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Lodestone Guest Political Note - Sunak and Starmer: Two Generals Fighting Different Wars

May 28th 2024

As the general election campaign gathers pace, Lord Tom Watson, Former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and election stalwart for over 25 years offers his perspective in this Guest Political Note.


After the first week of this unusual election, both party generals will survey their campaign maps and express quiet satisfaction. How can both sides in a binary choice battle be happy? Because they're skirmishing in different territories.

Labour's Strategy: Reinforcing the Front Lines

Labour is firming up its old supporters who left them in 2010, 2015, 2017, and 2019. Starmer's campaign strategically focuses on making this a change election, significantly emphasising economic justice and public service investment. Labour's messaging is change, change and change.

Conservative's Strategy: Rallying the Heartlands

If Starmer wants a change election, Sunak wants a choice election. He's gambled that people will consider their options by seizing an unexpected moment to call the election. We're no longer weighing up 14 years of failure in Rishi's world. You have a choice, mainly if you are a Tory loyalist in a heartland seat, weighing up whether to ditch him.

Sunak's recent national service announcement invokes nostalgia among voters who remember family members completing national service. He's rallying older, wavering conservative voters to stay with the party they know. Sunak's strategy includes focusing on economic stability, controlling debt, and addressing issues like immigration and crime.

By highlighting these themes, he aims to solidify the Conservative base.

Even though Sunak's wash-out announcement on the Downing Street steps led to ridicule, he shouldn't be too upset. He'll draw comfort from General Patton when he says: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."

Different Theatres of War

For every General Patton quote you can apply to Sunak, there is a Sun Tzu quote you can apply to Starmer. "In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity." applies, but perhaps in this election, it's "Every battle is won before it is fought."

It's Labour's election to lose, so they're not rushing to force the pace. From Starmer's point of view, every day that Rishi Sunak speaks to the Tory heartlands, he is not trying to reconnect in the Red Wall, the Blue Wall, or Scotland. From Sunak's point of view, at least he's changed the conversation from ruined suits in the rain to the good old days of the 1950s before his parents immigrated to the UK.

These leaders are fighting in different theatres, which may prevail for the rest of the campaign because it oddly suits both party leaders.

Assuming Sunak thinks the Tories are going to lose, his fear is greater than electoral loss. Sunak is in an existential battle to save his party. Labour should cause defeat. If it happens, annihilation will be caused by Lib Dem and Reform Party insurgent forces.

Will This Phoney War Last?

It could, but three essential campaign days may scupper it: two TV debates and the postal vote drop. Both party leaders have something to prove in these debates, so it's hard to believe that they won't try and land a blow with a pithy, well-turned phrase that characterises the weakness of the other.

Submarines, Not Battleships

Most importantly, the postal vote drop around mid-June is as big as polling day for the political parties. The Tories are very good at delivering targeted, below-the-line negative campaign messages using Facebook and other platforms when postal votes drop. Some would argue they are masters of a particular art - of keeping you questioning whether to bother voting at all.

Parties only succeed in doing this if they are relentlessly negative and spread scandalised text to irritated voters. Some would also argue that Tory CCHQ has a reputation for conducting meticulous negative research on its opponents, so expect more attacks on the past lives of future ministers. The most salacious material will be published using Facebook ads, with the rest placed with MailOnline​.

Conclusion: The Phoney War Continues

In conclusion, the first week of this campaign has been a phoney war, with both generals fighting on different fronts. Watch their strategies shift as the campaign progresses, and they prepare for the pivotal debates and postal vote drop. This initial phase has set the stage for a battle that will intensify in the coming weeks.