclear. If they keep Starmer then, although government uselessness may move the polls to a messy ~35 each, there is little chance of convincing enough target voters that Starmer is a serious alternative to bring the scale of shift needed to overcome the 2019 defeat and get a working majority.
But the electorate is very volatile and a working majority is possible. If they face reality and replace Starmer with a Midlands woman who can build a team and focus on target voters with the right strategy, then the polls would shift dramatically. Enough target voters already know Boris is a bad PM for Labour to win the next election but they do not think Labour has a credible alternative.
At the end I put some simple probabilities on these calculations and conclude that it’s rational for both parties to switch leaders regardless of what the other does.
This is just a sketch of some basics but focus on basics is the most valuable thing in politics and is usually ignored in the obsession on today’s debates, news, interviews, ‘crises’, ‘scandals’. Given how fundamentally important big questions/answers are, people tend to spend an incredibly little amount of time on basics like ‘should we really push to get Brexit done?’ (summer 2019), or ‘should Labour really focus on violent crime and the small business ecosystem?’ (autumn 2021) — where ‘really focus’ means ‘a focus so strong that normal people in the environment think it’s “extreme” but, unlike almost all political action, it actually changes the game’.
This is an attempt to explain dynamics without fooling myself and a thought experiment to help consider how the overall regime could be radically improved. It’s not a description of what I want to happen. It’s not ‘how could Labour change the game?’. It’s ‘how could Labour win the next election playing the current game better’.
From a different perspective — not ‘how to win’ — if you care about Britain developing healthier government institutions that can generate knowledge, wealth and security and can cope with serious crises such as covid and worse-than-covid, then you should support replacing both these dud leaders regardless of your party preference.
I show some results from the Vote Leave 2019 MRP.
This is rough, I’ll read feedback, fix errors and publish a public version in a week or so.
What are the basics for a conventional political party?
Here’a few simple criteria for figuring out where Labour is.
A. It needs a leader the public think is a plausible alternative PM. If you look back to 1979 the party with the leader who is seen as the best PM always occupies No10. Thatcher is the last Opposition leader who took power despite being clearly behind on this score. The public does not need to think ‘they’re great’. But you need to be at least very close to a tie on the number who think ‘they’re better than the alternative’ if you want other factors to deliver a win. Bad initial impressions are very sticky.
In 2024 the Tories will have been in power for 14 years and be asking for a fifth term and 19 years. No party asking this has succeeded in modern UK electoral politics. ‘Time for a change’ will be extremely powerful. You need a leader who can articulate this, not seem like the type who represents ‘more of the same old rubbish I’ve watched for twenty years’. What you really want is people saying, as they do of Thatcher but no PM since, ‘whether you liked her or not she was a proper leader’.
B. The leader and their core team, which could be as small as 3-4 (e.g Obama-Axelrod-Plouffe-Gibbs, Blair-Brown-Mandelson-Campbell), must understand what the country’s top priorities are and how target voters in target seats think about them. This is easier said than done because A) the media create so much noise and political people have been trained to listen and respond to the media all day, B) party activists/MPs tend to pull you away from rational strategy (partly because of A, partly because the feedback loops for careers are more tightly bound to in-group hierarchies and media than winning), and C) winning strategy often seems (because of A+B) somewhere between eccentric and insane to the political elite in a country’s capital who spend all day talking to each other.
Example, 2010. Despite 13 years of Labour government, the worst financial crisis since 1929 and a PM who could not cope with the job, the Tories could not define clearly what the election was about and what their message was. They’d oriented to pundit-reality, not reality, and looked like Insiders talking to other Insiders. The result was a botched campaign and a hung Parliament.
Example, 2016. Back in 2014 I pointed out that pundits and MPs discuss politics as if voters lie on a one-dimensional line — left-centre-right — but this is objectively false. Swing voters are both more left than Blairites (e.g tax the rich) and more right than Tories (e.g violent/sex crime). We created a referendum strategy based on this fact. This approach was mocked by high status pundits who did not understand how people they rarely meet actually think. We were attacked by many as ‘too Right’ (e.g over Turkey). We were attacked by many, including many Tory MPs, as ‘too Left’ (because of the NHS/350M). Tory MPs and many activists wanted to focus on ‘trade deals / Global Britain’. This was disastrous because most target voters didn’t care about trade and either didn’t understand ‘Global Britain’ or thought ‘it sounds like our useless politicians running around causing chaos abroad again instead of focusing on their proper jobs’ (i.e the public was right as usual!). But our approach, though ‘incoherent’ in pundit terms of Left/Right, matched exactly the priorities of our target voters who desperately wanted a) an Australian-style immigration system (open to high skills, a period of much lower unskilled immigration) and b) more cash for the NHS. Not only did they want them, these two things were basically their two main political desires so we connected them to ‘Vote Leave’ and ‘take back control’. Remember a crude heuristic: the median voter is roughly national socialist!
Example, 2019. Through July-October 2019 the conventional wisdom in SW1 was that my team didn’t know what we were doing, our approach was ‘too aggressive’, the country wanted ‘compromise’ blah blah. When we started forcing an election many said we’d blown it. But we tuned out the Westminster hysteria, where MPs were literally weeping and screaming at each other, and focused on the priorities of target voters in target seats. Boris in summer 2019 was not a popular leader (see graph). But we told a convincing story from his first week that was ‘incoherent’ to the pundits but worked and made him better than the alternative.
There is one guy really trying to solve this crisis, to get Brexit done, and he’s prepared to fire people and make waves to respect the referendum result so the country can move on — hence firing the 21 MPs, proroguing Parliament etc. (Please don’t compain about ‘aggresive tactics’, ‘constitutional norms’ — the MPs en masse promised in 2016 to respect the referendum result then tried to ditch their promise, undermining confidence in democracy itself, which justifies ‘rough tactics’ in response.)
He’s not a normal Tory, we want to get Brexit done so we can get on with your priorities particularly the NHS and violent crime. Forgotten now is how from July we sent him to hospital after hospital after hospital. (He hated it but he was in Self-Aware-Mode and knew focus was needed to avoid imminent career death.) He would give reactions to Parliament’s latest Brexit nonsense from a hospital talking about the public’s priorities. People would see Grieve babbling away and the PM in a hospital trying to move the country on. Want to understand how swing voters watch the news? Watch with the volume turned off for a while and imagine what the audience at Wrestlemania will think.
Understanding where the true ‘swing’ seats are is obviously critical, as swing states are in America. This list is not the same as ‘the seats that were closest last time’. The best way to figure this out is with what’s known as MRP — i.e Bayesian statistics plus very large sample polls. This works much better than conventional polling — i.e ~1,000 person samples and simple statistics. (There are ways to tweak MRP and this field will evolve as machine learning methods and data gathering methods etc evolve.)
