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Starmer is courting Tory voters so hard it’s almost as though he wants to lose his own | Frances Ryan

More than 30 years ago, the Sun published the infamous front page that was said to swing the 1992 general election in favour of the Conservatives. Beside an image of the Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s head superimposed on a lightbulb, a headline ran: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario today. With cash-strapped local councils forced to turn street lights off, a beleaguered Rishi Sunak would probably be grateful for help to keep the lights on, at this point. The change in fortunes for the two main parties has not gone unnoticed by the Murdoch empire. Never one to back a loser, the Sun is “inching towards” giving Labour an endorsement at the next election, reports suggest.

This week Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, tellingly chose to use a column in the tabloid to set out a plan to use the private sector to cut the NHS backlog, pointedly criticising the “middle-class lefties” who may object.

It is the latest sign the Labour leadership is making manoeuvres to court the paper. Keir Starmer’s call last month for Nike to scrap a redesigned St George’s cross on its new England football kit showed “he can speak the language of Sun readers”, according to one figure at the newspaper. That this could be considered either a compliment or an insult gives an insight into the storm about to unfold.

The question of whether Starmer can or should want to win the Sun’s backing is, in many ways, symbolic of the dilemma that defines his leadership. For his critics, a Murdoch endorsement would be a toxic alliance that demonstrates Labour’s ever growing shift to the right. For his supporters, it’s an acknowledgment that Starmer has expanded the narrow appeal of the party under Jeremy Corbyn and a rejoinder to the childish idea that power can be achieved without moral compromise.

That this compromise is increasingly one-sided will only make any endorsement from the Sun feel more loaded. After advocating socialist policies throughout his leadership campaign, Starmer has filled his tenure with conservative ideas, from refusing to overturn the two-child benefit rule to defending Israel’s humanitarian assault on Gaza. It is not as if this is an accident. From the beginning of his time as leader, Starmer has purged the hard left as a means to show “the party has changed”, while sidelining traditionally leftwing polices. In this context, Labour getting an endorsement from the Sun would feel, to some, less a sign of progress and more the ultimate act of selling out.

This is hardly to say that Starmer should not be working to win over Tory voters, but that he should be careful how he goes about it. Labour converting Conservative voters is, by definition, a necessity for winning elections. And yet it is noticeable that Labour’s strategy to achieve this is to bend to rightwing narratives rather than making the case for leftwing (or even centre-left) ideas.

Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting visit St James’ university hospital in Leeds last December.
Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting visit St James’ university hospital in Leeds last December. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Whether it is criticising “the magic money tree” or threatening to clamp down on benefit claimants, such methods not only fail to see politics as a means to change attitudes, but also signify that its architects have no real desire to. The result is a country pushed further from economic and social progress and a Labour party pushed further from its base. Or to put it another way: the issue is not that Starmer is interested in attracting Tory voters, it’s that he often appears uninterested in keeping Labour ones. Indeed, at times, the party seems actively keen to lose them.

We see this in Streeting’s recent bullish remarks in the Sun. It was quite possible to set out a plan to help the NHS without having a pop at “lefties”, but the latter was evidently deemed just as important politically as the former. The irony for a leadership that likes to turn up its nose at “ideologues” is that Starmer and his team are increasingly the ones obsessed with ideology – not as a means to carve out policies but to sniff out which group to attack.

That this group is not the hard right but Labour’s own supporters does not just mean fewer footsoldiers to campaign come the election – the party has lost 23,000 members in just two months – but a poverty of ideas and healthy debate once in office. For a broad church to work, the party can’t ignore the faithful who have been turning up every Sunday for years.

There has long been an insistence that the Labour leadership must be prepared to get its hands dirty to gain power but this is, in many ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It legitimises the idea that politicians on the left must always play to voters’ lowest instincts under the vague promise that things will get a bit better once they are elected. It recasts politics as a means to replicate the status quo rather than articulate an alternative that earns people’s votes. This is hardly likely to improve once Starmer is in Downing Street. A leopard does not change his spots, especially after he’s won a landslide.

The reality is that any Labour government will always be formed, not because of Britain’s media, but despite it. That this is unfair doesn’t make it untrue, and it’s a truth better accepted than railed against. A Labour leader contorting himself for a Sun endorsement is like a child paying for a bully’s mercy: it might work for a while, but they will turn on you soon enough. Instead, Starmer should focus on smart communication. Even notoriously contentious issues, from immigration to the benefits system, can be sold to many hard-to-reach voters with a tailored strategy, and vitally while maintaining support from the party’s base. That the frontbench is resorting to anti-left tactics for such an easy sell as improving the NHS suggests there is little desire at present to even try for unity.

If the Sun backs Labour at the election, Starmer has every right to celebrate the novelty. But he should not be surprised if Murdoch’s approval is seen as much as a sign that his leadership is heading in the wrong direction as the right one. As the saying goes, judge a man by his friends and his media barons.

  • Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist

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