Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
The last manifesto was focused squarely on issues that mattered to the new Conservative voter: immigration, crime, public services, infrastructure (I refuse to say ‘levelling up’, which is classic Whitehall speak). Its clarity – including on Brexit – inevitably meant some voters turned away. But far more were attracted to a party that was willing to stand for something.
Labour tried not to choose, and it lost. Not just because of the Corbyn, but because Corbyn’s character led to vacillation.
Now Labour leadership candidates face the same dilemma. Their potential electorate is divided. Do they want to reclaim their heartlands? Or do they want to represent urban, younger, Remain-voting and generally graduate voters? There’s no shame in either decision – young people in cities need representation, too. Indeed, Conservative strategists have long agonised about not persuading more of them to vote Tory.
But what Labour can’t do, right now, is persuade both. Recently, it has looked as though Lisa Nandy is the only Labour candidate to both understand this and to want to steer the party back to its core vote. Moderates who have despaired at the toxic, institutionally anti-semitic mess they represent are focusing their attention and their hopes on her.
I think their analysis is wrong. Yes, Nandy has gone one step further than many: she knows that simply having a Northern accent and a semi-plausible back story is not enough to persuade intelligent, competent, former Labour voters to choose her.
She is willing to talk about the issues that matter to former Labour voters, including immigration and welfare. Her work with the Centre for Towns shows she understands the importance of those who live in towns across England – a huge focus in the last Conservative manifesto for good reason.
But her substance is in the opposite direction to her rhetoric. Her defence of Brexit voters is accompanied by a spirited defence of free movement. Her attack on Labour’s welfare position for being too ‘paternalistic’ is accompanied by a belief that people do not want ‘draconian’ welfare rules and that we should – by implication – radically increase the scale of benefits.
This is the worst of both worlds. Substance that alienates traditional Labour voters, and rhetoric that alienates new ones. This isn’t respecting Leave voters, it’s patronising them – and it’s certainly not going to appeal to the vast Remain-voting Labour Party membership whose votes Nandy needs if she wants to lead the Party.
Starmer is unlikely to appeal to former Labour voters. But he is more likely to appeal, properly, to someone than Nandy after she has been tested over five years on her policy positions.
It might sound odd for the co-author of the Conservative manifesto to give the Labour Party advice, but I mean it. A good Opposition makes Government better – and as a Jew, I’m praying that the Corbynites go for good.
To govern is to choose. The same is true for those who oppose the government. Until Nandy and the other candidates face up to this, they will remain in the wilderness.