Contrary to everything you’ve read in the Guardian, the interesting technical thing we did in the referendum was not digital marketing but this sort of very large scale polling. In 2018-19 I quietly had a new model built. Here is our final 2019 MRP model predictions (left column), never published before, with some comparisons. It was extremely accurate.
During the election, I sat in a secret little office 50m from the Spectator with the data science team. No10 thought I was in CCHQ and CCHQ thought I was in No10. Levido, Cain and I did not want this work in CCHQ where many would inevitably know it existed and blab about it. We shared data with Levido and his inner team via a cloud dashboard and it helped the targeting plan (volunteers, social media ads etc). Nothing from it, nor the existence of the office, leaked. (During the campaign I worked partly on the campaign and partly (unpaid) on government stuff.)
Despite having read Tetlock on the dangers of substituting one’s own judgement for the model, on election day I substituted my own judgement for the model. Just before 2200 when the PM asked me what I thought I said ‘359’. (On the sweepstake board in the office I also wrote ‘335-370 80% confidence’ which shows how I pulled my estimate low.)
As you can see from this snapshot of our dashboard (taken at 630am on 13th as the PM wrote his victory speech), the MRP had been very stable — i.e ‘reality’ was much more stable than you might think watching the daily news and polls. It’s also interesting that the model thought the probability of a hung Parliament was much less likely (near 0%) than it ‘felt’ to the pundits or me. Though I’m often critical of pundits, my brain worked like theirs on this even though we told ourselves ‘we’re thinking like pundits by expecting the same thing to happen this time as last time’, i.e that the Tories would do worse than polls predicted. (‘Foundation model’ was the core model, we ran another ‘negative model’ that tweaked a bunch of things in a pessimistic way to try to figure out potential bad surprises. Like modern organisations and unlike No10 until we started to change it in 2020 (e.g with the Analytical Private Office), the data science team worked on code + dashboards, not Excel + powerpoint.
C. The leader must be able to build a team that embeds the ‘unrecognised simplicities’ of effective action. I’ve written lots about this and won’t repeat but the basics are things like — Don’t fool yourself. Relentless efforts. Speed kills… As Paul Graham, founder of YCombinator says, it’s amazing how well speed does as an indicator of whether an organisation has its act together. Slower organisations aren’t better or more thoughtful, they’re just slower.
D. The leader’s team must be able to shape the media, by fair means and foul, without orienting to them. Winning campaigns disentangle dealing with the media and orienting by them.
Although Westminster is obsessed with the media, it’s also, somewhat paradoxically, also deeply confused about how to communicate. As Steve Jobs said to Axelrod:
What your industry does, if you call it an industry, is bullshit. You guys don’t know anything about communication.
Actually I think Obama’s campaign did know something about it but the point is still generally valid. This odd paradox is crucial to absorb if you want to make sense of the ‘news’. This is why the news looks ‘normal’ to those inside it but surreal garbage to normal people seeing occasional fragments. There are some journalists who sort of understand this in part of their brain but their entire job relies on pushing those thoughts aside to focus on the crazy babble — if they behaved more wisely their colleagues and bosses would think they’re having a breakdown.
The most important principle to remember is:
EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION IS NOT NOT NOT THE SAME AS SPINNING THE POLITICAL MEDIA BUT ALMOST EVERYBODY IN SW1 THINKS THEY’RE THE SAME.
Another crucial principle, increasingly important as educational polarisation becomes more important, is:
The best educated people think they are rational and not susceptible to illusions and stories while the public are irrational and therefore should be corraled by the priests of the ‘cathedral’ (i.e Harvard, Oxbridge, NYT, Guardian), but the truth is that the best educated are more susceptible to illusions and stories than the general uneducated public. (E.g look at how elite graduates fell for Stalinist propaganda in the 1930s, and how elite graduates were the suckers for conspiracy theories on Brexit/Trump/Russia/Facebook. Nobody is easier for a propaganidist to fool than an elite graduate confident in their own moral superiority, because if you get your mesage right they do most of the work for you.)
After the 2019 election, other than over aspects of covid February-April, I tried to avoid discussing ‘communication’ with almost everybody including the PM, and to the extent I engaged in ‘communication’ tried to limit it to the management question of changing the hopeless, slow and pointlessly expensive government communication structure (which the PM abandoned November 2020). If you fired over 90% of everybody doing government communication — as I intended — everything would improve, just as DfE communication improved enormously when we cut it (2011-13) from over 250 to <50, and would have been better if <10. In Whitehall, power is measured by headcount and all pressure is to increase headcounts which degrades performance. Consider the referendum: Remain had literally the entire government machine as well as the actual campaign, we had about ten people, a difference of roughly three orders of magnitude.
An example of political people who really did understand communication — Reagan’s White House which brought people in from Hollywood, cf. It’s Morning Again in America.
E. This connects to the crucial importance of focus and ‘having priorities means there are non-priorities’ and things you don’t talk about.
If you read about how Jobs turned around Apple, one of the most interesting and least-discussed things is that when he arrived to a total mess his first step was massive simplification and stopping things so the company could focus on a few things. He famously drew a 2x2 grid with laptop/desk and public/pro and said apart from these models cancel everything, we’re going to make just four great machines.
Government and campaigns need a simlar approach. While someone may have to deal with X, the centre mustn’t try to deal with every X and if it tries it won’t deal with every XYZ, it will fail on the crucial A or B.
Here is George Stephanopoulus, head of communication for Clinton’s 1992 campaign:
‘Tempting but let it go.’
If you think, as many academics think, you can just talk about whatever you think is important you are deluded. This is not because ‘the public are dumb’. It’s because people are swamped and they have to filter. This is very hard for MPs, hacks and academics to internalise because they consume such vast amounts of political information relative to regular voters and their job is to have a wide filter, but normal people have to focus most attention elsewhere (except in a huge crisis) therefore they must have a narrow filter.
An example… Before 2010 one of the policies that I worked on with Gove was ‘free schools’, i.e loosening the bureaucracy so that people could set up new schools. We talked about it from 2007-10. As the 2010 election started we had a meeting with some Tory MPs. Some of them attacked us: ‘We need a really good policy … like this free school idea in Sweden, why can’t it be our policy?’ It had been our policy for three years, they hadn’t noticed! Not ‘the public hadn’t noticed’ — the MPs hadn’t noticed. This shows how much information overload, filters, and priorities matter. Cameron/Osborne, like almost all MPs, always thought of the announcement. Therefore always the new announcement. But effective communication requires focus, simplification, and repetition. This is even more true in our degraded media environment where TV dominates and people, including elites, are less able to cope with complex written arguments and have much shorter attention spans.
Lots of Institute for Government types will repeat a platitude they don’t understand — ‘governing isn’t the same as campaigning’. This is true in a few ways but it’s wrong in the most important way. Don’t believe me, tempted to listen to the IfG? By wide agreement the most effective White House chief of staff since the post was created was James Baker.
