“Incompetence” is the most dangerous word in politics. Boris beware

by David Talbot

In the Autumn of 2007, a resurgent Labour Party, galvanised by Gordon Brown’s elevation to Number Ten, met in Bournemouth buoyant at the prospect of an early general election. Under the banner ‘The strength to succeed’ Brown had spent the first few months of his ultimately doomed premiership reassuring the nation. From donning his wellies in flooded, predominantly Conservative-dwelling, shires, to soothing the nation following terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London, Brown’s early brand was based on solidity and, most of all, competence.

The problem of creeping incompetence usually arises towards the end of a government’s life, when Ministers are tired and a smell of decay whiffs through the air. But this government has developed a competence problem after merely a year in office.

COVID-19 was not, of course, the design of Boris Johnson’s government but its response to it has been lamentable and incompetent in the extreme. It squandered two precious months to prepare the nation, its much vaunted “world beating” track and trace system is a disgrace, it failed to protect frontline NHS staff through the heat of the pandemic, and it turned the nation’s care homes into breeding grounds for a disease whose mortality is intertwined with those aged 65 years and above.

From surcharges for migrant NHS workers, school meal vouchers for the nation’s most vulnerable schoolchildren to levelling down students’ futures, this government has exuded wanton incompetence in every nuance of an increasingly desperate defences. Even on its flagship raison d’être, Brexit, its “oven ready” deal has been strangely aloof since it was lauded every day for two months late last year.

Johnson’s limitations have been well-known and widespread for years; his disorganisation, his lack of attention to detail, his bluster and bumbling incompetence. In politics, if you take an ideological stance it will always mean you lose someone. But develop a reputation for incompetence, and you lose everybody.

And it is on this ground that Sir Keir Starmer has staked his early strategy. Through demonstrating competence, severely lacking for years under the previous administration, Labour has at last emerged as a serious party determined on seeking power. It is easy to see why this attribute is so important to Labour, not only as a core prerequisite for any party seeking power, but through polling – such as the Observer last month on the perceptions of the two party’s leaders:

Voters are now consistently saying that they view Sir Keir Starmer as a serious and viable candidate for Prime Minster. However, they believe by equally large margins that the Labour Party is not ready for government, and that it is less competent and more extreme than the Conservatives. The Labour brand is badly soiled, and it will take years to undo the damage. Such a strategy, as far-sighted and incremental as it is, is not compatible with the instant-takes of Labour’s increasingly fervent Twittersphere.

LabourList’s recent doom-laden and disproportionate ‘polling’ – where a third of respondents were “very unhappy” with the Labour leader’s performance, compared to just 6% of actual Labour voters – merely underscored the discord on the party’s left and its ongoing frustrations. It has failed to regain its foothold and settle on a role for itself. By focusing relentlessly on removing factionalism where he can, by reuniting the party where possible and emphasising his own competence, both Starmer and the Labour Party has been rewarded with significantly enhanced polling since December’s decapitation.

The shambolic and sorry years under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was an unmissable signal to the electorate that reshaped public opinion on the Labour Party and its competence for the long-term. Labour has gone back to the basics of being an opposition party, and with Conservative support being heavily dependent on perceptions of competence, demonstrating such surefootedness will arrest the party’s decline amongst the very people who rejected it so vehemently last December.

The sight of the government’s increasingly errant ineptitude will prompt many headlines with the word ‘incompetence’ in them. As Gordon Brown and the Labour Party learnt, and Boris Johnson and his government will surely do shortly, that is a devastating word.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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15 Responses to ““Incompetence” is the most dangerous word in politics. Boris beware”

  1. anosrep says:

    There’s a fundamental problem with this article: it takes just one poll as a snapshot, and that poll isn’t even an overall approval or “best Prime Minister” poll, let alone a voting intention one.

