Keir Relief?

Paula Keaveney

©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

After a massive build up and an election night involving a partial re-count, we have a result. Can Keir Starmer breathe again?

The Labour victory in the Batley and Spen by-election (winning by 323), a close result after a tense and at time acrimonious contest, is qualified good news for Labour leader Keir Starmer.  Losing the Labour seat, after the loss in Hartlepool and the poor performance in Chesham and Amersham, would have exacerbated the attacks on his leadership.  But those disappointed by Starmer will still point to a loss in vote share in a seat which, in previous years, would have been in the “easy hold” category.

Politics is often a game of expectation management and perception.  A set of figures can be read several ways, and spinners and commentators know that it is often the “first take” which runs the story.  And there is a lot to choose from.  There is share of the vote – for Labour this time it was 35 per cent.  There is change in share from previous contests.  And there is performance against expectations.

While this result may pause some of the anti-Starmer briefing and speculation within the party, it is clear that some see the narrowness of the result as being akin to a loss.  Most of us are asleep at the time morning results are declared.  But you can tell who has an agenda by the speed as well as the contents of what is said.  “This is Labour’s lowest-ever share of the vote in Batley and Spen. In 2019 they won 43%” is how one left wing anti Starmer website put it minutes after the declaration.

Most early commentators describe the result as providing breathing space for Starmer.  If winning is what matters, he has won.  And he can now have a happy photo opportunity in Yorkshire with the victor, Kim Leadbeater.  It is also clear that the spoiler campaign run by former MP George Galloway has not achieved its stated aim of causing a Labour loss.

But it is simply too early to say that attacks on Starmer won’t continue (albeit in a more behind-the-scenes way).  Labour activists will be cheered by their ability to defend a seat under considerable attack.  But questions will be asked.  Good campaigning is essential when margins are close.  But should the margin have ever got that close? And Labour face potential difficulties in future.  There are two MPs, elected in 2019 for Labour, with trials coming up this year, either of which could end up leading to a by-election.

Starmer however does have some advantages.  The political calendar in the UK means the Parliamentary recess is not that far off.  Autumn sees party conferences which, whether online or in person, give party leaders a chance to re-set, re- launch and re-enthuse.

But while Sir Keir ponders what the result means, the Conservative party needs to pause for thought too.  It used to be rare for sitting Prime Ministers to campaign in by-elections.  Boris Johnson however made a point of paying visits to West Yorkshire for this one.  And the Conservatives failed to manage expectations properly.  The narrative of “another hole in the red wall” was allowed to take hold and run in most media. 

The question remains as to whether by-elections are significant and how we should decipher the results.  I have written about this elsewhere on this site, but real political junkies love by-elections – so bring them on.

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

Keir Exposure – Constructive Opposition a Year on?

Covid-19 Anniversary Blog

22/04/2020.. London, United Kingdom. First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus, with First Secretary of State Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP and the Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP. Picture by  Jessica Taylor © UK Parliament

“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”, writes US Political Consultant Frank Luntz in Words that Work.

For Labour leader Keir Starmer,  people are not hearing much.

All political leaders have to deal with the circumstances of their time.  Some are gifted with a series of own goals by the other side – remember the sleaze stories about John Major’s Government?  Others find themselves overshadowed by major events – remember, or maybe you don’t, Michael Foot during the Falklands War?

Since taking over as Labour leader during the earlier days of the pandemic, Starmer has struggled to get that magic factor – “cut through”.  He may do all the things opposition leaders do, such as Prime Minister’s Questions, major speeches, policy announcements, party events. But even when these get attention, they fade quickly from our minds.

Part of Keir Starmer’s problem is the need to tread a difficult line.  At a time of crisis people generally want the government to do well.  Too much attack dog can rebound on the attacker; and he did begin by saying he would take a constructive approach.

But opposition leaders need to find points of difference.  For a party to be a government in waiting there has to be something making the wait worthwhile.

Early 2021 saw an outbreak of media stories driven by what was obviously briefing by disaffected senior individuals. We read of worries about Starmer’s team, about his approach, about his lack of achievement. This came ahead of, and may in fact have played a part in, a speech trailed as carrying elements of a new Beveridge report.  The contents of the speech however, did not live up to its billing.

And here is one of the problems. When there is lot of noise, you either need to make more noise to cut through or wait for a sudden pause for breath. You need to be nimble and to apply plenty of hype and you need to surprise. And if what happens is less than expected, cutting through in future is even harder.

Starmer is aware that he needs to choose his moments. His refusal to call for the resignation of Matt Hancock over NHS procurement transparency is a good example. He knows such a call would go unanswered and could look opportunistic, even though calling for Cabinet resignations used to be a reflex action by opposition leaders.

In late February, writing in the Times newspaper, Hugo Rifkind asked “What is the point of Sir Keir Starmer?”  Rifkind felt there was not enough actual opposing going on.  He may have a point, but if the efforts of figures such as Neil Kinnock have taught us anything, it is that opposition is a long game, and you may end up substituted before the win.

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 27th May 2020 by Paula which can be found here.

Constructive Opposition in a Time of Crisis: Can the new Labour Leadership Rise to the Challenge?

22/04/2020.. London, United Kingdom. First virtual PMQs and Ministerial statement on Coronavirus, with First Secretary of State Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP and the Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP. Picture by  Jessica Taylor © UK Parliament

Parliamentary opposition is usually pretty easy.  You criticise the other side.  They are wrong, they haven’t gone far enough, they have made a U turn and so on.  You have plenty of opportunities.  There are the weekly Prime Ministers Questions, you can ask urgent questions, you can intervene in debates, you  can be on television, you can table amendments.

But the “peace time” routines don’t quite work in a crisis and opposition parties and leaders have a tightrope to walk.  No one wants to be accused of politicising a crisis. Yet politics has to go on.

And here is the dilemma for Labour and Keir Starmer.

There has been much attention on the two Johnson/Starmer PMQs we have seen so far. But these have come after a period of opposition spokespeople taking great care to appear constructive. In fact many interviews have started off with a statement to that effect.

The Commons goes into recess on 21 May. But before then we have significant sessions in the Chamber, including a debate on the Trade Bill, Treasury and Transport Questions and another Johnson/Starmer duel.

In the early stages of the crisis, approval ratings for Johnson and the Government were high.  This was generally the case for governments and leaders elsewhere.  Last week however the picture began to change.  Starmer’s approval rating had overtaken Johnson’s for the first time and support for the government, while still relatively high, was declining.

So how does the opposition avoid being seen to be too political while making points critical of the government?

The first approach is the use of factual questions which lead into the area of competence.  Of course everyone would agree that accuracy matters.

The second is a focus on “transparency”.  Whenever transparency is  questioned there is an implication of things being hidden. Of course everyone would agree that honesty matters.

The third is a focus on clarity.  Whatever the government says, the call is for more clarity and less confusion. Of course everyone would agree that it matters that we understand what to do.

All three of these are particularly useful to an opposition. It is impossible to include every detail of every fact in an answer, and so you, the government, look incompetent. It is impossible to be transparent about everything, and so you look shifty.  It is impossible to explain every single possible scenario without writing a 10,000 word dissertation.  So you end up looking confused on detail.

The role of an official opposition is partly to be a government in waiting.  You can’t do that without showing how you would be better.  In current terms this means more competent, more honest and more clear.  The aim is to become more trusted.

After a period of little direction during the leadership election, Labour in Parliament is showing some discipline in pursuing  arguments around competency, truthfulness and clarity.  It will be interesting to see if this continues.

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University