Running an administration isn’t a lot different to running a campaign – you need to have a coordinated message, a directed message, and you need to prioritise. You can’t do that when you have too many chiefs. One of the problems of the current White House is you have five or six separate power centres in that White House, and they cross-cut. That’s a recipe for dysfunction.
The pundits and IfG types kept writing ‘Cummings is campaigning’ when nothing could be further from the truth — I’d almost totally stopped talking to the media and was totally focused on governing. But they were double wrong because they don’t understand that focus and priorities are core to both governing and campaigning. I said the same in No10 as I did in the 2016 and 2019 campaigns: focus on high leverage priorities, don’t try to cover everything, don’t fool yourself that centralising everything will work, empower great people at the edge of the network.
The above obviously is nothing like a full list or analysis. But it gives a sense of some core basics. Getting these more right than your opponent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being successful.
How do Starmer and his team measure up?
A. Starmer is not seen as a serious alternative PM.
The PM is seen as somewhere between a clown and a crook by most of the country. He is neither popular, in the sense Blair was in 1997, nor respected, in the way Thatcher was. He has botched covid, recovery from covid, and much else. He can’t get through a week without embarrassing blunders. He’s self-evidently not a serious person and doesn’t even try to be. And people think Starmer would be worse!
Starmer is a ‘dead player’.
Samo Burja defines a live player:
A live player is a person or well-coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before.
Examples: Elon/SpaceX/Starbase, Xi, Vote Leave 2015-16.
And a dead player:
A dead player is a person or group of people that is working off a script, incapable of doing new things.
Examples: the Cabinet Office created by Heywood, the Foreign Office press office, the Commission team responsible for Single Market propaganda, the ERG.
A sign of being a dead player working off a script? Look at No10’s spin about the new ‘delivery unit’ — it literally uses an old script from 2001-5 to describe how it will supposedly work, which was already out-of-date twenty years ago when Blair tried it (hence why we were introducing a new model in summer 2020, but dead players prefer old scripts to new ideas).
When you’re a mostly-dead player, you tend to entropy, chaos and low energy organisations that forget crucial knowledge and skills.
A great example is the way in which entropy has invaded our nuclear enterprise over thirty years — not just the procurement fiascos, rotting infrastructure and intelligence failures but the way in which knowledge of things like how to produce crucial materials is literally forgotten and has to be reinvented at greater cost decades later.
You see the same phenomenon even for extremely politically salient issues such as healthcare where outsiders would reasonably but wrongly assume ‘at least they’ll focus on getting that right’. A great example of this was the way in which when Obama tried to do his health website, central to ObamaCare, Washington could not make the website work. It had forgotten crucial knowledge it had developed long ago and in panic the White House had to call Silicon Valley people they’d worked with on the campaign to bail them out.
Offensively, if you figure out whether a player is alive or dead, you can predict how they will respond to things and what that means you can do. If you find out that a player is dead, then you know that you can confront them in ways that are not known to them, and they will not be able to fight back. On the other hand, if you fail to figure out that a player has died, you might not realize that you can get away with replacing them. Defensively, paying attention to live players allows you to anticipate and prevent the grabbing of power, for instance.
The distinction between live and dead players also matters if you are trying to predict the future of society. You can predict what will happen in a society if you understand its landscape of live players. Societies with few live players will stagnate; societies with many live players will develop and adapt.
Starmer is very predictable because he’s a dead player playing ‘normal SW1 mode’. Labour needs a ‘live player’ playing ‘outside M25 mode’.
Also remember — once people have decided you’re a dead political player, they almost never change their minds and it will only happen if something really dramatic happens. Keeping Starmer is an all-in gamble on Boris self-destructing.
B. There is no evidence Starmer understands what the country’s top priorities are and how target voters in target seats think about them. (Or, if some in the inner team do understand, they cannot persuade him.)
He has totally failed to define himself as standing for anything and he has not communicated any sense of priorities. All people can say is ‘not as crap as Corbyn’ — or as the guy who installed my new TV said last week, ‘he’s sort of a mix of Miliband and Corbyn isn’t he, not a real leader’.
Until this last month there was literally not one thing I could say that I thought Starmer had been trying to communicate for 18 months other than ‘Boris failed on covid’. Nothing.
Has the Conference changed anything big?
No. He focused an internal showdown on something impenetrable to the public, unlike Blair over Clause IV. He then botched the execution. They got some TV coverage about green investment and business rates but this was small beer. Insiders will struggle to remember the announcements, never mind normal voters. The leader’s conference speech is a moment the TV has to cover unless bombs are going off and it was wasted with an essay that seemed part of an extended debate with SW1 pundits, not an alternative PM’s speech to the nation.
The conference has not led to significant numbers of target voters in target seats re-evaluating nor did it signal a serious political project that can make the weather and, crucially, win over Tory 2019 voters.
Much of Labour debate looks like people deluding themselves about ‘mobilising the young’ so they don’t have to face the tough questions about persuading Tory voters. Clinton, Blair, Obama persuaded people who voted for their opponent last time around. Hillary did not. Even Corbyn was sometimes better at this than Starmer and sometimes even said popular things that were noticed!
Look at four simple examples:
For all his babble at PMQs, there is no summary of a coherent description of Boris’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic. The vaccine success and their failure to make progress has scared them so much they’ve abandoned even talking about the fact the PM killed over 100k while making jokes about it! And Starmer has bounced around so much and is now taken so un-seriously it’s hard to see how he could do this even if he were given the ammo by someone who knows what they’re doing.
It’s so basic it’s a sign of a total dud that he hasn’t even tried to have an economic story. Particularly when Boris has trolleyed around all year and deliberately ruined relations with his own Chancellor, paralysing the government’s own economic story! All he can say about jobs, investments, skills and so on is flat platitudes that leave no mark on the news, never mind public consciousness.
This connects to Starmer’s total failure over the collection of problems around supply chains and energy prices which has been telegraphed since last year. Any serious political project would have been all over this, developing arguments all year. The PM even made another truly terrible political blunder at Conference by babbling that it was ‘not my problem’ on TV a few times. A serious team would have immediately seen this opportunity and said — we’re going to make ‘not my problem’ his ‘read my lips’. There should have been videos all over Facebook hammering the message until the PM panicked and gave a clip ‘clarifying’, thus pushing the story on and ensuring the one thing the public remembered about the Tory conference was the PM saying the collapse of supply chains is ‘not my problem’ — which would go down very badly with target voters. Instead? Starmer either vanished on holiday too or is just so rubbish he’s invisible and couldn’t exploit the error.
