A Bad Week for Starmer, or worse?

The big "sell" of Starmer during his leadership campaign was competence. We aren't seeing much.

16 min read

Last week was widely seen as a bad week for Keir Starmer. But is this simply a bad week at the office, or does it indicate something more fundamental about how Starmer and his team are operating? It seems to be the latter.

Starmer’s team began the year by rolling out their rebranding of Labour as “the party of the family”. This is the result of Claire Ainsley’s “public values-based policy agenda” methodology. In her book The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes (Policy Press, 2018), she presents research which claims to show that family is the most important value in the UK population, that is shared with her New Working Class formation. In the Starmer-Ainsley system, if the research says family is top of the list, then you talk about family.

There are several problems with this, the most basic of which is that opinion polling doesn’t reflect Ainsley’s conclusions. Since June 2019, YouGov has asked respondents to name ‘The most important issues facing the country’. In that time, ‘family life and childcare’ has consistently polled at around 4-8%,with a high of just 12% in late March 2020, a week after the first lockdown was introduced—a time when practical questions of childcare may well have felt more important. Concerns around the economy and health, conversely, have been riding high since March 2020. Of course, it may also be that the distinction between family as a value and family as an ‘important issue facing the country’ is more fine-grained. But the question remains: if family is the highest value, why don’t people seem to consider it an important issue when asked? And how can a political party hope to activate the value of ‘family’ when, according to headline polling, people don’t seem to consider it a particularly salient issue? It seems unlikely to work. This polling suggests that in the current context it is closer to running a “raise the importance of this issue” campaign than anything else, which is harder work than “talk about something people think is important”.

Laying all of the above to one side, and bracketing if an apparently left wing politician should employ this framing at all, we might consider if this strategy has “worked” on its own terms. Is Keir Starmer doing a good job of talking about family? If you are a politician intending to ‘activate the value of the family’, there are two broad approaches you could take: a ‘soft’, rhetorical method or a ‘harder’, more technical way involving concrete policies, though both include a substantial narratival element.

Let’s consider the ‘soft’ approach. There has been a distinct lack of creativity in this regard—and not for want of material. Starmer’s family story is interesting. In interviews during the leadership election, he told it well, and in a way that didn’t involve right wing appeals. His father was a tool worker, who ran a factory, worked long hours, and was, in Starmer’s words,“in manufacturing when the heart was being taken out of manufacturing”—a narrative that will be very familiar to the so-called ‘red wall’ seats. His mother was a nurse and depended on the NHS for treatment for a rare autoimmune condition. Telling this story, articulating it to a political appeal is obviously difficult, but the basis for doing it is there. David Cameron talked about how the NHS cared for his child. In the complete cut of the above linked interview, Starmer shares a few relatable stories of domestic life in lockdown, and is warm and affectionate in a very human way. Why are we not hearing more of this?

The ‘harder’ approach would be to signal a renewed focus on the family with specific policy announcements. But Starmer’s Labour is a relatively policy-free zone. Most crucially, where there is policy it does not tell a story: where the policies call back to a clear narrative of what is going on, who the government is, what needs to change and how it is we, Labour, who can uniquely change it. This is because Starmer has not laid out that story. It’s a weak retail offer, back to Miliband era “Vote Labour and win a microwave”. The very core comfort zone of Labour. We do get a slogan: “the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in”. However, it’s ultimately a very poor slogan. It is very clever and sonorous, but it’s also a mouthful, better suited to the closing lines of a speech than a billboard or hashtag. The same goes for the slogan “Secure our Economy/Protect our NHS/Rebuild our Country”—on lecterns boiled down to the vague and slightly ominous-sounding “Secure/Protect/Rebuild”. In fairness, this slogan makes more sense in terms of priorities: polling shows that health and the economy are the main concerns of much of the electorate. But it is hardly memorable. It reads as though the comms team were unable to decide on one three-word slogan, so compromised by mashing three three-word slogans together. And even its condensed, three-word version is tepid compared to the Conservatives’ efforts: consider “Build Back Better” (pilfered from the left), or “A Green Industrial Revolution” (stolen from the 2019 Labour manifesto), or “Unleash Britain’s Potential”. For a short while, the Labour slogan was “Jobs Jobs Jobs”, but even that now seems to have disappeared without trace. Hardly the consistency of messaging needed at this point.