    Also the assetion that “Voters are now consistently saying that they view Sir Keir Starmer as a serious and viable candidate for Prime Minster” is untrue – it’s not consistent. *Some* polls have shown that Starmer is ahead of Johnson on the “best Prime Minister” question, but a large majority of such polls (so far) have shown the opposite. I hope that trend will be reversed, but it remains to be seen.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Blair only got 2.4% more of the vote than Howard in Britain in 2005 and that was 35.3% of the vote in the U.K.having fallen from 44% in 97 the Tories have increased their percentage at each of the last 6 elections
    The boundaries are so in favourably stacked for labour nod that
    Labour could get 7% more if the vote and not have a majority and the Tories can win a majority with 2.5% more
    Tearing their 44% of them vote as a Standard victory ,when it was a landslide is daft
    There’s 5 major inquiries coming out in the next few months all will make labour look bad
    Kinnock twice had 20% poll leads mid term

  3. A.J. says:

    What’s the answer then – to detach Starmer from the Party? Look, as hopeless as the so-called ‘Conservative Party’ is, Labour is tainted, and has been for the past fifty years or more in the eyes of an increasingly fickle and restless electorate.
    I was sorry that no local elections were held in the spring – Starmer deserved the opportunity to present himself.

  4. So-so says:

    TL;DR: Tories must get rid of Boris and Labour with “competent” Starmer leadership will be left in the dust once again.

  5. A.J. says:

    Reassuring Mr.Brown, let me introduce you to Mrs. Duffy…

  6. Tafia says:

    You overlook the most obvious thing – the Tory Party.

    The Tories are a ruthless, frighteningly efficient election- winning machine. They have less than a tenth the street activists Labour have.

    They go into elections with one aim – winning. They are not wedded to ridiculous out-dated concepts such as political idealogy, nor are they stupid enough to be loyal to a leader.

    Nobody reading this has the slightest clue who will lead the tories into GE2024, nor what a single one of their policies will be.

    If Boris looks a loser they will drop him long before the next GE.

  7. A.J. says:

    Yes, the so-called ‘Conservative Party’ – Tory Party if you will – is the most successful political party in western Europe, boasting such luminaries as Peel, Disraeli and Lord Salisbury as well as that old fraud MacMillan, Grocer Heath and your friend and mine Lady Thatcher. Mind you, they haven’t had a good leader since Thatcher – think of Major, Room-Sharer, Howard, Duncan-Smith, Cameron, the odious Mrs. May, and now BoJo – who Peter Hitchens said he wouldn’t trust to look after his cat for the weekend.
    Anyone remember ‘One More Heave’ in the 80s? The Kinnock/Hattersley Dream Ticket? The Sheffield Rally?
    What we really need is that photograph of Starmer taking the knee whilst clapping the NHS whilst learning from his chum Miliband how to eat a bacon sarnie with HP sauce on it and cosying up to someone’s bull terrier on a rough estate whilst coming clean about BLM and immigration. Oh, and how many times did anyone hear him standing up in public to Corbyn over the Jews?
    My mild, Glaswegian brother-in-law swears blind the Scots won’t take to him either.

  8. John P reid says:

    If the public feel the labour has moved away from the hard left there’s no chance of a corbynite coup taking over a labour gov’t, if Starmer won
    The fear of a labour government would cause Ex Tories looking AT the libdems or Brexit Party to come back
    But there’s also the probability that many Tory remainers look at labour think they’re not going to win and firm break away parties as a split ex tory vote wouldn’t cause a labour government
    Imagine rory Stewart Matthew Paris or Stephen Dorrell in a new Cornwall national liberal party
    if the Tories gets rid of Bojo they’ll need someone who’s not so hardline brexit it’ll cause liberal Tories to leave , that’s any ERG our the Window

  9. Anne says:

    Hit the nail right on the head with this one David.

  10. Anne says:

    Even thought those on the left of our party may not be happy I am not sure they would go so far as to vote against us, or to form a breakaway party. Many stayed with the party under Corbyn, even when unhappy with the leadership and those around him -Keir Starmer has been voted in as leader we should all now support him and work together.
    Good news also coming from America with the Democratic ticket of Biden and Harris.

