Will Keir Starmer’s leaked plan to win back the ‘red wall’ work?

Labour hoping to ‘change the party’s body language’ with patriotic rebrand

Keir Starmer visits a building wrapped in unsafe cladding.
(Image credit: Ian Vogler/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Since taking over the Labour leadership in April last year, Keir Starmer and his top team have had one key goal: winning back the party’s heartlands.

As Sky News’ Beth Rigby noted after the 2019 election, the so-called “red wall” was not “wobbling” but rather had been “obliterated” - a loss that saw Labour returning the party’s lowest cohort of MPs since 1935.

Exactly how Starmer hopes win to back those constituencies has long been a closely guarded secret, but now leaked documents have given a first insight into “Operation Red Wall”.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Wrapped in the flag

Back in 2016, then-Tory prime minister David Cameron told Jeremy Corbyn to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem”, during a memorable Prime Ministers’ Questions (PMQs) clash.

And while the then-Labour leader appeared unimpressed, Cameron’s advice appears to have been taken to heart by Starmer, listening from the backbenches.

A strategy presentation leaked to The Guardian says that Starmer’s Labour must make “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”, as part of a bid to woo “foundation seats”, a new term for the “red wall”.

The internal documents, from Labour’s head of research, “reveals that voters could not describe what or who Labour stands for”, the paper reports.

Focus group findings suggest that Starmer is seen as “sitting on the fence”, according to the presentation, which includes quotes from a voter who complained that “I don’t know anything about the Labour Party at the moment, they have been way too quiet”.

Party officials have also been told that voters think Starmer and his team are “not being forthright and honest … about where we want to be”.

A Birmingham voter is quoted describing Labour as “two different parties under one name”, while another from Grimsby said: “They are the voice of the students. They have left real people, taxpayers behind.

The strategy plan outlines a number of measures to help counter such perceptions, including displays of patriotism by the party. “Communicating Labour’s respect and commitment for the country can represent a change in the party’s body language,” the strategists argue.

And “the use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment” - an observation that party officials seem to have taken on board.

In WhatsApp messages sent shortly after a briefing, senior Labour staff ordered: “Please prioritise the union jack header images, not the plain red ones.”

Pivot to traditionalism

Labour officials have been quick to distance the party from some of the language used in the strategy documents, with one insider telling The Guardian that “the phrasing had been written by an external agency”.

Other Labour sources have also “stressed the language was that of the third-party”, says Politico’s London Playbook, amid criticism of the suggestions that the party should “use” war veterans.

Tory MPs have been quick to attack Labour over the strategy plan.

“The entire lesson of the big fundamental shifts in British politics of the past few years? You can’t fake values,” a Tory source told Playbook’s Alex Wickham. “The British people are too wise to be duped like this. Nothing is more alienating to the voters Labour is claiming to target than the pretence of authenticity.”

However, polling conducted by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft in February last year, during Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, suggest the opposition may be on the right track with the new approach.

In a report on the findings of surveys of more than 10,000 UK voters, Ashcroft wrote that many former Labour voters “lamented what they saw as [Corbyn’s] weakness, indecision, lack of patriotism”. But the “feeling that the Labour Party was no longer for them went beyond Brexit and the Corbyn leadership”, he added.

Ex-Labour supporters told Ashcroft’s pollsters that “Labour no longer really represented its traditional voters”.

“The ‘pie in the sky’ manifesto of 2019 completed the picture of a party that had separated itself from the reality of their lives,” Ashcroft continues.

However, “despite all this, the defectors we spoke to do not rule out returning to Labour”.

Will the new strategy work?

The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty is unconvinced by the charm offensive plans, warning that Starmer’s “patriot act risks turning off his core Labour voters”.

While Starmer’s “policy of being not-Corbyn” has seen him gain ground on Boris Johnson, the plan to “wrap himself in the union flag” is a “huge risk”, Chakrabortty argues. “The very people he wants to woo may see Labour’s new red, white and blue as so much spray paint.”

Some Labour MPs have also raised concerns over the leaked strategy. Clive Lewis, one of the party’s most prominent ethnic minority figures, told The Guardian that “the Tory party has absorbed UKIP and now Labour appears to be absorbing the language and symbols of the Tory party”.

“It’s not patriotism; it’s Fatherland-ism. There’s a better way to build social cohesion than moving down the track of the nativist Right,” Lewis said.

The plan may also cause Labour problems north of the border, where the prominence of the union flag in future campaigns may turn off independence-hungry Scottish voters. In December, Starmer said that “it would be the entirely wrong priority to hold another Scottish independence referendum in the face of the teeth of the deepest recession for 300 years whilst still fighting this pandemic”.

All the same, in the run-up to May’s local elections, the “issue of Scottish independence is set to be a major theme in British politics”, says Bloomberg, with polls suggesting that the Scottish National Party will romp to victory in Scotland.

BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley says that “Labour’s leadership accepts that polls suggest increasing support for independence” but is banking on the issue not being “the main priority for many people”. If Starmer the patriot is to bring Labour success, that calculation will need to be correct.

Either way, with YouGov polling suggesting that Starmer’s early surge in popularity is stalling, Labour has good reason to think about how best to brand its “new management”.

“It is inevitable that, the more voters learn about Labour’s new leader, the more they will feel unenthused by him,” writes Ben Walker, founder of polling aggregator Britain Elects, in the New Statesman.

“The question, then, is whether Starmer is ready to capture that shift in sentiment.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.