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As Boris Johnson Stumbles, Labour Struggles to Offer a Clear Message

LONDON — When Boris Johnson hit energy companies with a windfall tax last week as a way of providing more aid for struggling consumers, it was a bittersweet moment for the opposition Labour Party, which had been promoting just such a plan for months.

For once, Labour could claim to have won “the battle of ideas.” But at a stroke, Mr. Johnson had co-opted the party’s marquee policy and claimed the credit.

This might have been a moment of opportunity for Labour. Mr. Johnson’s leadership has been in jeopardy because of a scandal over illicit lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street — missteps highlighted by a civil servant’s report last week that said senior leadership “must bear responsibility” for the failure to follow the rules.

But some political analysts think Labour should focus less on the “partygate” scandal and more on outlining a clear agenda to British voters, who face rising inflation and a possible recession.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street in London. His leadership has been in jeopardy because of illicit lockdown-busting parties held there.Credit…Dominic Lipinski/Press Association, via Associated Press

Now out of power for 12 years, Labour has lost the last four general elections, including a thrashing in 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger and the party’s leader at the time, was crushed by Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives.

John McTernan, a political strategist and onetime aide to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, said that while Labour had made a decent recovery under the current leader, Keir Starmer, it had not yet “closed the deal” with the electorate.

“It looks like modest progress because it is modest progress” said Mr. McTernan, while adding that it was still a “massive rebalancing” after the 2019 defeat.

He praised the advances made under Mr. Starmer, but said the party still had work to do if it hoped to install a Labour government in place of the Tories. “This is the year the tempo has to pick up,” he said.

And while the Conservatives lost badly in recent local elections, Labour has made only limited progress, with smaller parties doing well.

Mr. Starmer suffered a setback recently when the police reopened an investigation into whether he, too, broke coronavirus rules. He promptly promised that he would resign if he were fined by the police — in contrast to Mr. Johnson, who suffered that fate in April but refused to quit.

But whatever Mr. Starmer’s future, the Labour Party has yet to draft a convincing message to win back rust belt regions that abandoned it in the last election and that — judging by the local election results — remain to be convinced.

A polling station this month in Wandsworth, England. While the Conservatives lost badly in recent local elections, Labour has made only limited progress, with smaller parties doing well.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In the 2019 general election, parts of England that for decades had voted for Labour switched en masse to the Conservatives, allowing Mr. Johnson to recast the political map just as Donald J. Trump did in the United States in 2016.

Since then, Mr. Starmer has junked much of Mr. Corbyn’s socialist agenda, posed frequently alongside the British flag to illustrate his patriotism, taken a tough line against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and become the first Labour leader in more than a decade to visit NATO.

But the party has yet to define itself with a clear new vision to British voters, and Mr. Starmer, a former chief prosecutor, has little of the charisma that distinguishes leaders in the mold of Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson.

Even he accepts that Labour is not yet in a solid, election-winning position.

“I always said the first thing we needed to do was to recognize that if you lose badly, you don’t blame the electorate, you change your party,” Mr. Starmer said in an interview this year after meeting with voters at a town-hall meeting at Burnley College in northwestern England. “We have spent the best part of two years doing that heavy lifting, that hard work.”

A supermarket in London. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised a new and more generous package of aid worth billions of dollars to help all British households.Credit…Tolga Akmen/EPA, via Shutterstock

Yet Labour’s task is huge.

In 2019, the Conservatives captured areas like Burnley, in Britain’s postindustrial “red wall,” and Labour polled poorly in Scotland, once another heartland, losing out to the Scottish National Party. Looming changes to electoral boundaries are likely to favor the Conservatives in the next general election, which must take place by the end of 2024 but that many expect next year.

So Labour is hosting a series of town-hall meetings where uncommitted voters are asked what would lure them back to the party.

After the gathering in Burnley, Lisa Nandy, a senior member of the Labour Party, reflected on the project to mend what she called “a breakdown in trust” between Labour and its traditional voters.

“It broke my heart in 2019 when I watched communities where I grew up and that I call home turning blue for the first time in history,” said Ms. Nandy, referring to the campaign color used by the Conservatives. She represents Wigan, another former industrial town, speaks for Labour on how to spread prosperity to areas outside England’s prosperous southeast, and knows that her party has work to do.

People at the meeting in Burnley liked the idea of cutting energy bills by placing a windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas firms, said Ms. Nandy, speaking before the government announced the plan. Yet few at this time knew this was one of Labour’s main policy proposals.

“The question is, why don’t they know this is what we have been saying?” Ms. Nandy lamented earlier this year, referring to voters.

The reason, she thinks, is that politicians spend too much time in London and too little “on people’s own territory having conversations with them about things that matter to them.”

Labour is also reaching out to a business community whose ties to the government have been strained over Brexit rules that pile mounds of extra red tape onto many exporters. At a digital meeting with businesses in the Midlands, Seema Malhotra, who speaks for Labour on business and industrial issues, heard a litany of problems, including customs bureaucracy, inflation, rising energy and wage costs, and supply-chain difficulties.

Labour Party signs in Bradford, England.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

“I don’t think anyone is expecting full policy across the board until the time of the next election,” she said. “A lot of what we need to do is about rebuilding our relationship with the country and setting out our values, and people need to get to know the Labour Party again.”

“Whilst people are prepared to listen to Labour again, we cannot be complacent,” she added. “Many people have yet to feel that we have fully moved on from the past enough to now trust us. We have work to do on continuing to demonstrate that our party has changed.”

Some analysts argue that what Labour really needs is a sharper message.

“I know so many progressives who think that politics is like a football game: If you have a 10-point plan on health and your opponents only have a five-point plan you win 10 to 5,” Mr. McTernan said. “You don’t.”

Instead, he added, “You have to say: ‘This is Britain’s big challenge. Labour is the answer. Here’s why and here’s how.’”

To succeed, the party needs to convince people like Ged Ennis, the director of a renewable energy company that equipped Burnley College with solar panels. He has voted for Labour and the Conservatives over the years, but opted for the centrist Liberal Democrats in 2019.

Mr. Ennis said he had been convinced that Labour was keen to listen but confessed to having a hazy picture of Mr. Starmer’s politics. “I think what he needs to do is to be brave and to be really clear about what he wants to deliver,” he said.

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