Saturday 9 May 2020

Keir Starmer and the Media

It must have been Gordon Brown before he bottled an election in Autumn 2007. What, pray tell, am I talking about? The last time a Labour leader got a favourable front page from the Daily Telegraph. Except, that is, for Friday's frontage. "We owe it to the VE Day generation to protect them from coronavirus in care homes" went the splash, with a nice article inside in which Keir Starmer expands on his points. How awfully nice of the Telegraph to be so accommodating. And I'm sure Team Keir are quite happy with themselves too, considering the paper is an arm of the Conservative Party and a putative policy-making one at that. A pat on the back then for good work done then? Well, not quite.

Labour politicians shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. If a right wing rag offers space in their paper, it would be a mistake not to write something. If a regular column in The Sun was okay for Ken Livingstone in the early 90s, until Labour and the left has a mass circulation media of its own I don't see any problem writing for audiences ordinarily cut off from left wing politics. However, and this is a big however, one should be wary of their motives. Does have a Labour politician publish something with them confer legitimacy and bring in new readers? Are they wanting a comment piece from Labour in the interests of debate, or to fill up a few column inches on a slow day? In Keir's particular case, obviously not. Here was are in one of the seminal events of this century with news gushing from every downpipe and Labour's leader is getting a splash about VE Day on its 75th anniversary. What's the Telegraph's game?

They know indulging Keir now presents zero threat to their party and their Prime Minister. The polls are barely shifting thanks to the crisis, and while Keir's personal ratings are very good Boris Johnson's are better. Magnanimity? Hardly. Keir would not have been afforded this courtesy had he taken more of a critical stance versus the government. Instead, what it says is polite opinion is intensely relaxed with the person of the Labour leader. The monstering may still come, especially if he doesn't dump the Corbyn-lite programme he was elected on, but to paraphrase what Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev; this is someone with whom we can do business.

For Keir, his willingness to engage demonstrates to them his reasonable reasonableness. Part of his calculation is acceptance by the Tory press separates him off from the Corbyn years, and detoxifies the party by extension to that layer of voters who pay attention to such things. This is especially important as well considering his remain credentials and the role he played in Labour's Brexit fudge. There's logic to this, I suppose. It's harder to demonise someone if they're feted as a legitimate establishment figure. But here's the problem. A favourable front page from the Telegraph is something of a coup, and a feat the Labour leadership might fancy repeating. And so cultivating good coverage cannot happen without more parts of the party programme getting downplayed. Without muting criticisms or offering an alternative leadership. The game and the rules of it as interpreted by the Tory editorial offices are simply accepted without question, and Keir jumps through any and all hoops placed in front of him. Just as the power of the press is in terminal decline he affirms their pre-eminence and right to arbitrate on what is ruled in and what it ruled out. Effectively, he's consenting to the disciplining of the party by an external force that would rather see Labour crash and burn.

Does this concern Keir? I very much doubt it. Opposition during the coronavirus quarantine was never going to be an easy business. Instead of walking that tightrope, however, Keir is tenuously dangling from it and what we're getting is the worst of all worlds. Tailing the government and congratulating ministers on their fine work when it's nothing of the sort, and then only making criticisms long after NHS workers and Piers bloody Morgan have spent weeks banging on about them is something alright, but it's not opposition.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on Kier. He's been in the job for five weeks and, with time, the hares and rabbits of dogged criticism and political opposition will be pulled from the hat. Yet in politics as with life, new politicians and by extension, new leaders start as they mean to go on. The supine media strategy and row backs on policy are suggestive of triangulation mark two, a taking for granted of Labour's new base while chasing so-called swing voters. And while we cannot say what opportunities may present the party between now and the eventual general election four years hence, missing open goals now because of a rigid adherence to the media's rules doesn't fill one with a sense of confidence.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

The "elephant in the room" as far as your analysis goes is the fact that the Telegraph is Johnson's alma mater. The paper is using Starmer to voice criticism of Johnson in order to influence (or be seen trying to influence) the Prime Minister, and thereby reassure its own readers.

There is a natural "fit" here between Starmer's views, the care homes scandal, VE Day celebrations, and the Telegraph's readership. The Telegraph can't seem to be too far up Johnson's backside on this one.

Exceptional circumstances have driven an exceptional editorial decision.

The Telegraph will be back to business as usual before you know it, and this episode (of affected political neutrality) will just be a fading memory.

Anonymous said...

Labour should ignore swing voters? OK. What is Labour to do then dissolve the people and elect another one?

Shai Masot said...

It gets worse. Starmer is a member of the capital elite's Trilateral Commission:

Not a lot of people know that.

mikenotts said...

I've cancelled my monthly labour d/d - after the rent announcement. Can't even be arsed to contact them and say I'm leaving. I'm 67 and I've endured Kinnock and Blair and Milliband; then JC's monstering. Then the leaked report; then all this; its too much; i subscribe to Novara, Momentum, Tribune and jacobin, so I'll dob in some more, or give the equivalent amount to a food bank. I know all the arguments about staying in (and I'm fully aware one person makes no difference either way) but I feel like I've burst thru to the surface and taken a lungful of oxygen - its good to be out of it.