The Burner Episode #219: Steer Calmer With Keir Starmer

Can Keir Starmer’s opposition strategy enable a pro-social lifting of the lockdown measures? Plus, a look into New Zealand’s response to the lockdown.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I am James Butler and it is Friday April 17. We are still in lockdown and we are likely to be for some time, as the lockdown was extended yesterday until review on May 7. That’s another three weeks of it.

There were other news at the press conference yesterday, with scientists suggesting that they had the first tentative evidence that the rate of infection was dropping to one or below, although the lockdown measures needed to continue. They stressed that this was to avoid what has now become the thing widely dreaded among all governments in Europe: a rebound, a second way of infections which then rise up and peak at just the wrong moment and force another hard clampdown and further economic shock.

As we know from all of the polling being conducted at the moment, the public are behind it, 91% of British people support keeping the lockdown in place longer and that is a truly astonishing number – I can’t think of any other policy measure in my lifetime or indeed in the history of polling with [these numbers].

The support for the government remains high as well, hovering at 50% or over – that too is pretty rare in British politics in recent memory, although I think [it’s] neither surprising nor unexpected during the heights of an emergency. Those are certainly the two facts on the ground which any opposition in the country faces. The train which lies in front of us.

I asked very briefly yesterday that question: what does Keir Starmer think that he’s doing? I said I found it very difficult to figure out exactly what he thinks his strategy is, especially in terms of how it has been communicated. There’s a danger from those on the left of the Labour Party who are feeling sore and, justifiably so, smarted at the moment; [they] are weary from spending five years of being painted by the press, but also by [a significant part] of the Labour Party itself, by its apparatchiks, by its bureaucracy, by its nomenklatura, as a raid in wild lunacy, sinister wreckers, incomprehensible cuckoos in the nest.

[They’re not human, they ought to be destroyed!]

That [fear] sometimes leads to people thinking of Starmer as the leader of some kind of right-wing coup within the party. That’s wrong analytically, but also wrong tactically. [In this case,] acting from injury risks actually driving the leadership of the party further to the right. There’s a mistake sometimes made on the left to think that, if you’re not succeeding, the key must be to evermore loudly, and evermore abrasively, argue that you think things are going wrong and that will make someone listen to you.

I don’t think that actually works in this scenario. I understand the temptation though – and there are certainly times we should cry blue murder in this case – [but] it’s more useful to try to see what Starmer thinks he’s doing and why, and to do so relatively generously. One place to start with that is exactly with those figures: the massive government support – a near unanimous popular support – for the continuation of the lockdown. In the case of the Labour Party, the popular perception – not untrue – that it has been and still continues to be completely riven by a civil war.

Why, then, did Starmer seem to be stressing so hard the need for a government exit strategy?

For one, he thinks the British electorate don’t like, in an emergency, something that looks like finding fault for faults sake. It means he’s trying to be famously constructive while also at least implicitly trying to highlight one consistent failure of this government, which is that it seems incapable of doing any planning for the next phase of the crisis and that failure of planning is very clear in February and March. Because of that failure of planning and willingness to make decisions many have died who need not to have died, though he only again seems to make that point implicitly.

This is a bit of a high wire act and, to my mind, it’s a risky one, but it’s one that I guess acknowledges the public appetite. But here is my fear about it. Process. One of the great failures of the Labour Party’s Brexit policy – if you remember that, it was only in recent memory – was the way that it was focused on process rather than politics. It talked a great deal about the way the party would do things, how carefully it would sit on the fence, promising a fair but perhaps somewhat interminable process – not unlike its leader leadership election. Rather than talk about a clear end state, for instance, having Got Brexit Done in the sunlit uplands of freedom and independence, etcetera. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not. It was a bit like bringing a chocolate teapot to a gunfight… And I worry about the same mistake repeating itself here.

Nonetheless, Starmer isn’t wrong to think that at some point soon the real battleground is going to be how, where, and in what way things reopen and that the danger is going to be that the party of business – that would be the conservative party – is going to want to slam things open in a dangerous way and pay for that reopening and state intervention during this period by slamming back any advances made in broadening social support and invoking the specter of austerity.

