Joe Peck argues that Keir Starmer must develop his public persona beyond being just 'detailed orientated'.
For the first few weeks of his leadership, Keir Starmer’s detailed approach to Prime Minister’s Questions consistently left the charismatic, yet frequently inaccurate, prime minister on the back foot.
By the beginning of June, it became clear that Boris Johnson wasn’t going to take it anymore. During the session of Prime Minister’s Questions on the 3rd June 2020, Johnson said of the Labour leader, ‘I think that he’s on better ground and firmer ground when he stands with the overwhelming majority of the British people who understand the very, very difficult circumstances we are in’. Evoking Nixonian majoritarianism and Churchillian zeal, Johnson took Starmer’s detail and spat rhetoric back at him. Over the following ten minutes, Johnson accused Starmer of ‘casting aspersions’, committing ‘public attacks’, and fighting ‘against the steps the country is taking’. All factually nonsensical statements, but clear political points.
Johnson realised that he could not beat Starmer with facts. If he employed sweeping statements with characteristic bluster, however, Starmer’s questions will get spun up in their own detail and his wider rhetorical point will be left unclear.
This tact became even more obvious a week later, on the 10th of June. Starmer asked Johnson about Public Health England’s report into the disparate impacts of Covid-19. He quoted several findings in the report, including the sad discovery that deaths from the disease are disproportionately high in the BAME community. Although, strangely, Starmer shied away from any normative analysis of the report’s findings. He did not express a single emotion. No outrage, no sadness, no grief. He merely summarised the main points and read them to the prime minister with the fervour of a disinterested clerk.
It was then the prime minister’s turn to reply, and he did so with a level of ardour the leader of the opposition appears unable to attain. ‘Be in no doubt’, Johnson said, ‘[members of the BAME community] have been at the forefront of the struggle… we mourn every one, and we grieve for them and their relatives and their friends’. He then followed his point with a full-throated plaudit of the National Health Service and the British public. His answer was bereft of facts and pumped full of data-less rodomontade. Nevertheless, Johnson connected with the country’s wider struggle on an emotional level, whereas Starmer failed to capitalise on the situation’s emotional intensity.
Starmer is not a charismatic politician at the best of times, but his purely forensic analysis of the government makes him seem uncouth and unrelatable. Johnson has made a consistent effort to capitalise on this weakness and portray Starmer as an out-of-touch lawyer. ‘One brief one day, another brief the next, I understand how the legal profession works’ Johnson said at the dispatch box on the 10th June. He wants people to see Starmer as nothing more than a suit, obsessed with detail and disconnected from the sentiments of the general population. When Starmer stands across from him, passionless and hollowed eyed, he lets Johnson get away with it.
On the Andrew Marr Show, on the 28th June, Ed Miliband said ‘there is a Grand Canyon between [Johnson’s] rhetoric and reality’. That much is true, and Starmer’s lawyerly approach is crucial in exposing that ‘reality’. Unfortunately, rhetoric is important in portraying a wider narrative. For all of Jeremy Corbyn’s faults (not least his distinct lack of detail), he never shied from being sentimental. During his last debate with the prime minister on the 25th March, he spoke of the ‘mourning’ of care workers and decried the ‘appalling situation’ of the government’s coronavirus response—adjectives abound. If Starmer demonstrated more outrage in his questioning, the cruel nature of the injustices he highlights would be more obvious, and his argument would be more effective. If nothing else, he needs to remind people on an emotional level what the Labour party stands for.
Starmer’s detail-driven approach worked for the first few weeks, but Boris Johnson has learned from his weekly exchanges with Starmer, and he has learned faster than Starmer has adapted. Without a livelier approach that compliments his meticulous questioning, the Labour leader will continue to seem disengaged as a person and the party’s critiques of Tory policy will strike as less serious. Without more passion, he will find it hard to win over Labour members weary of his complacency, and he will find it impossible to win over the country at large.
Joe Peck is a history student at Yale University, a policy researcher at the Washington, D.C.–based Public Citizen think tank, and a member of the Plymouth Sutton and Devonport CLP.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.