The strategies and slogans of Labour’s leadership contenders

Over the weekend three candidates officially launched their campaigns to become Labour’s leader.  What can the slogans and launch adverts of each of the candidates tell us about the strategies of Sir Keir Starmer, Jess Phillips and Lisa Nandy?

Keir Starmer launched his leadership bid on Saturday 4th January with a lengthy biographical video and a campaign website complete with slogan and data capture form.

Starmer’s pitch is aimed squarely at the members who supported Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 and 2016 leadership contests.

Starmer’s launch video highlights his radical credentials and places the MP and former Director of Public Prosecutions at the centre of many iconic moments in recent left-wing Labour history – from the miners’ strike, to opposing the Murdoch-owned press, to fighting against the poll tax.

There is no criticism of Labour under Corbyn in Starmer’s launch advert and plenty of moments are included which are designed to appeal to staunch Corbynites; for example, recent policies like ‘the Green New Deal’ are namechecked and clips of Stop the War (of which Corbyn was previously chairman) demonstrations are used.

Starmer’s slogan – “Another future is possible” – uses the sort of language long associated with left movements in the UK (Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell previously wrote a book called “Another World is Possible”) and the phrase would not be out of place on a banner at an anti-war or environmental protest march.

It’s a smart strategy to appeal to those on the left of the party.

Starmer is very unlikely to win without the support of members who voted for Corbyn in the previous two contests, particularly if Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee decide to prevent recent party joiners and registered supporters from voting.

Some might say that he risks alienating the public with his radical pitch to the Labour membership and jeopardises the party’s next general election chances, but politics is the art of the possible.  Starmer’s only option is to take the existing membership with him and look to build “another future” with them on board.

Jess Phillips’ campaign to become Labour leader, which launched on Friday, shares two big things in common with Jeremy Corbyn’s successful bid.

The first is that – like Corbyn in ‘15 – she is aiming to win by expanding the electorate; her plan is to get people who left the party under Corbyn to rejoin and to encourage people who want to have a “viable” Opposition to the Conservatives to register as supporters in order to vote in the election. 

This is the only possible way for Phillips to win given that she was highly critical of the last Labour leadership and is therefore held in contempt by the Corbynite wing of the party. 

The second way in which Phillips’ campaign is similar to Corbyn’s is that her pitch is centred around honesty; Phillips’ slogan is “Speak Truth. Win Power.” and Corbyn’s strap line was “straight-talking, honest politics”.

Whilst the slogan is similar to Corbyn’s, it still feels authentic coming from Phillips.  She is known for her distinctive and honest personal style. It is also differentiating; other candidates in the race aren’t most famous for a straight-talking approach in the way that Phillips is. 

But are former Labour members going to be persuaded that a truth-deficit was the reason Labour lost?  Boris Johnson romped home to victory in December despite the public perceiving him to be extremely dishonest. 

And is the promise of a straight-talking leader inspiring enough to get someone who has never been a Labour member before to sign-up as a supporter?  A pledge to speak truthfully risks sounding like table stakes and political causes need to be motivating as well as tenable and distinctive.

Corbyn was able to focus on his straight-talking style as his anti-austerity vision and anti-western worldview was plain-to-see. Phillips’ audience will certainly warm to her everywoman personal brand but they may need convincing that she has a coherent vision for the party and country in order to engage more deeply with her candidacy.

Lisa Nandy is positioning herself as the politician who wants to win power in order to give it away.  Nandy’s audience is the ‘soft left’ of the Labour Party membership that has in recent internal Labour elections helped carry Ed Miliband, Sadiq Khan and Tom Watson to victory.

Nandy’s slogan – “we win together” – is a good one.

It shares the same sentiment of the slogan being used by Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential contender which is “Not me. Us.”  Indeed, Sanders’ website prominently features the phrase “there is only one way we win – and that is together”.

“We win together” is both a collectivist statement and a summary of the solution to what Nandy believes is the problem facing Labour and the country.

Nandy is arguing that in order for the country to thrive, power and resources need to be devolved back to towns, cities, regions and nations and that Britain can only win if every part of Britain wins.

And she is arguing that Labour under Corbyn has been guilty of perpetuating a paternalistic attitude towards its traditional base; this has manifested in Labour standing for things that are “in the interest of the working class” that working class people largely disagree with.

Nandy has been campaigning for greater devolution and a renewed focus on Labour’s traditional base for some time, so this positioning rings true and she has plenty of research and policies to put meat on the bones of her brand positioning.

But Nandy’s path to power isn’t easy; Phillips will hope to take some of the less left-wing ‘soft left’ members and Starmer is playing for the more left-wing elements of the ‘soft left’.

Two other candidates who have declared they intend to run but who seemingly haven’t yet got as far as websites, logos and launch videos are Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry. And the expectation is that one or both of Ian Lavery and Rebecca Long-Bailey will soon announce their aspiration to be the ‘hard left’ heir to Corbyn’s crown.

The first poll of the contest – conducted by YouGov who correctly predicted the result of the last two Labour leadership elections – showed Keir Starmer winning comfortably; but the campaign has only just started and the incumbent faction haven’t yet got into gear, so there’s plenty still to play for.

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