The Burner Episode #233: the Totem and the Cipher

Ash Sarkar asks whether the long shadow of Corbyn stops us seeing Keir Starmer clearly. Plus, the government fears we’ve become “addicted” to income support. James Meadway breaks it down.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m Ash Sarkar. It is Thursday May 7, although who’s keeping track? We are still in lockdown.

Yesterday, Keir Starmer off against Boris Johnson for the first time at prime minister’s questions, with Dominic Raab having filled in for the PM during his bouts of the rona and the birth of his son. And while competent, Starmer’s performance wasn’t quite as assertive as his first outing up against the foreign secretary.

Johnson never did look quite as rattled as Raab, of course, these are still very early days for the new labor leadership.

But we did have this moment. As the leader of the opposition and the prime minister faced off on the issue of making international comparisons regarding the UKs death toll.

Keir Starmer: But yesterday we learned, tragically, that at least 29,427 people in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That’s now the highest number in Europe. It’s the second highest in the world. That’s not success, or apparent success. So, can the prime minister tell us how on earth did it come to this?

Boris Johnson: I think I would echo really in answer to his question what we have heard from Professor David Spiegelhalter and others that at this stage I don’t think that international comparisons and the data is yet there to draw the conclusions that we want. What I can tell him is that at every stage, as we took the decisions that we did, we were governed by one overriding principle and aim and that was to save lives and to protect our NHS. I believe that of course there will be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions. But I have absolutely no doubt that what the people of this country want us to do now is as I said just now, to suppress this disease, to keep suppressing this disease and to begin the work of getting our country’s economy back on its feet. And I believe that of course there will be a time to look at what decisions we took him, whether we could have taken different decisions, but I have absolutely no doubt that what the people of this country want us to do now is, as I said just now to suppress this disease, to keep suppressing this disease and to begin the work of getting our country’s economy back on its feet. Number four to And I look forward to working with him and colleagues around the house to do just that.

Keir Starmer: Mr Speaker, the argument that international comparisons can’t really be made when the government’s been using slides like this for weeks; to do international comparison just really doesn’t hold water. I’m afraid that many people are concluding that the answer to my question is that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on supplying protective equipment.

AS: Keir Starmer there demonstrating to the nation that he’s the kind of man who keeps a screenshots folder on his external hard drive.

The verdict from the pundits this week… Robert Peston said he was living. Andrew Neil called it the face crack of the century. Ayesha Hazarika was gagged. While Dan Hodges merely tweeted “wig”. Nah, I’m just playing. They all called Keir Starmer “forensic” again.

Interestingly, however, there was a new entry into the commentary at the vocab book. Peston and Neil both praised Keir Starmer for his “courteous” manner. Just a day after Rosena Allin-Khan MP was upbraided for her tone when putting questions to Matt Hancock. To be fair, I think this was less a sub-tweet at Dr Rosina than it was a subtle comment on the perceived harshness of the previous management’s politics.

The subtext here is that real opposition abides by the rules of parliamentary decorum, respects the jolly good chap hypocrisy of Westminster and eschews the vitriolic hectoring of hard left populists.

The funny thing is that Jeremy Corbyn’s PMQ style was a far cry from the stereotype. Take a listen.


Whoops, wrong track. I’m mean this one.

Jeremy Corbyn: So, I thought my first prime minister’s question time, I do it in a slightly different way and I’m sure the prime minister is going to absolutely welcome this, as he welcomed this idea in 2005. But something seems to have happened to his memory during that period. So, I sent out an email to thousands of people and asked them what questions they would like to put to the prime minister. And I received 40,000 replies. Now, there isn’t time to ask 40,000 questions today and our rules limit us to six. And so, I would like to start with the first one, which is about housing.

AS: Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQ was derided for not being tough enough, being too [inaudible] and failing to get into the cut and thrust of front bench politics. If there was a singular frustration with Corbyn’s performances at the dispatch box, it was the absence of knockout blows. A sense that Jeremy’s phrases were calibrated to explain when they should have been set to kill.

It wasn’t that he demonstrated a lack of courtesy, but too much of it and directed towards the wrong people: the public outside the chamber, rather than the press watching from the gallery. Perhaps when the pundits say courteous, they mean that Keir Starmer demonstrably holds the social codes of Westminster in as higher regard as they do. It speaks perhaps to the limits of what a real oposition can really be seen to sincerely oppose.

So, one month into the job, how’s constructive opposition going for Sir Keir?

Depending on who you listen to. The new Labour leader, second only to the Messiah himself, [has been accused of] doing such a rubbish job of opposing the government that he may as well pack it in and go walk about with Rory Stewart. The Blairite wing of the party and their allies in the commentiat view Keir Starmer through the prism of longstanding antipathy towards the left. The left, meanwhile, through that of recent defeat and the ever-present fear of another lengthy spell in the political wilderness.

At stake for both is the claim of the legitimacy of their place in national politics. Neither stance is conducive to seeing Starmer’s and signals of its success or failure with any great clarity.

With my cheek still red from December spanking at the ballot box, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. But, bear me while I try and lay out some of the key questions for Starmer’s month-old leadership and suggest where we might go looking for answers.

It was often said by Corbyn’s critics that had Labour had a leader with sensible politics or a competent manner, the party would easily be 20 points ahead in the polls. To date, Survation has Labour 17 points behind the Conservatives. Opinion has Labour 18 points behind. And Yougov has Starmer at 22% answering “favorably” to the best prime minister question. For comparison, Boris Johnson is at 46% and “not sure” at 28%.