The question is how to exit the crisis in a kind of pro-social rather than simply pro-boss manner. I think he’s right, too, to talk about, for instance, the deeply regressive and unequal effect that closed schools have with middle-class parents educating their children at home quite comfortably and others having to juggle quite a lot more. The question is what will be seen, how to reopen things in a safe and nondestructive way; that’s also true as much for people who teach in schools for instance rather than just the peoples. I understand that he sees that coming and he’s thinking about how to actually move into the opening created by that question when it comes. But a note on public opinion of the way the government is handling the crisis won’t move without some actual movement on the opposition’s part; I don’t think you get to a place where you can talk about what’s wrong with the way the government will reopen unless you highlight the obvious and pretty terrible failings right now – not least on testing and on personal protective equipment. [These are] issues on the table right now.

It turns out it’s also the right thing to lead on as a simple matter of justice. But [we]’ve got a sharp lesson in what it’s like being leader of the Labour party in the past week.

Anyway, though his comments on all of this did mention PPE and did mention the schools question, all that got actually reported was “Starmer wants an exit strategy” headline, which I think looked pretty absurd given the context. It turns out the press, not your friend on this.

I’ve said before, I find Starmer hard to read, but I thought this comment on the BBC coronavirus – otherwise pretty mind-numbing – newscast was interesting.

Keir Starmer: Yeah, I mean, for me personally, um, I really hated selling myself into the membership and I much prefer having to take leadership decisions as leader of the Labour Party…
News anchor 1: What, you hated the campaign?
Keir Starmer: So I’m much more comfortable on this than I am in the campaign. But, you know, we’ve had difficult decisions because coronavirus now frames everything. In terms of how we conduct ourselves, and the whole approach I’ve taken with coronavirus, we’re constructive opposition and we will agree with the government and we’ll say so. That is kind of opposition because of the circumstances that we’re in here.
News anchor 2: I want to be a constructive podcast host and [ask] did you just say that you hated having to sell yourself to the membership? What’d you mean? Do you not like the membership or is it that you don’t like the kind of the salesman bit?
Keir Starmer: Oh no, I did say that… What I don’t like is selling myself into the membership. For all of our selections, it’s the same in all political parties, you’ve got to go round selling yourself into the membership.
News anchor 2: So you just have that all a bit awkward?
Keir Starmer: Yeah, you know, you’re doing hustings. It’s different because you’re in your own party and you’re up against colleagues, very good colleagues. It’s a a very odd thing to do so I’m very glad that that part of it is over I have to say.

JB: Now, that suggests he sharply prizes unity within the party and how essential he thinks it is. It suggests that he’s the kind of politician that’s much more comfortable trying to lead, trying to tell this country how the country might be run than really setting out a stool among his own ranks; [it suggests he prizes] recognizing the divisions in his foundations or even contesting ideas about what the Labour Party should be and should be for and how it should operate as ever.

For me the question is unity [but] on whose terms, and for what and what the party is really for. That question is brought into very sharp and really quite miserable focus by the now very famous leaked dossier. There are, as a little birdie tells me, all sorts of legal letters flying around on this, so I’ll limit my comments to the general rather than readout a 12-hour list of every bastard at the top of the Labour Party. What it shows, other than the abuse, the unprofessionalism and some extremely dodgy behaviour, is that there is a professional clique at the top of the Labour Party, largely funnelled through student politics and the party’s hard right, who treats jobs within it not as matters of political service, but as confirmation that the party is their personal property and that it belongs to them and that any elected leadership to their left – which by the way is pretty much all of the membership and even 90% of the PLP – are interlopers to be largely disregarded and expected to leave sooner rather than later. Many of those in the reports are, of course, gone from their positions at the top of the party – [and] they remain members – but their stay-behind network is certainly still all over the party’s regional bodies and a local level.

One thing that the left perhaps can and should be demanding is that this dossier isn’t kicked into the long grass through an inquiry and that the inquiry doesn’t focus just on who leaked it or even that the individual behaviours are bad – I think everyone agrees with that, even people you might consider otherwise not friend to the left of the Labour Party – but looks at the structures which put those behaviours into place and enabled them in the first place. Those structures are still very much in place in the party.

