The leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer, is approaching the end of his first year in the job. Maggie Scammell, a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Media and Communications Department at LSE writes about Starmer’s communication style and its implications for both him and his party, and what he could learn from former Labour leader and prime minister Tony Blair.
What kind of leader is Keir Starmer? Is he capable of restoring Labour’s electoral credibility and, against all odds, maybe offering a genuine chance of victory?
A year into his leadership, he has mixed reviews. Depending on your point of view, he has made a highly encouraging start, at times topping Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the polls and scoring the highest net satisfaction rating for an Opposition leader since Tony Blair in the 1990s. Alternatively, for his critics, he is a Blairite throwback, divisive and antagonistic towards left-wing activists. Beyond that, and more troubling for Starmer, is the grumbling groundswell that he is “just not up to the task”: he’s not sharp enough in his criticisms of the government, he’s nowhere near creating a clear Labour identity, and he looks bland against the charisma of Boris.
So how should we assess Starmer so far? Intriguingly, the Blair comparisons, whether fearful (from the left) or admiring (from the right) provide clues because they direct us not just to his personality as a leader but also to questions of basic electoral and communication strategy.
What kind of leader is he?
We know what he’s not like. He’s vastly different in style from the previous Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He does not draw from the well of left-wing populism. On the contrary, he seems more concerned with the populism of the right, especially the aspects that appeal to former Labour voters in the Red Wall: the voters who were pro-Brexit, anti-immigration and socially conservative. These are the kind of voters who chose “Make Britain Great Again” as an attractive campaign slogan, according to Deborah Mattinson’s focus group analysis in Beyond the Red Wall. Doubtless, that kind of research underlay the recent tactical shift towards Union Jack-waving to bolster Labour’s patriotic credentials.
However, in style and temperament Starmer seems scarcely the man for right-wing populism; or indeed for populism of any kind. He has excelled instead at lawyer-like interrogations during Prime Minister’s Questions. However, outside this comfort zone, he is less impressive. Straight to camera or in TV interviews Starmer too often appears anxious, eye-brows arched, ill-at-ease. As the adage goes, lawyers make bad witnesses; second-guessing every question for concealed threats, and as a consequence look shifty and evasive. The authenticity of populist leaders may be an entirely staged act – and possibly Keir hates the fake sincerity – but at least it is performed with evident relish. All too often in public Starmer appears uncomfortable in his own skin. Perhaps he is embarrassed to be so obviously a middle-class metropolitan at the head of historically working-class Labour. Privilege in of itself is clearly no impediment to populist appeal, nor was it to Tony Blair who pioneered the personalisation of British politics. But – and maybe precisely because – Starmer was not born into privilege, he seems sensitive to class judgments. He cannot claim now to be “one of us” to a class he has left behind; but nor does he possess the in-born confidence of the privileged that class no longer matters.
In short, Starmer is not a neat fit in our era of personalised politics. We know bits about his background: he was a human rights lawyer, his father was a tool-maker, mother a nurse who suffered from Still’s disease, that he has two children, and likes music and football. However, even after a year in office, we still don’t have a grip on what he’s like. That point came across perfectly in a zoom Q&A event with the youth organisation My Life My Say last summer. The first question came from Munya Chawawa, who, albeit politely, asked Starmer: “Who are you?”
Starmer ran away from the opportunity. Given a chance to engage at a personal level, he instead offered a hurried list – jobs performed by wife and parents, a passing mention of his kids, music and football – before launching into typical political spiel about a passion for justice. The “who are you” question matters. Leaders are important in modern politics, apparently increasingly so, and voters judge across criteria that include assessments of personality and like-ability. Starmer’s understandable desire to protect his private life ironically may convert personal sincerity into the public appearance of inauthenticity. It matters therefore that he finds a leadership style that suits his personality; if obviously not the macho style of right-wing populists, nor the “cool rule” demeanour of the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or the young Tony Blair, then maybe the calm and collected authority exemplified by popular women leaders might be a better fit – think peak Angel Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Adern. None of these women shout the odds, but all are direct and empathetic and manage to inspire confidence.
Comparisons with Blair
Both the Left and the Right have likened Starmer to Blair, and each, from opposing standpoints, are alarmed by the comparison. The watershed moment came with the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party following the report into the party’s response to anti-Semitism. While Left activists mobilised to overthrow Starmer, Conservatives began to regard him as a force to be reckoned with. In November, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson told a BBC Question Time audience that the Tories needed to beware: Starmer is “beginning to look like a young Tony Blair, taking on his militant wing here, showing the country his party has changed and is ready for re-election”. Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt made the same point on the Andrew Marr Show (31 January, 2021): “I think he’s [Sir Keir] a very serious threat, a much bigger threat than we’ve had for many years, indeed since Tony Blair, I would definitely say that, yes.”
However, Starmer’s starting position is so much worse than Blair’s. When the latter became leader, Labour needed only a small swing for electoral victory and had the reassurance of solid Labour heartlands in Scotland and the north of England that have crumbled so spectacularly over the last three elections. Moreover, Blair was chosen by his party precisely because he had already proven himself as a “front man”, comfortable with the media and adept at soundbites. Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime – an iconic Labour slogan was famously Blair’s even before he took the helm.
More importantly, Blair assembled a strong leadership team and created a clear modernising project for both his party, and the country. Labour communicated through multiple layers. It allied itself to influencers in the media and the academy: Tony Giddens with his ‘Third Way’, think tanks such as Demos, proponents of reforming “stakeholder capitalism” and it launched Prospect magazine to champion the ideas of the soft progressive left. Equally, Blair’s leadership was determined to broker a new deal both with business (and Gordon Brown’s “prawn cocktail” offensive) and with the Conservative tabloids that had so attacked Neil Kinnock. Ultimately, Labour created its own and distinctive brand, “New Labour”, with Blair as its young, smart and personable front man.