Target voters are deeply concerned about violent crime. The Tories have been useless for a decade because they can’t escape the pull of the permanent bureaucracy and human rights activists. And in another terrible and telling blunder, the PM refused to remove the failed Met management even after, in their panic, they started tweeting to women to ‘flag down a bus’ if the police try to arrest them. It’s hard to think of a bigger open goal, a bigger opportunity to show target voters you share their priorities and values. What did Starmer do? He rushed onto TV to support the PM and the management! Almost all stories, including ‘big’ Westminster stories, are irrelevant to the polls. It’s almost all noise. That was a rare example of a moment that was not noise, where everyone was watching. He couldn’t see it and couldn’t exploit it. If you can’t see the biggest things you won’t see the smaller things.
There’s many more examles but there’s no point. If you can’t even try to have an economic story and you support the PM over ‘flag down a bus’, you’re a dud dead player.
C. There is no sign of a team that has embedded the ‘unrecognised simplicities’ of effective action.
Starmer’s operation is slow, lethargic and inept. There is no sign of the sort of relentless political machine that winners have. What does this look like? In 1992, a Republican was going out with Clinton’s campaign director, James Carville. One weekend she visited the office:
This is what winning political campaigns look like. There are hot women and beer and pizza and music in the office on Friday and Saturday night because the place is bursting with energy. And they enjoy kicking their opponents down the street at 10pm on a Saturday night when the other side are in ‘work-life balance’ mode. Labour’s team know the PM and Carrie sit ludicrously twitching at twitter on Saturday night when the papers drop — they should be driving the two of them crazy with rage and panic every Saturday night, thus creating a wave of horrific phone calls across Tory-world and constantly ruining everyone’s weekends.
This is what Vote Leave was like in 2016 (and 2019). We had the whole government machine against us but some core staff were truly demented in their focus and drive, so demented their friends would say to me things like ‘I’m worried X will have a heart attack and die he’s basically living in the office and has turned grey’. Losers don’t answer the phone on Saturday afternoon and whine about ‘work-life balance’.
There is no sign of Labour using their inherent greater flexibility — they only have to coordinate themselves, they don’t have dysfunctional Whitehall to coordinate — to build a speed advantage over No10. I don’t think Starmer has any idea how to build something like this or could cope with it if someone else built it. Some lawyers are also great at management. Most are not and are made worse by their daily routines which are necessarily extremely different than those of great managers. Starmer is a mediocre lawyer with normal SW1 management skills, i.e hopeless.
(By the way there is a similar problem in No10 where a tiny number of officials and spads work extremely hard, especially in Private Office, but in an overall culture of ‘nobody there on Saturday afternoon’, which I think is absolutely shameful for the centre of power in this country and partly explains why so much goes so wrong. To start to change this I shifted meetings to Friday evenings, to stop the awful ‘get away to the country at lunchtime’ Tory culture, but of course this was dropped as soon as I left. My view is that it’s a huge privilege to work in No10 and you owe the millions without a voice all your efforts. My view is seen as ‘hostile to work-life balance’. But work-life balance is not for people trying to change history in high stakes high pressure organisations. If that’s your focus you owe it to the millions without a voice to go do something else. Of course there is room for exceptions but they should be exceptions, not the rule.)
D. Instead of ‘shape the media without orienting to them’, Starmer has ‘oriented to the media without shaping them’.
SW1 judgements about people reliably herd. Mediocrities who have never displayed any management skill to build something and never had an original, or even interesting, idea are ‘serious grownups’ provided they always side with the permanent bureaucracy, never ‘rock the boat’, never deviate from the SW1 Overton window (however much of a failure it proves to be), always treat Westminster as a serious place rather than a bad joke, always advise ‘slow down’ and so on. Regardless of how rubbish they are, others in the system, including retired ministers and officials, will give quotes supporting the ‘serious grownup’ line. (Anybody who suggests our institutions are so rotten they’ll collapse in a pandemic obviously is ‘not a serious person’.)
Starmer ticks all the boxes. A pro-Remain lawyer who floats around SW1 burbling empty platitudes, parroting every cliché about sexism/racism/trans, so psychologically incapable of challenging the system that he even supports the Met management when they’re tweeting advice to women to ‘flag down a bus’ while the rest of the country clutches their heads. Perfect! The IfG et al will support him to the death. Grownup! Not even the faintest sign of management skill? ‘Management’, urghhh we never discuss ‘management’ dear boy, that’s frightfully infra dig.
In 2020 Starmer did not orient to reality and the public, he oriented to ‘keep the media fed’ with predictable effects. When the government had terrible problems in 2020 and dropped in the polls, pundits wrote their ‘he’s a serious grownup’ columns. But as the vaccine kicked in Q1 2021, people had no underlying reason to maintain what they were telling pollsters. And he’s given them no reason to reconsider. And the pundits who wrote ‘serious grownup’ always follow the polls so now they write ‘hapless, rudderless’.
And I can’t think of an example where he has used the media to shape the environment and tell a story to the country. He’s blown every opportunity he’s given.
Winning campaigns keep opponents off balance and turning in on themselves by finding and feeding stories about internal problems. This gets inside the opponent’s OODA loop, slows them down, increases internal tensions, and cascades to cause other problems. Earlier this year Starmer got a gift. The Mail pushed week after week of dodgy/illegal actions by the PM around his finances. He lied through his teeth and crossed his fingers. And Starmer’s team (he should not have talked about it himself) totally failed to exploit it. If the PM were spending a lot of time in horrific lawyer meetings and worrying about who would say what once perjury is a possibility (always clarifies minds) then lots of other stuff would break. This sort of failure is a sign Starmer’s team doesn’t understand their job.
E. Starmer comments on dumb stuff and doesn’t understand ‘let it go’.
Like the PM he has no discernible priorities and like the PM, and David Cameron, he can’t resist being a pundit on irrelevant stuff. Instead of having week-after-week focus on violent crime, he babbles about the next Bond and stumbles into broadcast interviews with no clear idea of the story he’s trying to make and therefore accidentally makes news on stuff that’s irrelevant or makes him look even worse.
At Conference he made news on ‘does a woman have a cervix’. Bill Clinton would have used such a question to show he was with the vast majority of the country and fed up with the media babbling about the ludicrous ‘trans discrimination’ story that almost nobody except a few idiots think is in the top 500 national priorities. And this would have contrasted brilliantly with Boris who is now under orders from Carrie and Newman to suck up to Stonewall because they have extremely deluded ideas about electoral strategy for 2024.
Starmer? Obviously he gave the London idiot answer.
Partly because he’s a dead player working off a script.
Partly because his default mode is to optimise for ‘minimum trouble with my in-group today/tomorrow’. He is not optimising for ‘best strategy to win’.
What should Labour MPs do if they’re optimising for ‘win next election’?
Accept Starmer is a dud and replace him now.
You could try to force him to change his team and this may improve things a little but even the best case is a very small improvement. A dud’s a dud and changing the team would be displacement activity. The problem isn’t the staff, the problem is him.
Don’t fool yourselves, just bin him now.
