Leadership in any group, whether it’s a team, an organisation, a community or a country, always requires the skill and insight to tell what Marshall Ganz of Harvard University calls a “story of us”.
A story of us uses the raw material of our shared experiences to remind us of what we really care about and what we really value. It constructs not just a sense of who we are, but a sense of who we could be, and in so doing, it creates the necessary motivation for shared action. For Labour leader Keir Starmer, articulating a compelling story of us is a pre-requisite for his success at the next general election.
In times of uncertainty, a story of us can show how remaining true to our shared values requires us to change our behaviour. Starmer’s challenge is to tell the country a convincing and compelling story – and it must be a story with a plot twist that involves enough people making a different choice at the ballot box. The good news for those who wish to see Starmer lead a new government is that he has shown signs of understanding this and even being quite good at it. The bad news is that he hasn’t done it nearly enough.
Following his election as Labour leader in April 2020, Starmer gave an acceptance speech in the form of a story of us. The pandemic, he said, had reminded people of what really matters: “the love we have for one another … connections with those we don’t know”. Isolation had made us value anew “a greeting from a stranger … a kind word from a neighbour” and reminded us “that we share our lives together”. And on these shared values that “have been lying dormant too long” could be built a hopeful and different future: “we can now see who the key workers really are … they were last and now they should be first”. This was political argument as story of us.
More recently, Starmer audaciously drew on the life of Queen Elizabeth II for similar purposes. She was, he said, “a thread between the history we cherish and the present” and her connection to the victory over fascism a “reminder that the prospect of a better future still burns brightly”. Summoning “this moment of uncertainty where our country feels caught between a past it cannot relive and a future yet to be revealed”, he asked what would she want from us. His answer? “To redouble our efforts. To turn our collar up and face the storm. To carry on. Most of all she would want us to remember that it is in these moments that we must pull together … to focus on the things that unite us rather than divide us.”
Without ever naming them, Starmer’s tribute-cum-story of us sought to connect the country to a set of shared experiences and values foundational to his political project. Who are we? We are the people who emulate the virtues of the Queen we are mourning, “the same love of country and of one another … the same empathy and compassion…” What could we achieve if we act on these shared values? It’s simple: we can “bring Britain through this dark night and into the dawn as she did”.
Why haven’t Starmer’s stories of us been more successful so far? I think there are two main reasons. First, Starmer’s principal opponent has been Boris Johnson. One of Johnson’s strengths is his ability to tell stories – often ones that were entirely fictional. “Get Brexit Done” was an effective campaign slogan precisely because it encapsulated a story of us – Britain’s shared values led the people to free themselves from the EU and why they have experienced the trauma of being held in limbo, they can and will experience the sunlit uplands on the other side of Brexit.
Second, Starmer has never made the creation of a story of us central to his leadership; his storytelling is an occasional practice. When he brings it out, his instincts are spot on, but so far he has lacked the courage of his convictions. Johnson, by contrast, was not only able to tell the “Get Brexit Done” story compellingly, he understood the need to do so repeatedly.
What might the elements of an effective story of us look like? They might remind the country of the shared experience of sacrifice and mutual support demonstrated during the pandemic. They might build a picture that shows this was not an aberration but an example of unchanging shared values in action – that the nation faces a moment of equal if not greater shared peril now as the cost of living crisis threatens every home, every family and every community.
At times like these, Starmer might say, our shared story shows that we have always understood that the health, safety and prosperity of each of us is bound inextricably with the health, safety and prosperity of all of us. This story suitably amplified and repeated could provide the narrative grounding from which the clear political choices it implies can grow. If the British people can be enabled to feel these shared values, the choice at the ballot box becomes clear.
Liz Truss is no storyteller, but in her actions, she is communicating a powerful (if damaging and divisive) story about “who we are” and what the future could hold. If Starmer does not now find the courage and determination to consistently and unstintingly confront this with an alternative story of us based on the values and hopes he believes the people of the UK share, he should not be surprised if No.10 eludes him.