The Siren’s Call

16 June 2022

The Siren’s Call

Starmer’s image.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

So who is right, then? Sir Keir, whose quietly spoken understated leadership of the Labour Party has yet to deliver him a decisive lead, or his deputy Angela Rayner, who urges him to look less like a lawyer and put some more welly into it? Their styles are very different. Ms Rayner has a certain northern brassiness and goes in with the boots on when she attacks Johnson in the House of Commons, indeed so much so that there sometimes seems to be an element of humour, perhaps even flirtation, behind the exchanges. Sir Keir is considered and fair, providing analysis but never abuse and leaving the audience feeling, perhaps rightly, that he refrains from criticising the Government doing unpopular things which he believes to be necessary.

Politicians come in different shapes and sizes and we have had premiers of very different hues. Boris, of course, is about as bombastic as it is possible to be without actually being Disraeli. May, who preceded him, was understated without showing particular forensic acumen. Mrs Thatcher was aggressive and had a tight grasp of policy detail. Blair was over-concerned about image but at least at the beginning had a reasonably clear policy vision. There are lots of ways of approaching high office and voters do not seem to be tied to any particular formula. Sometimes they prefer one thing and sometimes the other. It depends on the political weather and the wish to avoid getting a carbon copy of a resented previous incumbent.

But that doesn’t mean that there are no rules at all and the obvious one is that political candidates – like the holder of any important position in business or administration – should feel comfortable in the skin which they show to the outside world. Nobody likes those who pretend to be something which they are not, whether that is something better (up themselves!), something worse (condescending!), something smoother (oily!) or something tougher (braggarts!). In any case it is very difficult to pull off.  The diffident man being advised by his friend to take a confident line with the girl he fancies is the stuff of comedy and politicians trying to project an image at variance with their true characters do not do much better. Can you think of politicians who try to cover weakness of character with shouting and aggression? Of course you can, plenty of them, and does the public smell out the weakness? Usually.

If Keir Starmer took a more aggressive line he would sacrifice a well-earned reputation for honesty and forensic care in an attempt to obtain one as a populist. Could that possibly go wrong?

But it isn’t just the fact that his skin would not fit him well which would make a more aggressive approach folly. There’s also the fact that the electorate are getting bored with bombastic politicians and that as the Tory train derails, a quiet thoughtfulness will rise on the scales of political virtues leaving Starmer well aligned with public sentiment for the election. After all, if he is to win he needs to attract voters who in the past have supported the Tories and are concerned that he will bear their interests in mind rather than just pandering to the enthusiasms of traditional Labour. Put yourself in their place. Who would you rather trust with Middle England’s interests? The aggressive politician throwing around the abuse or the quiet one with a well thought through program set out in a coherent manifesto? There are votes in coherence and thoroughness if it is played right.

Of course, the last five words “if it is played right” are key. If Starmer is to capitalise on his thoughtful and forensic image he needs to back it with a full programme for  government. Inevitably he will be thrown off course by events, that always happens, but there are questions to which the electorate will want an answer. Does he have a fiscal plan? How would he handle immigration? Would he relax the planning rules? Where does he stand on infrastructure in the North? How would he tackle the housing shortage? The advantage of being in opposition is that it gives a party room to think about these issues and to meld the various proposals into a coherent whole. That will not be easy in the Labour Party with its various internal tribes but the work has to be done and the product has to be palatable. An honest salesman is all right to a point, but he will only close his bargain if he has a product to which he can apply his salesmanship. If Starmer is to win the next election, expect to see policy documents emerging from Labour and conference resolutions tightly tied to them.

That is the course which Sir Keir needs to take and it is one for which his skills make him very suitable. Start worrying about changing his image? No, that cannot be right, and Angela’s advice on that score is mistaken. “Mistaken”? So it would seem, but this is the Labour Party where politics are as slippery as they were in the Vatican when the Borgias were Popes and poison and knives lurk behind every smile. But still, perhaps “mistaken” is right, yes, probably so; it seems so unlikely that someone as forthright as Angela Rayner would try to set a cunning trap.

Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list