The Tories have lost control (SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)

November 16, 2022   4 mins

“Stop the boats!” With that three-word slogan, Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Australian Liberal Party systematically attacked the Labor governments of my boss Julia Gillard and her predecessor and successor Kevin Rudd. The arrival of boats from Indonesia carrying refugees and asylum seekers were routinely announced by government and just as regularly met with Abbott’s demand. Like many of the best political slogans, it was as unfair as it was brutally effective: it became an emblem of the dysfunction of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments.

The small boats coming in increasing numbers across the Channel could similarly become the image of the collapse of the authority of Rishi Sunak’s government — if Keir Starmer is willing to learn lessons from Australia, and in particular Tony Abbott’s relentless assaults.

Politics is a contact sport. Effective oppositions put their opponents in the wrong — and keep them there by returning to the attack again and again. This normally starts with framing. Australian Liberal Prime Minister John Howard defined the debate about refugees when he said that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Australian Labor never found a way to make the humanitarian needs of refugees sound appealing — it just sounded like open borders.

There is a Maslowian hierarchy to the demands voters make of politicians. At the bottom is security, in the middle is competence and delivery of public services — and it is only when these fulfilled that voters are willing to listen to political parties’ visions of the future. Put bluntly, the most effective attack the Labour frontbench can make on Rishi Sunak’s government is to say again and again that the Tories have lost control of our borders.

This is not a time for subtlety; whatever “Stop the boats!” lacks in elegance, it gains in punchiness. This is the second lesson that Starmer needs to learn from Tony Abbott — winning from opposition isn’t pretty, but it can be simple. Two or three-word slogans can sum up an attack. They should simplify more detailed or complex arguments rather than be simplistic, but they must be instantly understandable.

It’s fortunate, then, that the solution to tackling the small boats crisis is relatively straightforward. Shift processing from the UK to France, so asylum seekers don’t need to risk the crossing. Speed up the processing of claims, which will lead to quick deportations and cut the credibility of the people smugglers. At the same time, launch a war of intelligence and policing against these gangs, with the support of the governments of the countries they operate from and through. This last part is particularly difficult for the Conservative government to achieve with France because of the suspicion, and at times hostility, their ministers and MPs have shown to us since Brexit. Like most good plans, this will take time to arrange, so Labour needs a clear strap-line.

The template Tony Abbott successfully copied was Michael Howard’s contract with the country in the 2005 UK general election: “More police. Cleaner hospitals. Lower taxes. School discipline. Lower immigration.” Few voters read political manifestos. When they complain in focus groups that they don’t know enough about Labour’s policies, they don’t mean they would like to read a 200-page manifesto. What they want is the “retail offer” — the pledges that set out simply and clearly the difference that Labour will make for them directly and personally. What does Labour mean for the NHS? Less waiting. And for crime? More police. For schools? Smaller classes. Voters need to know why Labour is the answer — and to which questions.

Since Labour conference, Starmer’s team have brought a sharpness to his language and performance. This is largely thanks to the recently appointed speechwriter Alan Lockey, the return to frontline politics of experienced Blair strategist Peter Hyman, and the newly promoted Executive Director of Policy Stuart Ingham (who is probably the most important political figure you’ve never heard of). Their success shows the importance of having competent wordsmiths on the books. A similar approach needs to turn the insights of Starmer’s Director of Strategy Deborah Mattinson’s research into persuasive soundbites that are repeated again, and again, and again.

This is where the final thing on Starmer’s shopping list comes in: a frontbench of committed campaigners who are convincing message carriers. If there were an inspectorate for political communication, there would clearly be a number of Labour frontbenchers in special measures. Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed, for one, seems to have vanished without trace in his portfolio. And at DDCMS, Lucy Powell has been unable to punish the Government for failing to protect children by weakening or even failing to pass the Online Safety Bill. Opposition is never a time to carry passengers; the task is now to present Labour as an alternative government. According to Sir John Curtice, Labour’s regular poll leads mean that a clear majority is now a real prospect.

It’s time, then, for Starmer to pick the team who will be his first Cabinet after he wins the next election. He will never be stronger than he is now. Labour regularly polls around 50% — that means one in two voters you meet are thinking of voting Labour. The Shadow Cabinet needs to be his choice of the talent that can seal the deal with the voters. Experienced Labour hands, veterans of the New Labour days, note that Starmer campaigns best with strong women politicians; he looks and sounds more relaxed and connects with the public more deeply. So, he needs to be out and about with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner. They are his Gordon Brown and John Prescott, and he should remember how well surrounding himself with very strong and very different politicians worked for Tony Blair. Starmer now has talented female frontbenchers such as former leadership contender Liz Kendall, who has returned from maternity leave, and Merseyside campaigner Alison McGovern. Both would strengthen the Shadow Cabinet by replacing stale, male, and pale underperformers.

Hunger for office is the key. Oppositions can tear down a government, but they need to get up every day wanting to do that. Starmer is spoiled for targets. If it’s not energy prices driving up the cost of living, it’s higher interest rates raising mortgage repayments. If it’s not NHS waiting lists lengthening, it’s the crime rate rising and police detection falling. And yet, too often the government successfully projects the narrative that they are grappling with events out of their control, when everything going wrong is the consequence of a decision made by one of the five Tory Prime Ministers over the last six years. If he’s going to win, Starmer needs to put down his toy gun and show the bludgeoning skills of successful opposition.

John McTernan is a British political strategist and former advisor to Tony Blair.