Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Keir Starmer's Bad Luck

Amid the heavy news cycle, the latest gossip from the Labour leader's circle was probably missed by most. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, our friend Dan Hodges speaks of "the curse of Keir". There is, apparently, a sense that Keir Starmer is incredibly unlucky. Just as the leadership contest entered the final straights, boom! Covid happened ensuring the Labour leader's election passed by as the public hunkered down. An unnamed (of course) shadow minister chips in, "Then just as it looked like we were opening up, and he’d get the space to set out a serious offer, we’d go back into lockdown. Then Covid ends, it looks like he’s got another opportunity to set out his stall, and Putin invades." Events keep conspiring against him, refusing to grant Starmer the space to make waves. Global pandemic? Offer bipartisan support. The biggest conflict in Europe since 1945? Offer bipartisan support. Even Covid specifically has it in for Starmer, forcing him to cancel appearances at Prime Minister's Questions thanks to him or a family member coming down with it seemingly every other week. And as night follows day, the jitters are back. The same shadow minister says "The danger now is it will be too late. When the agenda finally pivots back from Ukraine, we just won’t have the time to work up and sell anything really substantive to the voters." Thanks to the timing, May's council elections are the final test for calamity Keir. "If it strikes again .. it could strike for the final time" Hodges concludes.

Superstition in politics is definitely a thing. Politicians, as a rule, have little clue about what politics is beyond advancing their careers, compromising to get policies through, scoring points and getting elected. It's a dynamic, shifting game for them, and one in which chance plays a leading role. Without an analysis to guide them, some fall prey to talismans and omens. Wearing the lucky outfit on election day, signs and portents of imminent good fortune or doom, the occurrence of coincidences, they are the politics equivalent a horoscope. But the nonsense of the tearoom culture does have consequences. If one gets a reputation for good or bad luck, like Boris Johnson and Starmer respectively, that can colour perceptions of how they're doing, which in turn impacts on the whispers reaching the lobby hacks' ears and the kind of coverage they receive.

Luck or lack of luck is a function of political opportunities and how they are utilised, they are not mysterious properties of unknowable fates. At Westminster, luck is unevenly distributed because the parties do not share a level playing field. The Tories enjoy the support of the press who, while in decline, frame the news agenda followed by broadcast media. And because they comprise the government, they get more air time than their Labour opponents. Johnson is a lucky politician, but it's a luck enabled by decades of soft press coverage and hostility to the alternatives. He has, mostly, played a strong hand well. Compare this to Jeremy Corbyn's tenure as Labour leader. He was unfortunate to lead without a significant hinterland in the parliamentary party, and to suffer ceaseless daily attacks by the same people who built Johnson up. Yet, despite this, Corbyn made his own luck. The barrage was constant, but on occasion he was able to sally forth and redefine the terms of politics by punting the unsayable and seemingly unsellable. He even managed this in the dying days of his leadership when Covid first made its presence felt. Here we had someone his enemies tried boxing in repeatedly, yet despite that was able to determine the direction of politics and set the weather.

By contrast, Starmer has been much more fortunate. The press environment has been benign for him. They helpfully buried the exposure of scabbing by party officials, and never trouble him about his calamitous mismanagement of the party and its finances, nor the gaping void where a political agenda should be. True, Starmer has had to operate during crises where people are more interested in what the government are doing than what the opposition are saying but the Labour leader hasn't even tried. He might have defined himself as a critic of Tory tardiness over Covid and, like his predecessor, made the case for and applied pressure to introduce new schemes or cover for gaps in government support. He did no such thing, falling in behind the Tories and offering them loyalty with the odd carping criticisms. Where he did make demands of the government, it was from a position of pre-existing widespread public support. And we're seeing the same over Putin's war. The people making the weather over Tory relationships to the Kremlin are the papers, with Starmer relatively mum - presumably in the name of a new union sacrée foisted on politics by Ukraine.