  11. John P reid says:

    Corbynites saying He got 1.5 M more votes than Gordon brown, neglect the fact that there’s 109m more on the electoral register now

  12. John P Reid says:

    October the 1st 1985 Conference with Kinnock taking on militant, was labours year zero moment, but really it was after 1987 when at the Conference the Union boss said he couldn’t see labour winning again in his lifetime, and labour at the 1987 election Actually wanted to win A general election

    So even though the 2019 election a shock, it will take Paul embery Deborah Mattisons books out soon and Matthew Goodwins books on that election out June 2021 that will be the dawning realisation, of how bad the result was , but like 1985/1987 year zero moment, will have to be repeated by Labour doing worse in 2022 than 2018 in the council elections to shock the party, in to realising it’s fundamentally wrong on identity politics and screaming victim on social media deliberately on repeating half a story to un fairly show anyone who disagrees in a bad light, after 1987 and militant was expelled and the Socialist party quit, 5 years later, a lot of the trots have cleared off

    but it’ll take another 5 years where they’ll clear off as they’ll say if the Labour party has to listen to Paul embery Matthew good win and David Goodhart too win(when the party actually wants to win) then they’ll say they’re quitting as they feel labour actually would want their votes in Islington to win, as when labour does bad in the 2022 council elections they’ll eventually sulk and go off

  13. A.J. says:

    Biden is good news? For women?

  14. A.J. says:

    Have the Americans ever cared about us, one way or the other, whether Democratic or Republican? The Americans take care of themselves. I can’t help wondering if, in the fullness of time, Germany will become exhausted and irritated with their commitment to the EU and seek to make their peace with the US – whoever their President might be – and China. Britain will look as small and pathetic as it has since 1940 – if not before.
    I used to provide myself, before the last GE, with minutes of amusement wondering just how PM Corbyn would hit it off with President Trump.

  15. John P Reid says:

    An allegation at those who’ve tried to get working class votes back , like Eddie Dempsey or Paul embery is they’re sexist in criticizing Jess Phillips or Emily thornberry, But as Paul embery has said the first person he called out for holding the working class in contempt was Gordon brown for his over heard comment that Mrs Duffy a woman who had genuine concerns about immigration was “that bigoted woman” despite she was nothing of the sorted
    The losing working class votes in strong holds as long labour got middle class ones as the votes were in the marginals labour needed,labour felt it could ignore the concerns of working-class voters because they were assumed to be pious followers of the Labour religion.Peter Mandelson’s belief that they had “nowhere else to go” became a creedal statement. What it failed to see was a class of increasing political atheists. The working class have nowhere elese to go we can score points by saying their racist to young middle class liberals who voted libdem up to
    Home secretary, David Blunkett, signalled a shift in government race policy by saying the idea of “institutional racism” 1 of the most politically charged expressions of the last decade – had “missed the point”
    if labour can keep insulting the working class they’ll start voting Tory ,to shut up the insults and yet we’re useless at winning elections

    getting to the stage where I think if I keep on calling the working-class racist event to the working-class realise they are
    Or even the fact the 2nd generation migrants moved out of inner London or outer
    So get labelled racist towards Muslims,for not mentioning race when the left are expected too, verbatum as some cirmes arent’ racist or if it’s the other way around, the left were too embaressed tomention the fact that BAME people commit crime,

    young labour felt gordon brown was right to call Mrs Duffy a bigot Of course there were defenders of Emily thornberry and Gordon brown saying rightly they feel that as the st georges flags from their homes,is used by the BNP then it can be used wrongly and should be sneered at or calling those opposed to migrant ,bigots is fine as they want to come here and if they get other people’s jobs good for them

    And then lefty Comedians like David walliams and Matt lucas sneer at working calss people on councile Estates like their Vicky pollard character

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