It’s finally here. Soon, or soon-ish at least. The real chance to change things for the better. The moment to draw an end to this succession line of the shambolic, to turn from this family psychodrama pretending to be national policy, and to get on with the near-extinct priority of actually governing.
It’s easy to get lost in such a target rich (and, indeed, rich target) environment. Among the Vegas-style buffet of collateral damage inflicted upon our society, politics and economy by a generation of Conservative ‘government’, an all-day, neon-lit feast of incompetence, mismanagement, corruption and falsehood, one particular stain is often forgotten. It’s easy, surveying the Bonfire of the Calamities that passes for modern Britain, to ignore a softer, more subversive cost inflicted on us all.
Our politics itself has been sacrificed at the alter of Conservative power. The recent death of Alistair Darling felt like more than just the passing of a great man. It was a reminder. An urgent plea to recall a time when substance mattered more than style. When public service might be measured by meaningful policy impact, not by the outcomes of asinine playground jostling for the next job. A time of principles, not empty posturing.
As we dare to hope that we’re entering a final lap of the Tory relay race, the last dregs of the national egg having been wiped from one Conservative leader’s spoon to another for the final time, we surely find ourselves in a new era of politics altogether. From a time of meaningful policy, to a time of mere pronouncements. A time where the lectern is more powerful than the legislative. This is the sorry era of ‘Government by Vibes’.
Pints of wine. Blue Passports. The mythical migration panacea of Rwanda. New hospitals that are nothing of the sort. These are not the policies of serious people. Those few that come to pass, mean nothing. Most (perhaps mercifully) never do, and never will. These are not the priorities of those who understand their grave responsibilities or the acute and chronic needs of those in whose interest they are supposed to serve. These are vibes. These are pure surface. This is the politics of the atom, where 99.99% is an empty void.
Consider, then, the current accusation being levied towards the opposition by the government and its various client journalists, that Keir Starmer and the Labour Party lack a clear, guiding policy vision. Putting to one side the brazenness required for a government that was simultaneously recruiting David Cameron and Dominic Cummings (the HR equivalent of, for want of a better metaphor, writing two totally different editorials on a national referendum and picking which one to publish, stake a career upon, and drive the nation towards based on the toss of a coin) this accusation is only possible because of our new age of Vibes. See, in a world where noise and nonsense pass for passion, where the ability to stoke division passes for leadership, and where the identification of others to blame – whether judges, refugees, doctors or tofu-eaters – stands in place of values, then sure, substance is less sexy than style. Policy based on evidence, data and designed to change millions of lives is far less of a quick sugar hit than faux pearl-clutching about, let’s say, the number of bins we have. Or statues. Or lavatories.
Keir Starmer and Labour, then, find themselves in the curious position of Substance over Style. They have articulated a bold, progressive vision based on clear promises, one that will be fully fleshed out and manifested as a deployable program in waiting just as soon as Sunak & co. finally sign the government’s DNR and call their mercy election. It’s a vision rooted in, whisper it, policy outcomes. Safer streets and communities where violence against women and girls is halved. A functioning NHS able to provide two million more appointments per year. A secure, green jobs revolution. Great British Energy. The most ambitious house building project in a generation. These clearly, taken together, are the policy manifestations of a singular driving mission to create a Britain of which we can all once again be proud, where we have our collective future back. Proud of the work we do as individuals, proud of our communities and the high functioning institutions at their heart, whether schools or hospitals or prisons, proud of our national role in combatting the challenges of the age, from the changing climate to the aggression of autocrats.
But… the vibes. There’s not enough spittle. Too much ‘Director of Public Prosecutions’ and not enough ‘Director of Publican Prosecutions’ which, surely, is a role designed for the Lee Andersons of this world, desperately glancing towards the bar hoping to catch Nigel Farage’s wandering eye. So yes, there’s a clear policy slate, meticulously being laid out and forensically tested as a pre-cursor to implementation, but that’s not going to fit on the front of a lectern now, is it.
So, in this series of articles, I’ll take them one at a time, unpacking the substance, in the face of the style, and showing how communicating that substance doesn’t necessarily mean out-shouting the pub bore. It means articulating values, in the face of the vibes. I’ll look at Health. Education. Immigration. The economy and cost of living. Climate and energy. Foreign policy. Let’s be as forensic as these matters of substance require, rather than giving in to the age of Government by Gesture, where we’re all invited to a (fictional) new hospital to toast the (never going to happen) Rwanda plan with (never going to be manufactured) pints of wine which we can then throw away in one of our seven (two) bins. If the accusation being hurled Labour’s way is of the lack of a clear vision, let’s show that these policies when taken together amount to the most radical agenda of a generation, and that the progress being promised at the next election is both urgently required and governed by a singular strategic mission, a dominant driving force.
Let’s not fall into the trap of shouting back in the face of all that angry spittle. When they bring vibes, let’s bring values. When they offer discord, let’s offer detail. When they whine, let’s win.
This is the first instalment of strategist Alex Hesz’s ‘Mission Messaging’ series for Progressive Britain.