Consider the party's plans before Putin's tanks rolled in. Starmer had resolved to say nothing in the lead up to the local elections that might encourage people to vote Labour. And with public enthusiasm for taking refugees running at high levels, he completely failed to capitalise on that and make the Tories look mean-spirited - seemingly because Great Leader Keir doesn't want to be seen bowing to popular pressure. The minions who go scurrying off to fire text messages at their favourite columnists are making excuses for their boss. Starmer isn't unlucky, he's positively comatose. He has no idea about political leadership and what needs to be done, nor seemingly do those he listens to. It irritates the Labour right to repeat back to them the "any other leader" mantra they had fun with between 2015 and 2019, but in this case virtually any other Labour MP, regardless of their politics, would be doing a better job generating their own luck. When all is said and done, Starmer isn't unlucky. He's just incompetent.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

If you don't think Keir Starmer will advance the class struggle you're possibly not understanding social democracy correctly from a Marxist viewpoint.

Iggy Reilly said...


Anonymous said...

Shai Mascot
For those few of us perhaps not as well-versed as you, might you elaborate on your comment a bit?

McIntosh said...

The other thing you might do is examine the set of cliches and catchphrases used to describe what the Labour leader and his team are doing and how they see themselves:

- the adults in the room
- sensible centre left policies
- appealing to the middle ground
- opposing infantile student union policies
- go so far to the left you circle round to the extreme right.

It is a tumbling rush of cant and jargon designed to stigmatise their opponents without inspiring themselves or the electorate.

Blissex said...

«It is a tumbling rush of cant and jargon designed to stigmatise their opponents without inspiring themselves or the electorate»

The affluent "soft tory" voters targeted by Johnson, Starmer and Davey as their core constituency are not really bothered about “cant and jargon” they are practical people and follow the Telegraph and the Mail to check how property prices are doing and look at the emails from their BTL agents about how fast they can increase rents.

Well, "The Economy" (*their* economy) is booming, why would they fire a winning team just because of “cant and jargon” by a wannabe?

Jon Vagg said...

You mention the view that Starmer has just had bad luck, and the opposing view that 'you make your own luck'. There's a somewhat similar aphorism - I actually first heard it in a speech by Chris Patten - that 'every crisis is also an opportunity'. The point being that with both Covid and Ukraine, Starmer had the opportunity to say a lot more than he did, show that he had real command of his briefings and was the more capable person to operate as a leader in the situation - even if there was zero chance of that happening. It would have been a big image-building thing in terms of public perception.

Blissex said...

«had real command of his briefings and was the more capable person to operate as a leader in the situation - even if there was zero chance of that happening. It would have been a big image-building thing in terms of public perception.»

Is there some evidence that all such by itself substantially and consistently changes actual voting in elections that matter?

There is a recent counterexample: December 2019. Or did the "dream team" of Jo Swinson and Chuka Umunna (Chuka Umunna!!!!) really get their predicted landslide for being the "serious centrists" then?

Jon Vagg said...

'Is there some evidence that all such by itself substantially and consistently changes actual voting in elections that matter?' - Probably not. But if you want to win an election you have to start looking like a real contender at some point...

But ultimately, no, I don't know what wins elections. Rhetoric, selling a dream people want to buy into, charming the press, avoiding scandals, opportunistically responding to the other side's scandals (or inventing some?). And these days, digital marketing and psychographics? I have a sense the whole field has changed in the last 20 years, both political culture and the way a lot of people think about whether and how they'll vote. What's your take on how Labour could win?

JN said...

The idea that it could be considered "bad luck" that the leader of a major political party is expected to respond to the most significant things that are happening in the world right now is absurd. That's the core of your fucking job, Keir!

It's like if a shop assistant complained about having to fill shelves and help customers. Or, say, a history teacher complained that they didn't like history or teaching. There are legitimate complaints and then there are signs that maybe you just aren't cut out for this job.

Of course, anyone with a brain in their head knows by now that the point of Starmerism is a Blairite reconquest of the Labour Party; only that and nothing more.

Miriam said...

Absolutely right