Monday, 13 December 2021

Keir Starmer's "Prime Ministerial" Address

Define "prime ministerial". It's an ability to speak authoritatively, appear as if one knows what they're doing, and not look like a sack of spuds in a suit. This most nebulous of countenances was something Dave had. In fact, looking the part was arguably his greatest political skill. Theresa May had it too. She was very much the "grown up" in the room until her authority was shot. Jeremy Corbyn didn't have it because politics. And neither does Boris Johnson because Boris Johnson. But how about Keir Starmer? He has the nice hair cut. He's reasonably telegenic. You can imagine him carrying a briefcase and wouldn't look out of place flicking through a filofax, if they were still a thing. The Labour leader and his media people think so too, which helps explain the framing for his Monday night national address.

Let's consider the setting. Yes, of course the Union Jack was going to be there. Starmer handed over too much members' cash to managerial consultants for their advice to be ignored. Is anyone going to rush out and vote Labour because of a patriotic prop? I doubt it, but the aim is to dampen any Tory attacks about his and Labour's lack of national pride. It looks synthetic if Starmer starts painting his face in the colours of St George, but a relatively unobtrusive flag here and there, just like how the Tories do it, adds to the ambience. Going back to the opening few seconds is also interesting. The desk is quite vintage looking. Indeed, everything to the left of the flag is a bit redolent of the second world war. The old books (obviously none from Gollancz's Left Book Club) and the interesting tray the water rests on is all a bit olde worlde, a subtle nostalgic nod. Move to the centre and there's Starmer himself, picture of the family prominently displayed at the back with a few Christmas cards and sheets of parliamentary paper in front of him. And then to the right of the screen, there's the laptop, a selection of middlebrow art books and, in case FBPE liberals were spooked by the patriotism talk, the non-too-subtle Obama: An Intimate Portrait is conspicuously lodged with other non-threatening lifestyle/coffee table titles. The overall affectation is Starmer as someone flanked by past certitudes and liberal modernity, a politician who knows where he's come from and where he is going.

This speech itself was straight forward Blue Labourism, shorn of its more radical moments. He discussed our "shared national duty" to stand by NHS workers as they battle through the Omicron wave. He linked the protection of the NHS to "Britain's interests", establishing a relationship between a traditional Labour strength to overcome (LOTO believes) a key Labour weakness - on sticking up for the country. Other nods to a soft social conservatism included referencing Her Majesty's opposition, "our nation", and to reinforce Labour's responsible responsibleness, Starmer said "we are a patriotic party and it is our patriotic duty to ensure these [Covid restrictions] go through. In doing so, we are supporting our NHS and supporting our country." He made a point of wishing everyone a happy Christmas from his family, and inbetween repeated standard public health messaging. His criticism of the Tories was blunted and implied ("we need leadership ..." and breaking off to say everyone has to do their bit). He said Labour's patriotic duty was to critique the Tories, and took a dig at them for being woefully unprepared.

Taking the contrivance of the setting together with soft ball criticisms, we are seeing a subtle shift in Starmer's opposition strategy. From even before he became Labour leader, he signalled that his idea of "constructive opposition" was to do nothing except back the government and make process criticisms when there were obvious failings. This, one might argue (and indeed, his supporters have) was because Labour shouldn't "play politics" in times of crisis and no one was interested in what the party had to say anyway. Except some people were very interested, and that was the Tories. Starmer and friends would rather pretend the Jeremy Corbyn interlude never existed, but it's a matter of public record that the suggestions he made in the dying days of his leadership were incorporated into the Tories' approach to Covid mitigation. Had Starmer done the same thing, he might have taken the initiative on Coronavirus and introduced himself earlier to the electorate as a serious figure with something worthwhile to say. Unfortunately for him, the Tories brushed aside his criticisms and accused him of playing politics anyway, while constructing the politics of the crisis to suit them and their interests.