It might be a strange time to think about the party in a crisis like this one, but the truth is that there couldn’t be a better time to think about party reform. There will be whole parliamentary term until the next election and the political opportunities on pretty much anything else are quite limited right now.

But isn’t this just a navel-gazing and party process? To a degree, yes. I certainly wouldn’t want activists to waste significant time on it, but it’s because I don’t want activists wasting their time that it’s important. If you just plaster over the cracks and pretend there’s nothing to see here, eventually the wall behind it is going to collapse. If you’ve actually tried to construct a party which doesn’t frustrate and undermine its membership, well that might even be useful. And funnily enough, it’s one thing that Starmer is quite suited for. He is after all well-experienced in reforming large organisations and a promise of root and branch reform of the party might be the one thing – maybe just the one thing – that would win him almost unanimous and enthusiastic support and consent from nearly every part of it. Something to think about anyway.

[Well, well, well two nasty little children gone.]

All right, if you keep an eye on British politics, you might hear the occasional contrast with New Zealand, where its PM, Jacinda Ardern, is compared rather favourably with Boris Johnson in what appears, from a distance, like both a more decisive and at least vaguely pro-social stance, including stressing the deaths of thousands of citizens were too high a price to pay for herd immunity.

But what’s really going on with the response in New Zealand?

Hugh: Good morning, James. It’s Hugh calling in from Auckland in New Zealand. Just to respond to a call out for international stories. We are in the technical global South, but obviously economically we’re not in the global South. But I thought I’d snappily call this “dispatches from the soft left”.

We’re in a level 4 lockdown. I’ve been in level 4 for three weeks and it’s looking increasingly likely that on Wednesday April 22, at 11:59 pm, we will come out of level 4 and move to level 3. I think they were announcing today that [this will be] specifically for businesses but [there will] still be significant restrictions.

[Jacinda Ardern’s] whole policy was “go hard, go early”, which I think is another example of her excellent oratory, which I will talk a bit about later. We’ve seemingly done quite well, we’re in single digit deaths. People have been pretty, pretty compliant. One of the nationwide things here – we didn’t have pots and pans and balconies – but we had people hiding teddy bears in windows for kids to find on their walks out, which was pretty cute.

We’re subject to the same cultural phenomena around the world; we have the same reactionary radio talk show hosts calling this all hysteria and we have our own road band of academics who’ve formed a website called Covid Plan B; they’ve co-signed a letter basically saying we’ve gone too far and it’s all nonsense. This with a few really good rebuttals. Basically, they’ve cherry picked data. They’re insisting that Australia is an anomaly because they have quite loose restrictions and low deaths, but they’re basing it on that rather than looking at the whole.

They include in that cohort a public health doctor who believes in low carb, high fat diets. So, he’s obviously a tool. That actually makes me think that we do need to know everyone’s ideological context, even so-called objective scientists like [indistinguishable] people. People need to be clear about [what] they think. These people are basically saying “you know, we need to let a few old people die” but they should just make the argument rather than trying to hide it.

What’s been troubling me personally? I suppose I have had the luxury of being on a wage subsidy for a job I’ve not been able to do for 4 weeks. So, I’m at home getting my part-time wage, subsidised. My business has been really good. I worked for a vegan burger restaurant. I’ve been feeling the personal productivity stress. I’m involved with the [Extinction Rebellion] group out here [and I’ve been kind of] thinking how we can best use this time. I’ve done a deep dive into social movement research, which has been really useful but [I’m] definitely feeling that sort of neoliberal stress [that I must] spend quarantine time improving South. And then, more widely, [I’ve] been trying to figure out what we need to build a strong socialist society here. The left is quite weak actually, despite [the fact that] we have 8 Green Party MPS who are in a [confidence-and-supply agreement] with the Labour coalition government. But we’ve got no professional media, [like you guys at] Novara [Media] or Tribune. [We haven’t got a] Green New Deal group pushing for that. [We have] weak trade unions, without the sort of signs of resurgence that you’ve had in the US or in the UK.

We have, I suppose, Jacinda. Everyone’s saying how great she is, which is good. She’s like a Barack Obama star leader with incredible oratory. Politically, she [has] actually been quite shit. [Her coalition government] botched a capital gains tax, they decided not to do it. They’ve got no real significant climate policy – she called it “Our Nuclear Moment”. Child poverty [has] stayed the same yet she took personal responsibility for that. And [also] they had a failed house building program.