Despite frequent derision among the grassroots, “A New Leadership” was fine for an introductory slogan—Corbyn did much the same with “A New Kind of Politics”. But all it tells us is that Keir Starmer is not Jeremy Corbyn. Once you’ve encouraged voters to take another look at Labour, it’s not enough to claim just that the leadership is “new”: you have to sell your specific kind of leadership. You have to show people who you are. And who Starmer seems to want to be is a better middle manager who tells you what to do, but more nicely. But do people really like being told to do things by their boss, though? Is there much evidence to suggest that voters will go for this “nice boss” framing, as opposed to a movement, project you can participate in, a vision—things that are offered by the Conservatives (much as we may dislike their particular vision), along with pretty much every successful political party on earth? Competent or otherwise, people don’t really tend to like their bosses.

Who Starmer seems to want to be is a better middle manager who tells you what to do, but more nicely. But do people really like being told to do things by their boss, though?

What lies behind this lack of imagination and failure of communication? Much of it seems to result from a mis-application of public relations techniques found in corporations and the third sector to a different sphere: politics. This is not to say there are no transferable skills between public relations and politics, but simply that they are different, and that this difference matters—something which professionals within PR - talking specifically about Starmer’s team - have themselves noted. This mis-application is symptomatic of a wider problem that is generally unremarked-upon: the fact that Starmer’s team, including Starmer himself, are lacking in political experience.

We have already considered how Claire Ainsley’s third-sector background means she is unaccustomed to the reality of politics: a reality which frequently kicks back, and in which every move is met with a counter-move. But Ainsley is by no means an outlier; the rest of Starmers team have little-to-no experience in high-level political operations. This matters. Two recent books on the Corbyn leadership (Owen Jones’s This Land and Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s Left Out) note the inexperience of his staff as a significant factor leading to certain early mistakes. If this was a problem for Corbyn, it is likely to be one for Starmer. Both books recognise that, during the Corbyn period, Seamus Milne was too often a distant figure. Last week Stephen Bush reported that “Starmer’s director of communications, Ben Nunn, is widely criticised as remote and inattentive”—one of the most concerning sentences you can read about a Director of Communications. “Remote”, when their core function is to be accessible to the press and to internal staff, in order to clarify and enforce messaging. “Inattentive”, when a core requirement is to be precise, detail-orientated, and on top of things in a breakneck 24/7 media environment. And “widely criticised”—this observation is common enough that Stephen Bush bothers to write it down.

Nunn’s background is in healthcare communication, working for PR agencies MHP Communications and Incisive Health. He took time out to stand as a Labour councillor in 2014, then worked for Heidi Alexander on healthcare policy. The PR Week profile from which this detail is drawn has some telling information. Typically the Director of Communications role (or its equivalent) is held by journalists—Alastair Campell being the prototypical example, Lee Cain being the Conservatives’ most recent—rather than PR people such as Nunn. Martha Dalton, who worked on Lisa Nandy’s leadership campaign, notes in the profile that

Politics moves much faster than communications, so a grounding in both means you can bring a professionalism and structure that can be applied to the ultra-fast-paced, sometimes messy, world of politics. It allows you to rise above the noise and be more strategic.