Don’t be fooled by ‘maybe the PM’s shitshow on supply chains will move the polls and avoid the need for hard choices’. The PM killed over 100,000 people, his incompetence is not controversial, he can’t help act like a clown while people are dying like flies around him — yet voters still prefer him to your dud. Yes the polls could easily move a bit but you need them to move a lot and stay there — you need to be 40+ with Boris <35 and well ahead on ‘who has the best leader’. Even Miliband and Corbyn sort of managed this briefly and they didn’t have a PM who incompetently killed thousands and inflicted mass suffering then blatantly lied about it all.
Face reality and don’t fool yourselves.
The ideal replacement is a woman from the Midlands who can focus on the public and build a team. I don’t know much about Labour MPs, and obviously you need to focus group the hell out of this, but Lisa Nandy seems the closest fit to the job description. Boris cannot take women seriously. Both in Vote Leave 2015-16 and government 2019-20, I brought in some brilliant young women to key roles. Boris, like many men in politics/government, struggled to listen to them. As one woman who knows Boris extremely well and has worked very closely with him said to me last year, ‘he can’t take women seriously, he can’t help staring at tits and talking like we’re idiots’. He will massively struggle with a woman opponent and he is already very vulnerable with women under ~50.
The new team should focus on the economy and crime.
Don’t focus the bulk of your activity on the NHS. The public and media will focus on the NHS. This will be good for you. You obviously push certain stories and respond but this is not where you should focus your time. Boris missed his chance in 2020 to fire Hancock and tell a new story on the NHS. They will keep spending more in panic but they won’t fix the core problems and they won’t get rid of the huge backlogs so the next election will be the Tories’ nightmare — another election with the NHS as issue No 1 or 2 after 14 years in power. This is a big structural advantage for you. Your challenge is to make progress on the public’s other big priorities where you do not have big structural advantages
There is one big project you should push viz the NHS… I tried to get the PM to launch ‘NHS 2030’, a project in the Midlands that would see extra cash in return for staff accepting radically different incentives plus new training plus new tools (e.g sorting out the NHS data horrorshow) plus huge focus on prevention — the next generation NHS with no waiting lists for GPs or operations, no hospital beds occupied by people who should be in social care, GPs making house visits for new mums (shock horror, what used to happen 40 years ago). By showing people that a) things they care about now (waiting lists, immediate help with babies) can work properly and b) what a shift towards prevention and digital-embedded-in-services looks like, you build support for the institution/incentive changes needed to get there. Instead of a ‘big bang’ NHS change, you have a local network project that is additional to the existing system. Nobody loses, everybody learns and you build a map for change along with support from the public and NHS staff.
(I thought of it looking at Alan Kay’s explanation of the thinking behind the development of the personal computer — from a ‘cosmic goodness’ intuition (a high performance no-waiting-list NHS with great incentives focused on prevention), go out into the future, figure out what will be possible in ~40 years if favourable exponentials continue (e.g genomics, scanning technology, protein folding breakthroughs, understanding ageing, machine learning, Moore’s Law etc), bring the idea back to 10-15 years, what could be done, figure out how to start building it today…)
Boris was uninterested in anything about 2030-40, by which time he will be long gone, couldn’t see the political point and has no interest in projects that take time and coordination (rather than simple media announcements). Labour should do a version of this. Put it in the Midlands so you’re always there when checking in with campaign HQ (below). Unlike the Tories you don’t have to worry about people doubting your motives. Given NHS staff are mostly Labour supporting you’ll be able to engage staff and build a network of younger staff who actually want change (unlike the gerontocracy of the awful BMA).
People already trust you on the NHS. In the same way we shoved Boris in a hospital throughout 2019, ‘Lisa’ should always be on TV with local businesses and police.
An economic story. For example…
Shove the PM’s broken tax promise down his throat at every opportunity. It was a huge blunder. Create a big story and speculation around your tax plans then rule out any income tax/NI rises for anybody other than the top 1% of wealthiest people and even for them focus on consumption, not assets that contribute to investment and jobs. Explore some sort of 50% income tax rate for incomes over around 150-200k, with the money paying for your ‘extra police on the streets’. Boris personally would go crazy — he’s always talking about cutting taxes for top earners with an eye to himself in the future — but Levido will tell him it’s popular. He’ll trolley around. If he opposes, you have a good simple line — ‘same old Tories oppose the richest paying more tax to pay for police on our streets’. If he folds and agrees with you he’ll have a huge revolt on his hands in the next budget. Because the PM has no strategy and cannot hold a line on anything (other than ‘no comment on private life’), it’s win-win. And the economic effect is basically nill. It won’t raise much cash but it will do almost no harm either. And if you combine it with meaningful ideas about a) how to remove tax distortions that disincentive long-term investment, b) helping small businesses for whom tax bureaucracy is a nightmare, and c) SIMPLIFICATION — which ought to have been a Tory focus for a decade but obviously they’ve done the opposite of what they said they would 1997-2010 — then overall your tax policy will be strongly pro-growth. You will have Tory voters agreeing with your priorities, never mind swing voters. Further, promise to reverse the Tory NI tax rise, paid for with your 1% wealth/new income tax. Whenever a Tory criticises your spending plans, you reply, ‘The PM guaranteed no income tax rise for working people and broke that promise so he could keep handing over billions to billionaire Tory landowners, Labour will reverse that tax rise and the only people who will pay more tax are the wealthiest 1% who have been given endless subsidies by the Tories. Labour is the party of low taxes for working people and small businesses.’
Start building a small business network starting in target seats in the Midlands. The PM and many Tory MPs do not realise how much a decade of Tory rule has alienated small business owners and their staff. They don’t realise because Labour has totally failed to exploit it. This is very fertile ground and as you make progress you will also sow panic and infighting among the Tories. If Remain had mirrored what Vote Leave did and built such a network, instead of focusing all TV on Cameron/Osborne, Remain would have won. Learn! This project means talking to small local businesses about tax, regulation, planning, skills, apprenticeships, training, FE, and R&D. Westminster has no interest in ‘skills’ but your target voters care about it a lot, much more than the perennial SW1 debate about A Levels (the more SW1 talks, the lower the credibility of A Levels). This activity will connect you to networks of power and influence. Remember Boyd — cut your opponent off from sources of power and connect yourselves to sources of power. Disconnecting local businesses from the Tories and connecting them to you is a fast way to degrade their position.
The PM has dropped the Vote Leave agenda on science, technology and data. He only supported it because I forced him. And because of his spending decisions and inability to make any cuts the Spending Review will be a nightmare and he will slash cash from R&D (fiddling the figures, double counting with MoD/DIFID etc) in order to plug holes elsewhere. So this space will open up for you and allow Labour to say interesting things about energy, the future of the NHS, the future of defence and so on.
