The Battle for the Don’t Knows

It is hard to start 2024 without a spring in the step. Labour is roughly 20 points ahead of the Conservatives, with healthy leads on the economy, crime, and the NHS. The received wisdom is that there will be a change of government this year, even if Rishi Sunak pushes the date into November. Surely, they say on the Clapham Omnibus, the Tories cannot win a fifth term?

And yet, as Keir Starmer was keen to remind us in his New Year address in Bristol, our enemy is complacency. Historically, the Tories are very good at winning at elections and opinion pollsters are bad at predicting them. Labour polled the highest number of votes ever in 1951, and the Tories won. In 1970, the polls, press and public opinion all pointed to a Labour majority, and the Tories won. In 1992, the polls predicted a slim Labour majority, and even the exit polls pointed to a hung parliament, and the Tories won. There’s a Shimon Peres quote we’ll be hearing a lot this year – polls are like perfume, nice to smell, dangerous to swallow.

One factor that should keep Starmer up at night is the big chunk of the electorate who say they don’t know who they will vote for at the next election. For political obsessives, this might be hard to understand. But most people spend most of the time not thinking about politics at all. I was chatting with a neighbour over Christmas – educated, professional, always votes – who had never heard of Wes Streeting. Imagine. Millions of people have yet to make up their minds. The DKs will determine the next election.

Why hasn’t Labour sealed the deal with these voters? There is lingering and understandable fear of Labour after the Corbyn three-ring circus. Some ‘don’t knows’ might be Tory voters who don’t want to admit it to pollsters. These ‘shy Tories’ sent John Major to No.10 in 1992 and crushed the dreams of a generation. Either way, if the ‘don’t knows’ can be persuaded, by hook, crook, tax cuts, or culture wars, into the Sunak column, Labour is sunk.

What do these ‘DKs’ need to hear in Shrewsbury, Scarborough, Monmouth, Bournemouth, Gloucester, Worcester, Swindon and the other ‘battleground seats’? They want to be reassured that Labour has irrevocably changed for the better. The rigour of Labour’s selection of candidates has been a vital component in this. So has the leadership’s positions on Ukraine and the Middle East.

But Labour must continue to show distance from years when Labour felt like the political wing of Russia Today, when Putin was given the benefit of the doubt, even when whacking dissidents in Wiltshire. The trip on 21 December by Starmer and John Healey to British troops serving with the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in Estonia was pitch perfect. The optics of Labour’s leaders in flak jackets cemented our support for NATO and a Labour Britain’s place at the heart of the western alliance.

We need further proof that Labour’s instincts and values are in tune with the DKs – patriotic, moderate, ambitious for their families. That means policies which speak to this common sense. A doctor and dentist when you need it. Ending the epidemic of looting from shops. Getting homeless people off the streets and into shelter. A railway that works most of the time. Ways to own a home without winning the Omaze draw. High streets that are not only safe, but also bustling with life. Work that makes you better off, not anxious or ill.

People know that there isn’t a secret stash of extra cash for Labour to splash. But the British state spends roughly £1.1 trillion a year, so it shouldn’t be this hard to see police officers on the street or get a GP appointment. Labour needs to show the DKs that we get it, that we share the frustrations of a broken Britain where nothing works. Our manifesto must reflect the realities of our communities, not the pipedreams of policy wonks.

Lastly, we need to hold our nerve. The opinion polls will narrow in coming months. The March budget will set a series of fiscal traps, which Rachel Reeves will have to outstep. People will publish ‘helpful’ books about where Labour is going wrong. Global events will generate political turbulence at home. The Tories will outspend us online with insidious, populist propaganda designed to confuse, terrify, and misinform. None of which must distract or deter us from a single-minded determination to persuade millions of DKs who have never before voted Labour to place their trust in us. It’s a huge ask, but the only way to win even a majority of one.


If you enjoyed this piece, see Paul’s previous blog ‘Scrapping Newsnight is a colossal mistake in the age of fake news’.