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LONDON — Labour leader Keir Starmer once had to ask his own team to stop telling journalists that he’s dull. His shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, was famously branded “boring, snoring” by a top TV executive.
But the opposition party leaders — on course to form Britain’s next government on current polling — are now pushing a new strategy to inject some elusive spark into their campaign for Downing Street: shamelessly stealing populist slogans from around the world.
Starmer, an ardent Remain supporter, made waves in a new year speech which embraced the swashbuckling pro-Brexit campaign’s “Take Back Control” message, promising Labour would pass a Take Back Control Bill in parliament to devolve power to the English regions.
On Sunday Reeves went further and actually channeled Donald Trump, telling the BBC in response to the Tories’ latest tax and cronyism scandals that a future Labour government would “drain the swamp” of Westminster.
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Reeves has previously riffed on the populist slogans of former U.S. President Ronald Regan, who won his 1980 contest against incumbent Jimmy Carter by posing the legendary campaign question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Reeves applied the slogan to the Conservatives’ tumultuous 13 years in power when responding to their latest fiscal plan.
Even Labour’s flagship energy policy, to create a publicly owned clean energy firm to compete with private suppliers, has a populist tilt, branded “Great British Energy” in a bid to appeal to patriotic voters.
The string of populist statements is no coincidence. The use of “punchy” and sometimes counterintuitive language is a deliberate strategy to “show confidence” ahead of a general election, Labour officials say.
“It’s politically nimble to use language in an effective way,” one Labour staffer said. “It’s the confidence to know that we can carry those things because we have shown integrity, and we have listened on Brexit, and we do have more credibility on the economy.”
A second official confirmed Reeves’ pledge to “drain the swamp” had been planned by aides ahead of her weekend media round, though they described it as a “throwaway” decision to utilize “powerful language” rather than a conscious attempt to echo Trump.
The appropriation of populist slogans has been a deliberate attempt to get noticed, they confirmed. “Let’s be honest, in opposition the key thing is to be heard,” the second official said.
But such sloganeering can be more than just a “crude” attention-seeking device, the official went on.The vow to “take back control” was designed to remind voters that the Tories have not always lived up to the grand promises of the Brexit campaign.
“There’s a much more subtle message to it — trying to remind them of their failures, and that we are trying to make good on some of these promises,” the second official said.
The plan for “GB Energy”, meanwhile, was the result of a six-month project in which Team Starmer worked closely with Shadow Energy Secretary Ed Miliband.
Senior Labour figures believe decarbonization can be a genuine vote winner — as long as it’s not framed through the lens of climate change. Instead Labour wants the policy to capture a similar spirit to the “take back control” messaging which proved so effective on so-called Red Wall voters in England’s former industrial heartlands.
“The idea of ‘Great British Energy’ is great for the Red Wall,” a third Labour adviser said. “It’s got jobs, industry, patriotism and [energy] bills wrapped up together.”
A shadow Cabinet member said Labour had been granted the political space to push such a message by the exit of Boris Johnson, who had sought to make a similar case on green jobs.
Timing is everything
The second Labour official said the timing of the messaging shift has been key, with people now paying much more attention given the opposition party’s huge poll lead. Labour is 21 percentage points ahead of the ruling Conservatives according to POLITICO’s poll of polls, with a general election expected next year.
“If we had said some of this stuff two years ago we just wouldn’t have got a hearing,” the official said.
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“There’s never been a moment when we actually said ‘we’re going to do this a different way’, but when you feel like the momentum is swinging your way … we need to make sure we’re seizing these advantages. We are trying to get a hearing,” the second official added.
Labour’s populist slogans have been lifted not just from political campaigns, but from the mouths of voters themselves.
The attack line that the government sees “one rule for the Tories and one for the rest of us”, which Labour has used repeatedly over the last couple of years amid rolling Downing Street scandals, was pinched from a series of “vox pop” interviews with ordinary voters in the left-wing Daily Mirror newspaper.
“It’s using the language that people use,” the second official said.
While Westminster is starting to notice the shift in strategy, the messaging is yet to land outside SW1.
Opinion polls confirm the British public do not exactly view Starmer and Reeves as the most exciting politicians in Westminster. Luke Tryl, director of the consultancy More in Common, which regularly conducts focus groups around the country, says there is “no sign” yet of Labour’s populist tilt cutting through.
“This stuff always takes so much more time than Westminster thinks to actually reach the public,” he said, adding that Labour would need to be disciplined in repeating its attack lines to reach ordinary voters.
But those who had been “more hostile” to Starmer were becoming “more neutral,” particularly in the Red Wall of former Labour strongholds, he noted.
The approach is dividing opinion in Westminster.
John McTernan, a former Labour Party adviser turned political strategist and commentator, is an admirer, insisting Starmer is right to seize the “language of agency” along with the mantle of fiscal prudence.
“You’ve got to take areas of political territory off your opponents and you’ve got to wind them up all the time,” he said.
“You can tell that Tory backbenchers will be wincing when Rachel does things like [‘drain the swamp’].”
But one figure involved in the Vote Leave campaign is more skeptical of Starmer’s approach. While admiring the “Take Back Control” policy as a “smart and cute line to get some attention,” the Brexit campaigner doubted Starmer could pull off a truly populist campaign in the manner of Trump or Johnson in 2016.
“That is not who he is,” they said. “And if you go to the Red Wall, the biggest problem is that he has a knighthood and he backed Remain in the referendum.”
History repeats itself
This is not the first time Labour has looked across the Atlantic for Trump-style inspiration to boost its messaging.
In 2017, then-leader Jeremy Corbyn’s team purposefully adopted Trump’s aggressive tactics against mainstream TV networks and newspapers, in the hope of whipping up support among voters already distrustful of the media.
The left-wing leader then went on to deprive Theresa May of her majority in that year’s snap election — although came unstuck in 2019 when he went toe-to-toe with Boris Johnson.
James Schneider, a spokesman for Corbyn when he was leading the Labour Party, said it was positive for Starmer if “journos were sufficiently excited by copying Trump’s language that it gets Labour into the story.”
But he warned that for the rhetoric to “stick,” and for the electorate to really hear it, Labour also needed “non-techy-sounding policies that go after the political class,” rather than limp “standards in public life stuff.”
And Schneider is skeptical anything radical will emerge from Labour HQ, given in his view the party leadership “don’t seem to want to overturn SW1 business as usual.”
Starmer’s personal populist pitch may need a little more work, too: last week he could be found rubbing shoulders with the global elite at Davos.