Starting with the why

This morning Keir Starmer chose to frame his offer to the voters under the banners of Security, Prosperity and Respect. He called this a contract with the voters, a framing for which I have little time, and which led to a mawkish attempt at humour about his lawyerliness. I guess we should be grateful he hasn’t put the contract on a monolith or sent a copy to every home.

But while the contract makes me groan, I find myself drawn to the wider framing. Starmer is often criticised for not having enough policies, but I’ve never been persuaded that it’s a gap especially at this point in the electoral cycle. Westminster people love talking about policy but most of it leaves voters cold: it can be technical, obscure, and tedious.

Instead, Starmer has given us an experiential frame from which to hang the bits and pieces of his emerging policy agenda. He wants citizens to feel three things: to feel secure, to feel prosperous, and to feel respected. The individual policies he mentioned don’t make the heart sing very loudly – closing drug dens or putting more hydrogen storage on the Humber – but they’re not really supposed to. They’re examples of how you might build towards a goal, not goals of their own.

This reminds me of a training session I used to give more than a decade ago to candidates and campaigners about how to talk about policy. I argued there is a continuum from the purpose to the practicalities of policy proposals, and that most policy people and far too many campaigners spend their time at the wrong end of it.

The policy example I used was something that had been discussed at a Liberal Democrat conference: making night buses stop on-demand instead of only at bus stops. A certain kind of campaigner loved talking about this kind of policy proposal but often forgot to mention why they believed it mattered.

My continuum looked like this:

Purpose ————————————————————————————-> Practicality

You can take any policy towards the “purpose” extreme by asking the question “why?”.

“Night buses should stop on demand instead of only at bus stops”.

“Why?”

“So that women can get off the bus as close to home as possible.”

“Why?”

“To reduce the risks they face walking alone at night, and to make them feel safer.”

“Why?”

“So that women have confidence to participate fully in all the things they want to do even if it involves staying out late.”

“Why?”

“So that women can participate in society as equal citizens.”

And in the other direction, you can take purpose back towards practicality by asking the question “how?”.

“Women should be able to participate in society as equal citizens.”

“How?”

“We need to increase women’s confidence to participate in all the things they want to do, even if that involves staying out late.”

“How?”

“We need to reduce the risks women face walking alone at night to make them feel safer.”

“How?”

You get the idea.

It’s a useful exercise to get people thinking about how they talk about policy to voters, encouraging them to start with the why – the values, purpose and goals of policy. If you start with the how, you often just baffle people: instead you use the “how”, when questioned, to lend credibility to your commitments. 

But beyond this, the immediate thing participants notice is that this journey from purpose to policy is a pyramid, not a line. Night bus protocols are one of dozens, if not hundreds of different policy initiatives we could take to improve women’s safety; women’s safety is one of dozens of things we could focus on to improve gender equality. And the great advantage of starting with “why” is that you find much broader coalitions there. People who’ve never given a moment’s consideration to women’s night-time homeward journeys can support the principles of gender equality, and if you take them step by step through the “how” you will often persuade them that your specific solutions have value. But they don’t really need to care very much about the specifics if they’re bought into the purpose.

So I think Starmer is onto something in the framing he used today. He’s starting with the why, and trying to build up a policy platform that substantiates his claim to be able to deliver that experiential promise. After all, a winning manifesto is not just a random smorgasbord of policy proposals to buy off individual voter groups. Hardly anyone cares about the specifics of policies, and they certainly don’t vote on the basis of things like visible policing hubs or whether there’s an economic centre for the video games industry in Durham. They care about the story the policies tell together, and the purpose they serve. You tell that story by starting at the top: the “why”. “I want citizens to feel secure, prosperous and respected” is a pretty good “why” to start with.

But that doesn’t mean it’s job done for the next manifesto. Today’s speech was just a start and if this is to become a defining vision for a “Fourth Chapter” of Labour governments, there is a lot of thinking still to be done. I’m left with three big questions.

  1. What’s their differentiator between this offer and the Conservatives? Will Labour say they are offering something different, or promising to be better at delivering something similar? Security is a framing the Conservatives don’t use for health or housing, so it felt a little new. Prosperity, however, felt pretty samey in narrative terms – green jobs, place-based growth, start-ups, economic hubs, make and sell more within the UK. The critique was that the government’s not delivering, not that it’s promising the wrong things. Maybe that’s enough? It remains to be seen. Respect was the most interesting, to me, because it feels like a potentially strong area of differentiation with a government that seems to treat voters, and its own laws, with contempt. And yet the policy story seemed to tap into the cultural agenda we hear from the levelling up team: prosperity for places, “stay local, go far”, community and culture. What’s the difference?
  2. Respect is my second question, too. This was by far the least developed section of the speech; I jotted down all the policy specifics as I listened and I didn’t pick up any on respect, except a general comment about contracts being a “two way street”, which took us back to asking citizens to be respectful of the rules, work hard, join a neighbourhood watch and not be nasty to NHS staff. But what would it mean for citizens to feel respected by their politicians and by one another? What would make a practical difference? Here, I want to ask a lot more “how” questions before I’m satisfied there’s a real plan for change.
  3. Finally, I think there’s something missing about the context. It’s always easy in opposition to blame the government for everything, and it would be churlish to object to a bit of mudslinging from the Leader of the Opposition. But if I were really planning a policy agenda to deliver this set of experiential outcomes, I’d want to think first and foremost about the macro trends in our economic and social life. For sure, the government could be better. But our ageing population is making health security harder to afford; technology and carbon transition are destabilising and disrupting our labour markets; self-sustaining prosperity in post-industrial areas is elusive across the west; respect is complicated in a diverse society with five generations’ worth of values and opinions competing for dominance. I don’t mind small policies – like community policing hubs – as symbols of the changes we need. I don’t mind talking up Britain to sell a message of patriotism. But I do object to the sense I often get from Starmer speeches that it might be easy to fix our problems with a few tweaks here and there.

There will not be an election in 2022 (I hope). So those who want pages of policy detail will have to be patient. For all the cries of “but what will you actually do?” Starmer is starting at the right end of the telescope, as he starts to build a manifesto. But there is still a lot of building to be done.