But does Starmer’s team have a grounding in politics as well as communications? The campaign experience a number of Starmer’s staff share are two campaigns that were arguably politics on “easy mode”. The first of these was the unwinnable 2016 Owen Smith campaign, on which Nunn worked as Director of Communications. The campaign ‘boasted’ a poor start, a liability candidate, poor terrain, and a highly motivated and disciplined opposition. Winning was never realistically an option, making it, paradoxically, an easy campaign. After this came Starmer’s post-Corbyn leadership campaign—almost as inevitable a victory as Smith’s campaign was a defeat. The majority of Starmer’s current team worked this campaign. This was also easy mode: the campaign benefitted from a great start with an astutely left-leaning video, from long term planning—meetings were being held during the general election campaign, weeks in advance of the result—good terrain, and a split, demoralised opposition reluctant to fight hard, or seemingly at all. It also had near unlimited resources as donors lined up to support Starmer with cash, hotel rooms, leaflet printing, and other campaign costs. Looking at all of this, we can see that Starmer and his team are used to working in favourable conditions.

Starmer himself, moreover, has little political experience. Parachuted into a safe seat in 2015, he has been a politician for just 6 years. Contrast this with another lawyer-turned-politician, Tony Blair, who became leader in 1994, having been an MP since 1983—giving him 11 years’ prior experience in politics. Starmer, on the other hand, was described with his team as “not political”—something which is remarkable in the leader of a major political party. The structured and court-like context of Prime Minister’s Questions usually suits him well, and this has some utility. It may also pose a limitation, however, in allowing him to be framed by the Conservatives as “the lawyer”; as somebody who, outside of the formality of the Commons, has no understanding of politics.

What about the ability to create an appropriate strategy? Starmer’s team describe their strategy as a multi-phase, long-term plan. First, distance from Corbyn, clear up the brand, and introduce Keir, the aim being to “win a hearing” with voters who have turned away from Labour. Next, lay out the vision and values. Then, finally, proceed to policy, just in time for 2024. This plan no doubt suits Starmer’s methodical and cautious approach—but it is communications, not politics. It is good to plan, and vital to have a strategy. But is this form of strategy-making or planning appropriate to its context? It most closely resembles a marketing strategy—a product launch, with all the focus on what makes your product great, and no consideration of the kinds of attrition that characterise Parliamentary politics. Where are the Conservatives in this plan? It seems a glaring omission. For all their errors and shortcomings, all their inexperience in PR, the leftists who surrounded Corbyn would never have doubted that politics is a struggle, with enemies in the room, and they would have moved accordingly.

During Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Starmer made a factual error and revealed himself to be thin-skinned in the face of criticism, ending with him, according to some reports, having a confrontation with Johnson. Being thin-skinned is not helpful behaviour for a leader of a political party, particularly not when the main opponent, Boris Johnson, is a bully who enjoys exploiting weakness. The team put Starmer up to apologise on camera. Like many things Starmer’s team do, this seems superficially clever: people hate it when people can’t admit mistakes, especially politicians. However, in the upcoming local elections, the Facebook attack ad almost writes itself: Starmer shouting in Parliament, YouTube footage showing his distortions of the truth, stage-managed apology, end card. After batting away the epithet of “Captain Hindsight” for months, Starmer has now left himself completely open to this charge, due to his inability to keep his temper and respond appropriately in the moment. Three or four minutes more thought might have averted the entire mess. The same goes for the suspension of Corbyn: a short term press boost, but at the cost of having the issue drag on for many many months, with increasing bitterness. It was better ignored—or, better yet, dealt with ahead of time, as the situation was wholly predictable.

The Starmer team’s reaction to this bad week is, in itself, telling. In an internal email that was mysteriously leaked to the Sunday Times, Ainsley wrote:

To be the party of working people and their communities, Labour must be unashamedly pro-business to drive growth and opportunity in every part of our country.

