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Starmer-Ainsleyism: The Methodology behind Starmer's Week

by George Peacock
September 24, 2020

Starmer's Director of Policy Claire Ainsley has a methodology which precisely links political communications and policy making. Understanding Starmer's strategy requires that we understand this. 2393 words / 10 min read

This week, Keir Starmer delivered his first Conference speech as Labour leader, as well as his first party political broadcast. In both, he emphasised his “values”, his “love for Britain”, and the fact that the Labour Party is under “a new leadership”. As if to underline this fact, Starmer last night whipped Labour MPs to abstain on the second reading of the controversial Overseas Operations Bill, and lost three front bench MPs in the process.

In order to make sense of these dramatic shifts in Party direction, we need to understand the work of Claire Ainsley. A former Executive Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Ainsley is now Starmer’s Executive Director of Policy. In 2018, she published a book entitled The new working class: How to win hearts, minds and votes. Viewed in the light of this book, there is nothing surprising about any of what Starmer has said—or, crucially, how he has said it.

The start of Ainsley’s book is given over to describing the titular “new working class” in the United Kingdom, a description based “more on material factors than self-identity”.1 She estimates this new working class to comprise just under half (48%) of the UK population. Owing to the decline in traditional industries, she argues, the working class is now largely employed in service work of varying degrees of precarity, rather than centred around factories. The majority work as “cleaners, shop workers, bar tenders, teaching assistants, cooks, carers and so on”.2 The new working class is more ethnically diverse than the working class of the past, and the majority of its members are female. Ainsley argues that the older (average age 66), less diverse (read white), ‘traditional’ working class do make up some of this new working class number, but are firmly in the minority at 14% (where as emerging service workers make up 19%, and the precariat, echoing Guy Standing’s pattern, 15%). This shares similarities with certain left analyses, from Hardt and Negri’s immaterial labour/multitude thesis to the New Times ideas associated with Stuart Hall.

In Ainsley's view no political party can win without speaking to the new working class. Political communication and policy making are then linked in a precise methodology.

After establishing the above, Ainsley outlines her distinctive approach to political communications and policy making. In her view no political party can win without speaking to the new working class. Political communication and policy making are linked in a precise methodology; the rest of the book outlines a number of quite detailed policies that follow this methodology. Starmer’s team this week has clearly begun to put this methodology into action.

The methodology Ainsley proposes is called “public values-based policy agenda”. She writes:

Parties should root their framework in the values of the public and bridge from there rather than start from their individual value base…parties should move closer to where the public is, rather than expect the public to come to them.3

The purpose of policy, here, is to illustrate that political parties are listening to, and understand, “the values of the public”. In particular, adopting Jonathan Haidt’s ‘moral foundations theory, policies should speak to, and mobilise, the ‘core moral languages’ of voters: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. This, it is argued, is because hearts and group feeling come before heads in political matters: “intuition and emotion is most people’s first response”.4 The core gambit is that “any serious strategy to maximise voter support needs to offer clues to the electorate that activate different elements of moral foundations theory”.5

In terms of policy making itself, and its relation to values, Ainsley argues:

Policies should activate resonant moral foundations across the full suite, prioritising symbolic policies that are memorable and tell the voter who the party or leader is. Politicians need to think about what their values ‘promise’ is to voters.6

Political communication—and indeed policy formation as a species of political communication—“should be rooted in the top values that are reported by the new working class, which happen to be shared with the general public as a whole: family, fairness, hardwork and decency”.7 At the end of the book, Ainsley categorises the policies she has proposed under the headings of these values. For example, under ‘Fairness’, she recommends the restoration of the insurance principle to welfare (with “a stronger contributory principle”8), preventing excessive price rises for services and utilities, a points-based immigration system, day one employment rights for all contract types (e.g. sick pay for self-employed and contract workers), and so on.