Now, in fits and starts, Starmer is finally contesting their leadership. It is a weak challenge. The critique is muted and couched in the mildest terms, but tonight's attempt at prime ministerialism opposed stability and strong government with Starmer to chaos with Boris Johnson. To coin a phrase. In recent weeks Labour has rediscovered the utility of making suggestions for dealing with the pandemic, and is manoeuvring to position itself as Covid's most determined adversary. And here, the Tories are providing them a gift. The prospect of 70 plus MPs voting on Tuesday against the government's latest round of - broadly supported - precautions against the new variant makes them look like a bunch of idiots. Meanwhile, despite there being significant problems with the vaccine passport scheme, Labour gets to play the responsible party card. They are the ones putting public health and protecting the NHS first. Hence why they've attached no conditionalities to backing Johnson on this. The strategic thinking is let the Tories immolate themselves over a politics that appeals to the tiny anti-vax/Covid denialist movement. Plus getting this through on the basis of Labour votes erodes Johnson's already tenuous authority further, without Starmer having to risk an iota of political capital.

Turning back to the address, the newspapers will be happy with it. The bosses will be happy with it. And LOTO are hoping there was enough to introduce him to sceptical Tory voters as someone they can imagine on the steps of Number 10, and would do a better job of handling the responsibilities of office better than Johnson. Undoubtedly it's going to get focus grouped to death, but overall Starmer and his supporters are bound to be happy with the broadcast. For the first time in a long time, it appears politics is going their way.

6 comments:

Blissex said...

«which helps explain the framing for his Monday night national address. Let's consider the setting.»

The setting and the framing! It just occurred to me that they are designed to appeal to *pensioners*. It could make sense: Labour did beat the Conservatives in 2019 among voters under 45 IIRC, as our blogger has often pointed out, and the "soft" thatcherite voters that Starmer's New, New Labour is pursuing are most likely oldies. Starmer could start wearing a "bomber command" tie. :-)

«The critique is muted and couched in the mildest terms, but tonight's attempt at prime ministerialism opposed stability and strong government with Starmer to chaos with Boris Johnson.»

I can imagine our blogger chuckling like I am doing now with this linking Starmer to Theresa May and Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn :-).

«In recent weeks Labour has rediscovered the utility of making suggestions for dealing with the pandemic»

Except pushing test-trace-isolate and pointing out that by following the "Washington Consensus" the UK had a death rate 10 times higher than Finland or Thailand.

«and is manoeuvring to position itself as Covid's most determined adversary.»

Waste of time; for most existing tory voters COVID-19 is now a mere inconvenience.

Mark said...

"For the first time in a long time, it appears politics is going their way"

Which is kind of the problem. They sat and waited for the Tories to become so repulsive no one could ignore it anymore. Would have been good to have taken the lead and made the case for Labour politics, whatever that is now.

I don't think Starmer's Labour provides the change we need, the beginning of undoing 40 years of neoliberal harm that Corbyn offered. However, I think it is still true that for the most vulnerable in society any Labour government will always be better that any Tory government.

It does now seem obvious that legacy media is still the greatest influence on political thought in the public though. I see nothing has changed in the last two years between how the Tories and Labour act, but the media have changed their narrative and opinion has swung to Labour. It is depressing to see that social media and new media outlets have really changed nothing. It is still the S*n wot won it.

BCFG said...

The irony of all this is that Starmer is from the same political block as PhilBC, I mean Starmer didn't mention Assange either, that means something, no it really does!

The setting and framing has more than a whiff of Americanisation to me, like we don't have enough of that!

Blissex said...

«I don't think Starmer's Labour provides the change we need»

Who needs that change? 8-10 million at least voters need no change, they have been very comfortable with 40 years of booming living standards and greater economic security, entirely redistributed from the lower classes, who are currently not represented by any major party.