The recovery manoeuvre, then, is going to be repackaging the Labour Party as “unashamedly pro-business” ahead of the Spring Budget. But who is clamouring for a “pro-business” pivot from any political party at this point? Concerns about ‘the economy’ as reflected in polls are unlikely to be anything to do with being “pro-business”. The Conservatives don’t talk about being “pro-business”. As the sitting Prime Minister famously observed: “Fuck business!”. Ainsley’s email is remarkably well-written for an internal communication, and was undoubtedly seen as a very useful thing to have leaked! But look at its language: to be “the party of working people”, Labour must “drive growth and opportunity”. Who talks in these terms, outside of marketing and comms?

Look at its language: to be “the party of working people”, Labour must “drive growth and opportunity”. Who talks in these terms, outside of marketing and comms?

Between this, ‘family values’, and patriotism, we should not be surprised at recent polling showing that Labour are haemorrhaging support, much of which is being mopped up by the Greens, who now may well be being seen as a viable left alternative. Against the recommendations of the ‘Labour Together’ report, Starmer’s team have assumed that he no longer needs to court left-wing voters, as they have nowhere else to go. It was this same arrogant assumption that voters had no alternative, either in Scotland, Wales or in the ‘red wall’ that resulted in the long term decline of Labour votes in those places. This is a mess.

In contrast, the Conservatives are a ruthless and disciplined machine, even when coasting. This is before the likes of Issac Levido return for active campaigning. The Conservatives and their outriders have spent the last few weeks shifting into attack mode. The approach is relatively straightforward: try out different negative framings and stories, and keep going until something sticks. This is assisted by the Sunday press, which can tee up a story—usually supplied via. Tory research, leaks or tip-offs, or the vile but well-connected ‘Guido Fawkes’ blog—that is intended to define political proceedings for the coming week. The effect is also cumulative: even if individual stories don’t grab the public’s attention, they can be referred back to at a later date, acting as a sort of ‘canon’ or archive of negativity. It’s a scattershot approach, but with a sympathetic media on their side, the Conservatives can afford it. Where positive communication requires consistency— something at which Starmer, as we have seen, is failing— negativity is much easier for the Conservatives in their current incarnation.

Let’s take a few recent examples. On Sunday 24 January, there was an attempt to make Labour appear “loony left” and anti-forces by exposing some of the content of Open Labour’s foreign policy report. It didn’t quite take, but there is an important thing to note in this attack’s focus on Lisa Nandy. The Tories, viewing as ‘successful’ their sexist and racist derogation of Diane Abbott, are clearly now attempting the same, equally sexist and racist strategy on Nandy, dubbing her “Liability Lisa”. This may well ramp up.

A week later, on Sunday 31th of January, both The Sun and The Daily Mail carried attack pieces bearing the respective headlines “Snouts in the trough: Labour’s Shadow Cabinet pocketed thousands in lockdown expenses billing YOU for first-class travel & even hand gel” and “Labour’s Shadow Cabinet have claimed thousands of pounds in expenses since first nationwide lockdown in March on first class travel, TV licences and HAND GEL, figures reveal”. This was an interesting attempt to tap into anti-corruption and anti-political sentiments —and is dangerous for Starmer, who has consciously cultivated an image as a ‘regular’ politician, even though people in the most part despise regular politicians. This attack doesn’t appear to have worked either.

Starmer has consciously cultivated an image as a ‘regular’ politician, even though people in the most part despise regular politicians.

And then, last week, the Conservative machine had a string of hits. As noted, Starmer managed to feed them an attack line by getting his facts wrong and losing his temper. Footage emerged of Starmer revealing his republican sympathies. And to cap it off, Lord Falconer was taught on tape talking to a group of lawyers, saying that Covid-19 was “a gift that keeps on giving”. The framing in the Sunday papers was that “pandemic is GOOD for rich City lawyers” and “City firm staffed by millionaire lawyers”, “Lord Falconer, who also once shared a flat with Mr Blair, inhabits a world which contrasts starkly with that of voters in those ‘Red Wall’ seats in the Midlands and the North which Labour hopes to reclaim from the Tories at the next Election”. Again a populist framing. This story is unfair, of course. We all understand what Falconer was saying and that it was even laced with a bit of sarcasm. But the damage is done. Note also here an attempt to go with “regular politician”. This is before the Conservatives begin looking through Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions. They probably don’t need to though: framing Sir Keir Starmer as an establishment figure, because he is one, might do the job on its own.