Starmer’s communications this week—doubtless in response to fresh polling— have broadly conformed to Ainsley’s “public values-based policy agenda”. Although other factors were in play — distinguishing Starmer’s leadership from that of Corbyn, or attempting to correct for perceived weaknesses of Corbyn’s time, such as trust on national security and patriotism—Ainsley’s methodology undergirds the whole production.

For example, since family is found as the primary value when both the new working class and the general public are polled, it forms a cornerstone of Starmer’s conference speech. As well as describing his family life in the context of his personal history, he also offered the following:

Family values mean the world to me. I was lucky enough to grow up in a loving family and I have the great joy now of a family of my own…A country in which we put family first…Covid has made us appreciate what we value: that family really does come first.

In the second half of his speech, Starmer lays out his values ‘promise’ to voters. He speaks emotively of “the values I hold dear. Decency, fairness, opportunity, compassion and security”. These were framed in both the party political broadcast and in his message to the nation as “values that have held us together during this pandemic”. Where policy is mentioned at all, it is designed either to resonate with these values, or to activate moral foundations that will, in Ainsley’s view, cause voters to bind to Starmer’s cause.

Where policy is mentioned at all, it is designed either to resonate with significant values, or to activate moral foundations that will, in Ainsley’s view, cause voters to bind to Starmer’s cause.

It is worth noting a few other things in Ainsley’s book. It is fundamentally opposed to naming class as class. The first rule of the new working class, Ainsley writes, is “you do not talk about the new working class (italics hers)”, in part because “this denies all sense of individual agency”.9 She acknowledges that parties need to show the new working class they are on their side, but insists that

This doesn’t have to be at the expense of another group—class warfare is dead as a narrative, it doesn’t resonate with people, and parties need to bridge divides to get elected—but it does have to speak to their concerns.10

Her approach, we should recall, is to use only those values of the new working class that are shared with the population at large. Despite the numerical strength of the former group, Ainsley is not interested in activating their values in a way that might be viewed as an attack on others in society.

All of this illustrates the clear problems with the optimistic belief that the left can quietly write the policy for the Starmer era. Compared to almost any other political factions within Labour, the left has good and fully worked-out policy ideas, and good individual thinkers and institutions to produce them. The gambit is that the policy will be adopted just because it is the nearest-to-hand and the best. However, at a very basic level, Ainsley has her own way of going about things. It is meticulously-constructed and already in place, running smoothly between policy and communications. It is evidence-based, even though one may challenge this evidence, or how the methodology hangs together. Arguments at the level of rhetoric, or even detailed policymaking, will not pass into policy unless they are compatible with Ainsley’s approach. Moreover, as her book makes plain, Ainsley has her own storehouse of detailed policy suggestions, in sufficient enough quantities that they could easily form the backbone of a 2024 manifesto, adapted to the times and to further polling.

There are, of course, some Corbyn era policies that may pass muster. As has been widely noted, nationalisations and tax increases for large corporations and for the richest poll very well, as does ending precarious work, which Ainsley speaks to directly. It could be argued that Corbyn’s explanation of these policies was precisely the kind of policymaking that clearly expressed his values—and, through them, Labour’s values. Corbyn spoke to the moral foundations of the electorate, activating care and fairness, and, according to Ainsley’s polling-based methodology, fairness and decency. Indeed, in terms of politicians having an instinctive moral offer, Corbyn is a salutary example—a politician who consistently reflected a set of values, and who was well-liked by many because of this. Undermining that Corbyn was strongly committed to values was a core attack by the Tories after 2017, attacking strengths not weaknesses (It is a little surprising that Ainsley’s book does not consider this, considering it was written in the aftermath of the 2017 general election.)

Another example of this methodology in action, though from Ainsley’s sources rather than directly, is the Conservative manifesto of 2019. Every policy in the thin document resonated with their core claim—“Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential”—and spoke to the values they wished to project within the electorate they wished to court.