I suppose the emphasis is on a green response but they’re talking about that being billions in infrastructure and they’re obsessed with this term “shovel-ready projects”. Most of the shovel-ready projects are fossil fuel infrastructure. Kiwis obviously love their cars, so there’s a whole heap of road widenings set to go, which was a disappointment when they released this big infrastructure package in January. I mean, it’s nice – it was politically pretty smart.

They basically came into power in 2017 [and] put all of the previous national government’s infrastructure projects on hold and reviewed them. Then, in January – when it’s in the polls in January, with The Nationals (National Party of Australia) actually ahead – they basically decided to pursue lots of Nationals’ road building projects, [that were] totally [part of] the National’s [plans] Nationals just did not know how to respond. But, ultimately, a lot of those projects are [expanding] the single ride state highways into 4 lanes, making roundabouts and things like that rather than expanding light rail in Oakland or Wellington or building a rail line from Whangarei in the North down to Oakland, or even extending a line south of Oakland to the cities and up North Island.

Greenpeace of leading a green Covid response so [we’ve] been trying to see where we can fit in. But [it has] been making me think a lot. [I’ve been] imagining a crisis intersecting of food crop failure or wheat crops fail – we’re actually in a severe drought at the moment, the reservoirs are [at] 52%. Then [I’ve been] imagining a cyclone coming through, imagining some power cuts, and thinking [that], actually, I’m not sure civil society is or would be as resilient as it now. Or even if this was something like Ebola where everyone would just be shitting their pants about getting it. So, I’ve been just trying to think about how we build these institutions, which I hear everyone talking about is what we need to do. Trying to think about what they look like.

That was my “dispatches from the soft left”. I hope you’re going well, James. [I] really enjoy The Burner. Keep it up.

JB: My thanks to Hugh for that quick flash into politics there in New Zealand.

As ever, do you get in touch with me if you’re listening from abroad. I want to hear how it’s shaking out where you are. You can get me as ever at [email protected].


All right. A few small things. What kind of capitalism will emerge from the other side of this crisis? Laurie Macfarlane has a long and deeply interesting essay up on Open Democracy, where he outlines what he calls “authoritarian capitalism”, with various elements of state-led compulsion and direction outside the normal operation of the standard compulsions of the labour market. There’s lots in there that’s deeply interesting and [that] perhaps outlines a change which had already begun [and] might be accelerated by the coronavirus. We’ll try to speak with Laurie about it next week.

Trouble is brewing in Europe. Macron is pushing harder and harder on common debt issuance in order to finance the recovery, especially in Italy and Spain, according to need. This sets him on something of a collision course, at least nominally, with Germany and the Netherlands. Macron warns of populist exploitation and stresses the EU as a political project. He calls economics “a moral science” and warns that failure to agree on such a fund would risk triggering the collapse of the Eurozone and also, he says, of the European idea.

Matt Hancock, he of bad app fame, who also happens to be health minister, faces the Health and Social Care Select Committee today for an interrogation that’s chaired by Jeremy Hunt. You have big Tory rivalries going on there. There are serious and difficult questions for him to answer over failures in his promises on testing, which is nowhere near what he promised, as well as [questions regarding] the crisis in care homes [for the] lack of PPE. Perhaps they could also ask about the story in the New York Times which says the government has spent $20 million on tests which don’t work. In answers to that, look out for how heavily Hancock shifts to blame China, which may tell us something about the blame game that’s to come.

In just a few hours, you can catch me talking with Will Davies, a professor of political economy at Goldsmiths, on many of these issues: what transformations this might force in capitalism, the politics of the lockdown and how this crisis will shape the next few years of our politics as a whole. That’s on Resonance FM at 1:00 pm and in your Novara Media feeds very soon after.

But that is it for the week. Do try to have a weekend of some kind and maybe even try to turn off the concentrate feed of coronavirus news and propaganda. And if you’re wondering what you can and can’t do under lockdown, well there’s new police guidance out, just in case you encounter an overzealous Bobbie when you leave the house.

Otherwise stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and yes, don’t be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner and I’ll see you on Monday.


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