21 September 2020

If he wants to make an impact, Starmer must resist ‘the vision thing’

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Towards the beginning of summer, Boris Johnson made a speech which deliberately courted comparisons between himself and the Depression-slaying, war-winning American President, Franklin D Roosevelt. One suspects the analogy with yet another 20th century titan was always somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Still, as we lurch shambolically towards the second wave of the pandemic, it is increasingly difficult to see anything remotely Rooseveltian about the way the Prime Minister is handling our own political cataclysm.

Most of all, when it comes to communication. Famously, Roosevelt exploited the newly ubiquitous medium of radio to broadcast the reasoning behind his decisions directly into the homes of the American people. Starting in 1933 – when the President shut every bank in the country to manage the ongoing financial crisis – his ‘fireside chats’ would go into extended detail about the strategic trade-offs he faced. Even during the later wartime episodes.

Suffice to say, this novel attempt at trust-building is not an approach the Prime Minister has tried to replicate. And the more the pandemic progresses, the more this begins to seem like one of his Government’s most fundamental shortcomings.

Serious failings in areas like testing are ‘rebutted’ with the usual statistical chicanery and ‘lines to take’ nonsense. The messy, nuanced relationship between the economic and public health challenges is left unexplored in favour of simplistic one-note messaging – one week its ‘everyone back to the office’, the next it’s ‘don’t visit your family’. Crucial concepts like asymptomatic transmission are left to scientists without a prime ministerial platform to explain. Hell, even the conspiratorial crankery that now passes for online debate about the virus barely receives an official retort.

In this context, it is not hard to see why the Government wants to hire a publicly visible spokesperson. But as the Roosevelt example shows, in times of crisis – when a politician needs to affect people’s behaviour, not just secure their votes – leadership must come from the top. I am not saying this is easy – Roosevelt was a master at sounding open, even as his messages were carefully calibrated to evince the right effect on morale. However, I am saying that people might respect the Prime Minister if he at least bothered to try.

Yet, as ever in politics, one man’s loss, is another man’s gain. And as he prepares to give his first conference speech as Labour leader, Keir Starmer has an opportunity to try and fill the nation’s leadership void. To do this however, he will have to resist siren calls to use his speech to do the traditional “vision thing”.

Starmer does not strike me as a politician overly concerned with fashioning his own ‘ism’, but even he must be tempted to use this platform to set out some thoughts on economic or social reform. He should demur – the key here is to stick to his strategy of rebranding Labour as serious, decisive and capable of prioritising the national interest over ideological opportunism. So far the goal of this exercise has been to move the party on from Jeremy Corbyn, but the strategy was always a clever double-edged sword. For whilst his Government remains chaotic and nakedly distracted by issues other than the pandemic, what applies to Corbyn now also applies to Johnson.

True, Starmer will still have to do some of what Conservative Svengali Lynton Crosby would call “barnacle-scraping” on Brexit and the economy, the two areas where the Tories maintain a clear advantage. Yet this too can be achieved via the pandemic prism and a sharpening of Labour’s attack on the Government from “incompetent” to the more tonally expansive “complacent”. Not only does such reframing retain the crucial advantage of not telling voters who recently backed the Government they were wrong, it can also be widened to those two more challenging issues. So Rishi Sunak becomes ‘complacent’ on unemployment for not yet setting out a post-furlough strategy; the Government complacent for not sticking to its “oven-ready” deal on Brexit and therefore becoming distracted from dealing with the pandemic.

To be sure, if Starmer wants to really land these points he will need more detail than he provided on his Andrew Marr interview yesterday. He may also need to pick a fight or two. It is only by annoying Remainers on Brexit – by saying he will whip Labour MPs to back a good deal in Parliament, perhaps – that his position will look to the public like a tough decision rather than mere commentary. Likewise, it is only by setting out precisely who might win and lose, that Labour’s sectorally-targeted furlough strategy will really cut through.

However, the real thrust of his speech must be an attempt to talk openly, in the manner of Roosevelt, about the choices the country faces in the pandemic. The key here is frankness on strategy. So he could say, for example, that a ‘suppression’ approach is currently beyond a densely-populated, economically complex country like Britain and that his plan A would be to manage the infection to the lowest rates possible whilst we wait for updates on a potential vaccine. That alone would be light years ahead of the Prime Minister in terms of treating the country like grown-ups.

In the long run, in our podcast-obsessed world, perhaps Starmer could set up his own version of the fireside chats. For now, though, he should use his speech to describe in detail the pandemic strategy he would take if he were PM. If he can pull that off, he will position himself not only as a strong leader, but also as a different sort of politician altogether. And that, as Roosevelt knew only too well, is politically priceless.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.