However, there is a political reason for Starmer and Ainsley not to let the left operate as a policy workshop. Starmer’s media praise this week, and his continued good health in the press, are the result of him explicitly making a break with the past. Tory attack lines are focused on how, while there is a change in leadership, it’s the same policy substance. Doubtless these will increase, to the point where Starmer feels he needs to make a gesture refuting this, and publicly bins any remnants of a left platform. Perhaps the whip for absentions around the Overseas Operations Bill suggests this is already in process.

There are already hints of this decisive break with Corbynism—mostly around ‘patriotism’. We have, of course, seen this before in the shape of Ed Miliband. In 2012, Miliband gave a detailed conference speech on Englishness, telling his family story at length, and advocating a form of ‘progressive patriotism’ centred around Disraeli’s concept of “one nation”, which resulted in the full thematic rebrand of Labour along these lines. The 2015 Labour manifesto began with a foreword from Miliband that began in a familiar register:

We are a great country. With great people....This manifesto is inspired by you. I take a simple view. We are a great country, but we can be even better.

We know how this ended—a solid majority for the Conservatives, and Miliband mostly remembered as the man who carved racism onto a stone. But Miliband was beset by obstacles which Starmer simply doesn’t face. Miliband had to contend with a hostile press, a divided and wrecking PLP, and a line of Party grandees desperate to replace him—not to mention a general awkwardness that led to more than a few embarrassing media gaffes, some genuine (posing with the Sun), some confected (eating a sandwich). Starmer is smoothly confident, leads a PLP mostly aligned to his mission, and is, as we have seen, more than willing to sack front bench MPs for transgressing. He has much more favourable press conditions, the British media having decided that he (unlike Miliband and Corbyn) “looks like a leader”. He also has Ainsley.

It seems quite plausible, for these reasons, that Ainsley and her team will not engage the policy formation processes or outputs of the Corbyn era. This would, of course, be a shame. These bodies have thought a great deal about how to build policies that serve her “new working class” formation, that speak to the difficulties of our time, and that orientate emphatically towards the future. Ideas that “sound like the future arriving”, if you will.

the left should not imagine that Starmer is eagerly waiting for their contributions. Ainsley’s methodology, as we have seen, is its own complete system.

Bracketing the question if any of this is a good idea, politically or ethically, will it work as a path to power? It is difficult to say. Politics is a dynamic game, and the whole methodology could easily be labelled by the Tories as insincere. The Tories won’t hesitate to act on a threat, especially if the press says it is a threat—recall the way that, immediately after Corbyn’s lauded Glastonbury appearance in 2017, the Tories briefed that Corbyn had broken pledges on student fees. The focus-grouping for the counterattack will have already begun. Ainsley’s work seems, for the most part, to imagine that parties set out policies in a neutral environment, with no political opponents making counter-claims and counter-positioning these policies. It is this counter-positioning of policies, especially in frames that you did not anticipate—or that are plain lies—that causes trouble. Moreover, the politician of whom Starmer’s public image is perhaps most evocative is Tony Blair. Blair is popular with the commentariat, but hated by ‘red wall’ voters and the urban working class. The Tories could lean heavily into this, and Johnson is well placed to make these points. Starmer looks and sounds very much like a politician, and this is a weakness. But the left should not imagine that Starmer is eagerly waiting for their contributions. Ainsley’s methodology, as we have seen, is its own complete system. Listing one’s values, or simply making the claim to be patriotic and expecting that to be enough, breaks a well established rule of both screenwriting and political communication: “show don’t tell”. It’s a risk—but a calculated one. Will it work? It is impossible to know.


  1. Claire Ainsley. 2018. The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes. Bristol. Policy Press. p. 27. 

  2. See her paper for IPPR trailing the arguments of the book https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/newe.12098 

  3. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 153 

  4. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 34. 

  5. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 44. 

  6. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 48. 

  7. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 153. 

  8. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 154. 

  9. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 29. 

  10. Ainsley. The New Working Class. p. 48. 


Author:

George Peacock