Remember Clinton and ‘a job is the best welfare’. You’re surrounded by people saying ‘welfare cuts are awful’. But your target voters think that after a decade of Tory government scammers and lazy gits still exploit the system pretending to be disabled! Why? Because they see this all around them! Yes, you have to keep your base happy but more important is to show your sympathies are with those working and struggling, not those lying on the sofa watching daytime TV. The relentless rise in ‘disability’ is another thing the Tories talk about in opposition and make worse in government. Exploit their failure.
A crime story. For example…
Every week unless there is a 9/11 crisis, hit Boris on ten years of Tory failure on crime. Every week. Feed the Sun and Mail exclusives. Until the Tory MPs start going crazy and demand action, which will feed chaos and rebellions.
Investigate some case studies of sex crimes where the treatment of the rapist/killer is totally out of line with public opinion. There are thousands of such cases so it’s easy. Figure out a core sentencing change that outflanks what the Tories have done. And, using some of these case studies and working with families of victims, demand the change. Do it with ‘Lisa’ on TV with victims’ families and retired police.
Every time a Tory talks about crime, your spokesman should say ‘for ten years you’ve let out XX murderers and rapists after just half their sentence, you’ve totally failed, the next Labour government will be tougher on violent crime and ensure rapists XXX’.
Target assults. All over the country people see serious assaults causing permanent injuries getting joke sentences. Get some examples and promise changes so severe a load of the usual suspects attack you. The Tories will implode. David Davis will start some ludicrous ‘civil liberties’ campaign — which you then hang around Boris’s neck, creating more infighting. And so on…
When some of your MPs whine, kick them down the street. As you go up in the polls, more of them will be thinking about imminent ministerial jobs. And if you get violent crime right on TV, you will go up in the polls.
Remember, in lots of target seats people have seen the closure of the local police station, the near disappearance of police from streets, street lights turned off ‘to save money’ and more scary violence. I know this, I heard it in focus group after focus group in the places you need to win when I drove around in 2018-19. MORE POLICE, TOUGHER SENTENCES, NO MORE TORY FAILURE ON VIOLENT CRIME! Do not listen to those lefty academics telling you ‘persuade the public longer sentences for violent criminals don’t work, focus on rehab’. They are deluded siren voices leading you to electoral disaster, you will not persuade your target voters of this argument.
Re education. It’s sad but the only things your target voters really care about are: funding, discipline/behaviour/bullying, skills/apprenticeships and class sizes. Much to my own sadness, most people (including most policy people) have little or no interest in what children learn, how they learn, teacher training, exams, funding incentives, management structures and so on. You won’t change this. Focus groups have remained constant for 20 years. If your family were taken hostage then ‘smaller class sizes’ are the obvious message. The problem is it’s a bad policy — money is not best spent like this. This is why, despite desperate circumstances and my reputation for total ruthlessness, we did not deploy this in 2019. A good ‘retail’ policy which could get you a similar political benefit is ‘funding for 1-1 tutoring’, such as specialist reading help. The evidence for this is, very unsually in education research, dramatic (two-sigma gains). It’s good policy, good politics and (unlike Academies and funding systems) easily communicated — ‘[we’ll tax the Tory dukes to pay for] one-one tutoring so working families get specialist help with reading, maths, computing…’
Obviously you should never, ever waste time on ‘trans discrimination’ and similar ‘culture war’ issues other than using them to show your true priorities match the target voters’. And your priority should always be women’s safety, not extending the rights of men who call themselves women. Take some MP who talks nonsense about it and blow their career up pour encourager les autres. The public will get the message — the new woman leader is tough on crime and is a proper leader focused on important stuff.
Stop attacking ‘levelling up’. It’s a bad slogan but it’s also inoffensive. Attacking it is punching smoke, a pointless waste of time. Instead focus on clear specific failures (e.g waiting lists) and devising and hammering your own message.
Shut the Party HQ in London. Reopen it in a Tory-held marginal seat in the Midlands. This was my advice to Boris last year which is unlikely to be taken.
Why? In London everyone focuses on Parliament and the media. Staff spend their time chasing high status meetings with important hacks. There is a reason US Presidential campaigns have moved out of Washington. It gets you out the way of the circus and helps staff focus on the public, not the insider game.
Labour should have the staff tasked with rebuilding the party machine living with the people it needs to persuade in a Tory-held seat. The staff will shop there. Buy lunch there. Spend weekends there, though they should be in the office much of the weekend. They’ll go clubbing, get hammered and have dates with people there. They will get to know what these places are really like. What people care about and don’t. The staff will learn how little most London news matters, and what does. This will improve all aspects of network building and communication.
And they will naturally think: what persuades people who voted Tory in 2019 to switch to us now? In London — surrounded by the lawyers, academics and hacks who voted Remain and still blather on about 350M and Turkey — it’s much easier to keep telling yourself nonsense, ‘they were tricked by lies’ and, fatally for Labour, ‘it’s about mobilising the young Left’.
In short, you want the people tasked with winning the election to be thinking daily about the people around them — particularly local businessmen and workers who voted Brexit 2016 and Tory 2019 — not about Jonathan Freedland, Owen Jones, the Guardian, Momentum, Jolyon, and that whole network of people who think they’re so smart but are really bad at politics partly because they spend all their time talking with similar people who spend all their time thinking about politics and are waaaayyyy to the left of the country’s centre of gravity.
(You probably need to have the data science team in London. Do not have them in your Parliamentary office. There should be a separate ‘safe house’ for them and those thinking about the actual plan for government. This is where you build your MRP. Obviously the team will need to visit the Midlands HQ regularly. It’s possible you could find somewhere in Midlands where you could persuade people to move to for 2.5 years but it’s better to have the right five people mostly in London than the wrong people in Midlands for this.)
I won’t go into detailed ideas on communication other than to make one point. The political media is, obviously, almost totally uninterested in policy qua policy. Because policy-heavy speeches are seen as boring and get no coverage unless they can be turned into a row, MPs now, without thinking too much, talk about policy less and less. But the public is much more interested in policy than the political media! True, they aren’t interested in the usual SW1-style speeches. And most, like most MPs, won’t read a 100 page report on energy policy. But they are interested. So talk about it to them.
Go on Facebook and talk to target voters in detail about policy in areas they care about or are really important long-term — e.g technology and health. You will show you’re not just another empty politician with no clue about what’s changing the world. (Then put out 15-30 sec videos summarising a 90 minute discussion.) The Conservative Party has decisively turned away from serious engagement in policy problems. This cannot change with Boris’s model of political action dominating. But millions of people know that all sorts of policies have gone wrong for a decade or more and want to discuss these issues with politicians and are intensely frustrated by how politicians now communicate. They hate political interviews on the news, they hate the broadcasters political shows because the formats are rubbish and the questions are rubbish — that is, the questions reflect Insider interests and the most educated people’s interests, not normal voters’ interests. So get out of the Starmer scheduling bubble, make yourself time and engage with people. The lobby will ignore or mock. Ignore them. It will work and if you do it via social media you will also build organic audiences of value to your data science team. (You can keep the lobby in line with ruthless use of exclusives and punishment beatings, carrot-stick is the only language they understand.)