«the beginning of undoing 40 years of neoliberal harm that Corbyn offered»

Some people are sceptical that he really means it, they think that he is just an opportunist, but Andy Burnham has written coherently in 2015 and 2021:

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/13/jeremy-corbyn-tony-blair-warning-responds-i-dont-do-personal-i-dont-do-abuse
«he also praised Corbyn for having brought the contest to life. “The attacks we’ve seen on Jeremy misread the mood of the party because what people are crying out for is something different. They are fed up with the way Labour has been conducting policies in recent times,” he said.»

«Burnham [...] has more clarity on what he is about as a politician and explains to The House that, in essence, that is “rolling back the 80s”. “I feel like [the 80s] was when things changed for the worse in this country, both in terms of the demise of certain industries, the loss of affordable public transport, council housing,” he says.” I believe you trace a lot of our problems back to then and the sadness for me is that New Labour didn’t fix those things. It did some good things, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t fix those things.”»

Let's hope he means it and something will come of it.

«However, I think it is still true that for the most vulnerable in society any Labour government will always be better that any Tory government.»

Rory Hatterlsley wrote t0 years ago as to that, still relevant:

«It's no longer my party
It has been a difficult four years for the Labour Party's unrepentant social democrats. [...] Now that the Labour Party - at least according to its leader - bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of likeminded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea. [...] The certain knowledge that the Conservative Party would be a worse government than Labour is not enough to sustain what used to be a party of principles. [...] believing that the party does not belong to Tony Blair, we could rise up against the coup d'├ętat which overthrew the legitimate philosophy. Too many party members have chosen to retire hurt.»

Also I dispute that “for the most vulnerable in society any Labour government will always be better”: perhaps will there be a bit more "trickle down", a bit more things like SureStart, and rough sleeper will be taken off the streets, but the big deal for most of the lowest has been always housing cost inflation, and while "centrists" do give a few crumbs to the lower classes, that's only to take them back and more by pushing for a high rate of housing cost inflation to get the approval of thatcherite voters.

«Legacy media is still the greatest influence on political thought in the public»

Public opinion is influenced by the legacy media, in particular by the BBC, which addresses the whole public, while most newspapers target only the already converted, as they preach to choir as a marketing strategy. But I believe the studies that show that the media have little influence on voting, which does not necessarily track public opinion: public opinion is about "I like them", voting is about "I want that". Many of voters dislike Johnson, the kippers, the Conservatives, etc., but they still vote them because they badly want their economic policies (big property gains first and foremost).

Blissex said...

«nothing has changed in the last two years between how the Tories and Labour act, but the media have changed their narrative and opinion has swung to Labour»

Two major right-wing dailies (Express, Mail) got new "remainy" editors in relatively recent times, replacing kipper ones. They have changed the narrative slowly and skilfully, but not for the benefit of New Labour, but for the intended benefit of the globalist "whig" wing of the Conservatives, the Cameron etc. wing, allied with the business wing, which is fighting back against the nationalist "tory" wing, allied with the property wing, and is fronted by Johnson.

Johnson in 2019 campaigned as the leader of the opposition, the Conservative "kipper movement" opposition against the Conservative "liberal establishment" government, and defeated it.

Currently Starmer's New Labour is benefiting accidentally, because they are the theoretical opposition and also their core politics are sort of indistinguishable from the those of the Conservative liberals, even if they are sort of camouflaged with kipper dog-whistles.

The media campaign is meant to restore control of the Conservatives to the business globalists, not to benefit New Labour, however hard Starmer and Reeves are trying to position New Labour as the party of choice of business globalists (and at the same time of kipper nationalists in "the north").

Blissex said...

The numbers for North Shropshire are out, and the LibDem vote stayed the same while the Conservative vote halved, so the LibDems took the seat.

Starmer's "prime ministerial" address managed to increase the chocolate ration, :-) oops I mean the New Labour vote, to 3,686, one fourth as in 2017's 17,287 and one third of 2019's 12,495. All those retired "soft" tory votes truly love New Labour! I guess we can admire the great success of the "pasokification" technique so forensically followed by Keir Starmer. ;-)