What Keir can learn from Blair
Political marketing fell from grace in the Labour Party along with Tony Blair, its master. The neo-liberal economics and above all the invasion of Iraq tainted the legacy of anything Blair-like in the eyes of so many Labour activists. But Blair’s failures were less the marketing, more the politics. Ultimately his reputation foundered, not on marketing logic, but its absence; his support for George W Bush and his invasion came from “conviction”. Blair believed it was the right thing to do. When clever and agile politicians elevate faith over reasoned calculation, you wonder if they’ve lost the plot.
Moreover since Blair, the successes of populists have seemed to undermine the basic tenets of modern political marketing, returning us to older model of propaganda: simple slogans, big lies, demonisation of enemies, exploitation of prejudice and all draped in heroic (tribal) national symbols. A typical reaction of the hard-left is to respond in kind – be louder, be more aggressive, sound the trumpets for a fight. But, this is precisely where Keir could learn from Tony, because the early years of Blair’s leadership provided a model of political marketing and its essential elements are as relevant today as they were then.
The most basic of these is an external orientation, looking outwards to the electorate and overcoming divisive internal disputes. “Principle versus electability”, the long-running party argument of the Neil Kinnock years, was a false choice, Blair told the Labour conference in his first speech as leader: “We have tortured ourselves with this foolishness for too long”. The party clearly needed to develop strong well-thought policies that addressed public concerns, but it realised this was a necessary but insufficient condition of success. The policies needed to be marketed: they had to be seen as a coherent package, distinct from the Conservatives and old Labour; and whose benefits for the lives of voters were obvious and easily communicated. In short, they needed to create a distinct identity and build it around personalities and policies that symbolised the brand: education, new technology and social liberalism.
Spin became the hallmark of New Labour and eventually a key reason for distrust. It was easy to see why Blair’s successors wanted to move away from top-down marketing and aggressive news management. However, Starmer’s Labour should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The logic underlying the spin was a beady-eyed analysis of the hostile media environment and how best to maximise its opportunities and minimise its dangers. The communications landscape has transformed since the mid-1990s, with the relative decline of the tabloids and the explosion of social media. What worked for New Labour is not appropriate now. Top-down marketing controlled with military discipline from campaign “war rooms” has given way to more open hybrid styles of communication; still shaping the mainstream media narrative while capitalising on supporters’ ingenuity in social media. However, since Blair, it has been near-impossible to discern any kind of coherent and comprehensive Labour communication strategy. Even the apparent social media success of the 2017 general election soon looked like a one-off, as Corbyn all but absented himself from the media stage and Labour imploded over Brexit and anti-Semitism.
What now for Keir?
Corbyn’s legacy could hardly be worse for Starmer. In 2019 Labour recorded its worst share of seats (202) and votes (32.1%) since 1935. Labour dropped nearly 8 points in the popular vote, after its surprisingly strong showing in 2017. It lost seats sometimes for the first time ever in the famous Red Wall band of Brexit-supporting constituencies across the Midlands, Yorkshire and North East. Its muddled Brexit stance also cost Remain-supporting voters. Scotland, the other erstwhile bastion of support, returned a solitary Labour MP. After the passivity of Corbyn, in-fighting of his inner circle, and general division in the party, almost any competent leader would provide a boost. Starmer certainly did that. From a low point of about 11% approval for Corbyn in YouGov polls in March, Starmer climbed to 48% by August and for the rest of the autumn led Boris Johnson in leadership ratings. He presided over a 4.65 point swing to Labour in the same period, recapturing most of the ground lost under Corbyn. Labour’s average deficit to the Conservatives reduced from 19.9 in April 2020 to just 2.37 by September.
However, the Tories’ vaccine bounce seems to have knocked Starmer back on his heels – his personal approval ratings have dropped while the Conservatives have built a 10-point lead in the run up to the May local elections. It is early days and the government’s popularity will likely fall as it tries to claw back debt after big-spending pandemic budgets. It is not disaster yet for Starmer. Is Keir Starmer really doing so badly, a February YouGov report asked? It concluded that he still had real strengths: he is generally more popular than his party, he scored particularly well with Liberal Democrat voters (68% of the sample viewed him favourably) and he has outperformed Boris Johnson on some key attributes, such as competence. Yet, behind these reasonable numbers, deeper analysis continues to show voters’ uncertainty about him; they do not have a clear idea of what he offers as a leader, nor that he has plan for Britain’s future.
In Starmer’s own words, Labour has a mountain to climb. However, for all the public approval of the vaccine rollout and the initial applause for Rishi Sunak’s budget, there remains plenty of space for Labour to carve a distinctive and attractive proposition. COVID-19 and its aftermath could prove a springboard to a “build back better” agenda, that is truly radical, that attacks the roots of poverty and inequality and is committed to a green recovery. Even while the Conservatives use “green” and “levelling-up” slogans, their actions are far from convincing, if not contradictory, on these issues. Starmer, meanwhile, has moved cautiously, almost timidly. No doubt he is building up his policy options and does not want to reveal his hand too early. However, at least some indication of a bolder, clearer direction of travel would help his cause. Starmer’s leadership slogan, “Under New Management”, was a start and actually an accurate description of his style. But if you expand that metaphor you quickly see its inadequacy. The erstwhile diners will want to be excited by the new menus and lured by many favourable reviews before they return en masse to the restaurant.
This article represents the views of the author and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. To learn more about the LSE Department of Media and Communication’s research, please sign up to our Media@LSE newsletter here.