I would mostly shut up about civil service reform but develop a truly secret project (insulated from the normal work of your office, in a separate location) for your first 3 and 12 months that maps out crucial changes to how No10 works. This secret project should draft the letter you give to the Cabinet Secretary on Day 1 instructing him on changes to be made and the timing you demand. That’s the day you have maximum power. Boris squandered his moment. Look at memoirs from Thatcher to May, they ALL missed their chance to actually control the government. Don’t make the same mistake. Remember Lord Butler’s view — your job is chairing largely pointless meetings of dopey ministers while they hold the real power. Generally the less you say about this, the more leaks and help you will get from officials who want to push Boris off the ice — which includes almost all of the senior ones.
Warning: the hardest problem is your own side
Figuring out the best strategy to deal with the ostensible opponent is never the hardest problem.
It wasn’t my hardest problem in 1999 re the euro campaign.
It wasn’t my hardest problem in 2004 re the North East referendum on regional assenblies which we won 80-20.
It wasn’t my hardest problem trying to reform the Department for Education 2010-14.
It wasn’t my hardest problem in 2015 for Vote Leave.
It wasn’t my hardest problem in 2019.
All of these efforts we won. In all of them, the common feature was that Tory MPs were a much bigger problem than our ostensible ‘opposition’. The people on our own side always thought the winning strategy was ‘mad/stupid’.
The hardest problems in politics are with your ‘own’ side.
Don’t believe me?
Listen to the ultimate grandmaster of politics, the single best object of study if you want to understand effective political action, Bismarck.
Beating the Austrians was no art… The difficulty was getting my king to take the plunge… My two greatest difficulties were first to get King William into Bohemia and then to get him out again. (Re 1866)
I have always found that the hardest tasks of diplomacy lie in relations with one’s own court. (1888)
And a crucial problem is that one’s own side is always trying to rule out of consideration the best moves.
You cannot play chess when sixteen of the sixty-four squares are forbidden to you by your own side… We cannot make an alliance with France without a certain degree of meanness, but in the Middle Ages very admirable people — even German princes — used a drain to make their escape, rather than be beaten and strangled.
Few in politics really want to face uncomfortable truths. It conflicts with strong incentives and strong emotions. That’s why history is what it is. This is why politicians do not optimise for ‘winning elections’ and are provably irrational in election strategy, and instead almost always optimise for ‘media coverage and in-group chimp politics’.
How to beat Starmer isn’t the Tories’ biggest problem — Tory MPs are the Tories’ biggest obstacle to winning the next election.
How to beat Boris isn’t Labour’s biggest problem — Labour MPs and activists are Labour’s biggest obstacle to winning the next election.
The truly hard problem is grabbing control of a powerful entity then keeping your own coalition roughly united behind the winning strategy.
And there is always a collective action problem. It is not in any Labour MP’s personal interests to stand up and make the obvious argument now. It’s hard to get a historic wave moving. All sorts of people for all sorts of motives and with all sorts of delusions will babble nonsense.
So to solve this genuinely hard problem, you need to persuade some key figures like Blair, and some key Corbynistas, and some other key figures like ex-ministers who are respected. Prescott and some union leaders would be a good start. Get all the detailed polling, get all the brutal focus group quotes to show them, and lay it all out.
And once the plot breaks cover, for god’s sake don’t stop! Keep hammering until Starmer’s position is untenable. Don’t worry about the polls going south. The polls are already as bad as they can be after a PM kills 150k. Focus on forcing him out and the replacement. The polls will swing back fast if the replacement gets it right.
How to keep the base happy?
A core problem for Labour is that its activist base is extremely far out of whack with target voter opinion. Tories have the ERG. You have communists wanting to empty the jails while pretending evolution doesn’t apply to sex.
A lot of these people won’t be happy if they just have to watch a strategy optimised for winning. You have to keep your activists away from mad positions on police, crime, sex, and tax.
So focus their efforts on all the iniquitous ways the super-rich get subsidies, legal advantages and so on. The carried-interest loophole for hedge funds (which I tried to change (on the advice of hedge funders themselves!) and which I assume will survive). The agricultural subsidies to all the Tory dukes — who are also extremely good at exploiting a load of ‘green’ subsidy/scams. All the dodgy Russian CCHQ connections — promise investigations when you take power — which will also get inside Tory donor OODA loops, sowing panic. The planning scams. The pension loopholes benefiting the richest, carefully defended for a decade (which I tried to change and which I assume will survive unless the Chancellor’s team can overcome PM resistance).
You can systematically catalogue the many ways the wealthiest benefit from laws, promise action, run campaigns, keep your base happy, not alienate anybody except people who won’t vote for you anyway — and actually make the country fairer! Win-win!
Keep the leader largely away from this on TV.
Ignore the Brexit trap, focus on winning
The goal is winning, not making rich-lefty-Remain-London happier.
An influential network of Remain-ers remain incensed about, and unreconciled to, Brexit. They fear dying outside the EU and want Labour to return to this battle. This would be a huge error.
Yes you would make happier a load of people who already hate the Tories and will already vote against them — particularly lawyers, minor academics, pundits and activists. Freedland and Jolyon will clink champagne glasses at the Groucho as they peddle to each other fantasies about Putin, Jedi-mind tricks, Bond-villain Etonians, and Bannon. Adonis and Campbell — the Japanese soldiers still in the jungle — will cheer.
But these are not the people who will decide whether you win the next election. Those people, the crucial swing voters in marginal seats, will think a) ‘god they’re still on about Brexit instead of my priorities’ and/or b) ‘they’re still criticising me for voting for change in 2016 instead of explaining how the country should change now’.
Trying to persuade people who voted for Brexit that they were wrong is only relevant if you are going to try to make the next election about UK-EU relations, which would be like shooting yourself in the head. The silent artillery of time will either revive this issue or not — but it is, in Bismarck’s phrase, unripe fruit.
The combination of a) historic forces at work across the west and b) Vote Leave shaping a new electoral coalition in 2016/19 means you have suffered a huge drop in working class and lower middle class support in crucial parts of the country. Combined with Scotland, this gives you a huge strategic problem. Dealing with this must be your focus.
Ask yourselves a simple question: which picture is more plausibly relevant to you winning — Boris and Carrie watching twitter at 2300 on Saturday night saying ‘oh no Starmer has returned to Brexit’ or ‘oh no Starmer is kicking off another week visiting victims of sex and violence, our MPs are going crackers’? Which is more likely to have No10 staff saying ‘the trolley’s already smashed twice before breakfast’?
Few things would make Boris happier than renewed focus on Brexit. Focus your time and efforts where they have most leverage.