Simultaneously, the “positive” case for the Conservatives is ramping up. Covid-19 gives them an opportunity to appear like the “change candidate”, just as Johnson managed in 2019. The vaccine roll out, effective because it piggy backs on existing logistics networks in the military, NHS, and the private sector, rather than any particular competence from the Conservatives, means that they have a continuous stream of good news to talk of. Every person in the country will be visited by government effectiveness, especially those in Conservative target demographics. Matt Hancock can claim to reboot the NHS in an anti-market manner. Rishi Sunak can tax tech companies who have benefitted from the crisis in a way few will object to. Psychologically, believing he is on the up, Boris Johnson can switch into his sunny mode, refocus, and move forward. The pandemic has offered unprecedented opportunity for an opposition to inflict real political damage in a situation of quite literal life and death, where the stakes were high enough to make almost any attack ethically supportable. Starmer completely missed this opportunity. He didn’t even call for Dominic Cummings to resign.

Starmer’s team are now warming up to an expectation management campaign for the May local elections. Briefing both the Huffington Post and The Guardian, May’s elections, they say, may not be a dramatic moving-forward; results are most likely to either be bad or static. What this allows is for this result to be already “priced in” to media portrayals if this result does happen. If the result is better than expected, even mildly, it seems vastly better by comparison with what had been briefed since January, for five months prior. You then also get to tell the story also of a plucky campaign, well-managed and beating the odds to come out on top. If, on the other hand, results come in as you expect them, no one is surprised, so criticism is minimised. A better media strategy than their own positive programme: anticipating future negative framings and situations and attempting to deal with them ahead of time.

But it does not change the objective facts: Keir Starmer’s own team believe he will not do well in the May elections. This is worth noting. For this election, Starmer has to contend with a demoralised and even insubordinate grassroots. The techniques of mass voter registration and online mobilisation and organising that the US Democrats used in order to adapt their campaign to the Covid-19 context require lots of enthusiastic volunteers. The group with this most relevant expertise on these techniques (e.g. distributed and relational organising) in the UK is Momentum, or the Community Organising Unit—the one that Labour Party HQ has just shuttered. Labour also has less money, as members are leaving. Though the Democrats had their fair share of big money donors, they also,like most contemporary political campaigns, relied upon the power of small grassroots donors—something the Democrat mainstream borrowed from Bernie Sanders’s campaign. In addition, whereas Starmer’s’s leadership campaign was politics on easy mode, the same team now has to cope with the bureaucratic inertia and internal politics of Labour Party HQ weighing down their autonomy and pace. This is going to be a challenge. The heady days of Starmer’s leadership campaign will be looked back on with some nostalgia.

Moreover, the press is now hostile, and Starmer and his team have no choice but to operate on their terrain. ‘Flailing Labour leader’ is one of the British’s press’ favourite modes. Once they find the angle, it’s wall to wall, unrelenting. Brown faced it. Miliband faced it, in numberless Radio 4 discussions about him not being ‘leadership material’. Corbyn faced it to the nth degree. And now Starmer’s team must face it. Corbyn had alternative strategies available to him to counter a negative press: mobilisation of grassroots support, for example, or the support and creation of alternative outlets and platforms. These were not wholly successful, of course, and diminished between the 2017 and 2019 General Elections, for a variety of reasons. But these options are not available to Starmer. There is no Starmerite grassroots. He is also facing the beginnings of what Miliband, and especially Corbyn, had to contend against: a PLP more than prepared to brief against you and undermine you in the press.

One of the “sells” of Starmer, during the leadership campaign, was competence. We aren’t seeing much.


George Peacock