I notice pundits like Nick Cohen despairingly argue that having left the EU how could Labour relegate Brexit as an issue and —
… propose to create the ‘good jobs you can raise a family on’? We have wrenched ourselves out of a vast and prosperous free trade area and our leaders can’t even talk about the consequences let alone try to ameliorate them… All of this pushes all of us in the anti-Johnsonian counter-culture back to asking the same, old question: how can this country be so stupid?
No, Cohen is the stupid one and the despair of such diehard Remainers is misplaced viz Labour. Regardless of whether you are Brexit/Remain, only the most fanatical and reality-denying Remain-ers think that EU membership is more important than all the ways we control our economy, most of which has nothing to do with EU trade. You should focus on all these things: on planning, on skills, on taxes that distort investment, on the incredible bureaucracy that businesses face which we can reduce whether it’s domestic or EU-legacy.
Two powerful forces will help you: Tory-institutions are rotten and the media is desperate to destroy Boris
The Tory machine is rotten and the entire ‘movement’ is very low energy. In 2019 the Vote Leave team and Levido’s team were grafted onto a decayed CCHQ which has rotted for years. As our MRP showed a load of seats we could grab I would ask CCHQ staff ‘what could we deploy in X’. ‘There’s nothing there, the members are mostly dead, there’s nothing next door either’, was the repeated answer. The ‘think tanks’ and campaign groups are almost all displacement activity — they do not make the weather and their net effect is negative as they soak up effort and resources.
A core problem for the Tories is that very intelligent and able people who are inclined to a Smith/Mises/Hayek view of markets and a rather Thucydidean perspective on the world, and who are generally hostile to parties like Labour and Democrat, now very rarely involve themselves in politics. They increasingly focus on building their own walled and private gardens where they can build things, learn and provide security for people they care about. You will increasingly find them in the intersection of maths-money-technology. They look on Westminster as a farce from which to insulate themselves, not a problem to be engaged with and improved. The idea of having your home surrounded by screaming crazies egged on by the media in return for attending rubbish meetings is not appealing. (Why ‘and Telegraph’? Political hacks are overwhelmingly non-‘right’ so when the left hacks coordinate attacks on people they don’t like the ‘right’ hacks join the attacks, they almost never do the opposite and even if they do it’s usually pointless because they don’t combine understanding political warfare and high motivation.) This means that modern ‘conservative’ networks tend to the intellectually mediocre and operationally incompetent. As universities and other high status institutions increasingly articulate official Left positions and purge those who disagree, this dynamic strengthens.
Rebuilding all this requires coordinating skills on multiple dimensions, time, a serious agenda and so on. Vote Leave would have tried to do it as part of reshaping the party system that’s the necessary sequel to Brexit. It won’t happen before 2024. The Tories will be reliant on money, ‘air war’, and whatever fear of Starmer they can generate with the Sun and Mail. Most BBC and ITV coverage will be hostile.
And as I stressed above, after 14 years of Tory government, millions of conservatives will be rightly thinking:
Higher taxes, much worse regulation, a Tory government appoints wankers to key jobs the same as Labour does, the bureaucracy is all more hideous, wasted the past four years, why expect another four years of Boris to turn these tides?
One of the reasons why Brexit was such a shock is Westmisnter never internalised, never faced, the reality of how people now view politicians. Not just ‘they’re all the same, all talk, no delivery’ but ‘scum’. It’s too jarring for SW1 to face this so they don’t. The Vote Leave project intended to turn this around by actually focusing on public priorities, changing the government machine so we could deliver, then delivering. It’s impossible to exaggerate therefore how important it is that Boris turned his back on actually changing how government works so a lot really changes on the ground.
It means that ‘time for change’ will be extremely powerful in 2024 when he’s asking for a fifth term and 19 years in power. This is a huge opportunity for Labour to re-collapse the Red Wall, take power, make changes, then increase the majority while the Tory Party is wracked by civil war and recriminations while Boris flies off making jokes, making cash and chasing fun on billionaire private islands.
The media is mainly Labour supporting and most of them HATE Boris. If you ditch Starmer now and replace him with a woman, you will catch a powerful surge of energy from the media. And the country will pay attention. If she hits the ground running, the polls will shift and the whole game will change.
Remember how the media ferociously kicked Major to pieces? The will happen again if they can get behind a Labour woman who is competitive and people feel a historic tide.
A super-simple model
Labour is gambling on the Trolley imploding.
The Tories are gambling on Starmer staying.
Neither has any serious plan for a post-Brexit renewal or a convincing political story or a plan to rejuvenate their rotten parties.
They’re just hoping the other stays more rubbish.
This simple table shows some probabilities for different strategies for CON and LAB.
In the scenarios with a new leader I assume they have a serious team roughly as able as the best teams of the past 40 years.
The top left is status quo continuing, each side’s best scenario is in bold, the outcome if both act rationally is italics.
Obviously the numbers are guesswork under extreme uncertainty but the important thing is the relative likelihood of key scenarios.
It’s rational for both parties to switch leader regardless of what the other does.
If LAB switches, regardless of what CON does it has a) a much greater chance of at least a hung Parliament, after which they would have momentum for either a coalition and/or another election while the Tories implode in civil war, and b) a much greater chance of a majority.
If CON switches, regardless of what LAB does it has a) a much greater chance of at least some majority, and b) a much greater chance of a big majority. By 2028, if a serious leader is in charge, the country and party will look extremely different. The current Labour Party might even crack up.
Another risk to Labour is that if we stumble on for two years with Boris/Starmer and Boris avoids implosion, Boris staggers back into No10 with a small majority and Tory MPs in their rage, knowing he’s on the way out, replace him with someone who then reboots a new agenda as PM (e.g actually cuts taxes) then holds his own election. The voters have had change! This nightmare for Labour could allow the Tories to recover from the extreme stupidity of letting Boris waste an 80 seat majority.
The hardest box to put numbers on is ‘both switch’. A huge amount would depend on the leadership skills of the new PM and the extent to which he/she could get Tory MPs to support crucial controversial moves, under potentially huge pressure.
Obviously all of these scenarios are based on no other serious force emerging to disrupt the CON-LAB game, which may happen.
Why put such advice out there?
If Labour moves in the direction I suggest I think it would be net good for the country. I have not given any advice which I think would be bad (e.g I think some consumption taxes for the wealthiest would probably be good and I’m with the focus groups on ‘terrorise the terrorists’). There are ideas I think would help Labour but would be bad for the country. I have not mentioned those. I think it would be possible for Labour to steal much of the Vote Leave plan, smash the Tories, and do the country a lot of good.
This thought experiment makes one confront why we now tolerate being governed by these rotten old institutions — parties and Whitehall — as the world around us changes so dramatically.
For me, ‘the Balaji option’ of not trying to capture and change these old institutions but building new things that can replace these rotten old institutions is extremely appealing. I will turn to this next.
Like with the Trump blog I’ll read feedback and make a version of this public some time.
If you find what I’m doing interesting please consider a gift…
(Apologies for everything taking longer than I think.)