The absence of a poll bounce for a party with a new leader at a time where a government’s botched handling of a global pandemic has resulted in the worst death toll in Europe, it’s certainly uncomfortable reading.

It’s true that the public, when polled, almost always says they’d much rather politicians stop bickering and work together to solve the problems of the day. But then again, they also say they can’t stand it when politicians start to all look the same.

For Keir Starmer’s detractors, this lack of obvious cut-through is a damning indictment of the conciliatory approach favoured by the new front bench. It’s probably fair to say that a genuine disagreement with a Steir Karmer strategy comes with a sizeable pinch of [inaudible]. Not so easy as it, Charlie bit potatoes? Ho, ho, ho.

But it’s not so straight forward as all that.

In polling released by Opinion this week, Keir Starmer has a net approval rating of +18 points, just two behind the prime minister, and a significant improvement on Jeremy Corbyn’s last recorded figure of -51, and he still enjoys the confidence of the Labour Party membership, who gave him an approval rating of 68%. Starmer has a stronger mandate from the party rank and file as Corbyn ever did. Even if it’s less immediately obvious what he’s going to do with it.

I’d suggest this is what you’d call a feature rather than a glitch.

It’s a long time until the next scheduled general election, and the recent record for Labour leaders who make it through the bulk of a full parliamentary term is not good.

Gordon Brown made it to the ballot box mortally wounded by the expenses scandal, the financial crisis and bitter party infighting. Ed Miliband’s reassuring private polling numbers in 2015 crumbled upon contact with the real thing. And while Corbyn was able to defy expectations at the snap election held two years into his leadership, increasing Labour’s vote share by the biggest margin since 1945, 2019 of course was an entirely different story.

This latter example is perhaps the most instructive. Perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 were characterised by a real sense of his integrity and insurgency. The elite manifesto serendipitously tapped into a collective political common sense. But, after a further two years of being traduced in the press, mauled by his own party and tied in knots by the Brexit issue, the very moral clarity which had once distinguished him was seen to be tarnished in the public eye. The optimism of free broadband, school meals and the national care service was not enough to revive it.

Where Corbyn was a totem, Starmer is a cipher. The calculation being made perhaps that it’s better to sacrifice cut through to the public now, rather than go into an election overexposed later down the line. The hope is that after temporary consensus during a period of crisis, a government of national unity in all but name, Starmer emerges like Clement Attlee, capitalising on a political environment which is more hospitable to a Labour manifesto.

But this strategy has its risks. Corbyn and McDonnell shattered the consensus on austerity. The Tory economic settlement of 2019 was by necessity a different base to that of 2017, and that wasn’t done by needling the Conservative party. It was done by dramatically reshaping the national conversation.

Right now, there is a tension between the public’s approval of the government as a whole and its declining trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic. For the opposition, that gap has a window of opportunity which might not be open again.

What’s more, it was a muscular approach from the left and the trade union movement, which secured the concessions of the government’s job retention scheme. The trade off for Keir Starmer isn’t simply between short and long-term political gains for himself, but perhaps between long-term political capital and immediate cash in the pockets of the country’s workers. The maneuvering in Westminster is not just about what is owed to the big players of party politics. What is owed to all of us?


AS: It’s been briefed at the government’s favoured stenographers at Fleet Street that Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is eager to roll back on the coronavirus job retention scheme as soon as possible.

Options on the table include cutting the wage subsidy from 80% to 60%, lowering the £2,500 a month cap and changing the eligibility threshold for self’employed people seeking support.

The government is said to be keen to wean the country off of the furlough measures. One senior government source said people are “addicted” to the scheme. Indeed, being able to do things like pay rent and buy food is now as crack amongst the British public.

According to Laura Kuenssberg, [there are] talks now of getting businesses who didn’t necessarily have to close back up and running. It’s worth pointing out that businesses were mothballed due to the absence of safe commuting means, personal protective equipment and the ability to implement social distancing measures. The conditions of closure weren’t about whether the business was directly related to dealing with the pandemic, but preventing workers from being vectors of infection.

Here to give us the skinny on the relationship between income subsidy and pandemic management is none other than James Meadway, ex advisor for John McDonnell and long time friend of the show.

James Meadway, economist and former advisor to John McDonnell

JM: Rishi Sunak, sometime Goldman Sachs banker and more recently Chancellor of the Exchequer, has let it be known that the schemes currently in place to protect worker’s incomes during the coronavirus lockdown will be phased out from July.

It is hard to overstate how foolish and dangerous this is.

The lockdown is in place as a public health measure, as a means to prevent the spread of a highly infectious virus; [one] that’s particularly lethal for the elderly but can have dreadful consequences for anybody. The sole criteria for judging whether a return to work should be undertaken is whether it is now safe to do so. Everything else is secondary.

Arguments about the debt pile being built up by government are inherently ridiculous. The equivalent – to use a popular military analogy – is to give up fighting the Second World war in about 1940 because he was proving a little costly to defeat Nazi Germany. You keep fighting Nazi Germany until you win and today you prioritise health and defeating the virus, not debt with government interest payments [at] the lowest in history.

There is no question that the government can fund its spending. It is a red herring to raise this at this point in time.

By removing or reducing furlough payments too quickly, in addition, the government risks forcing people back into work and [in] unsafe conditions. Thereby risk a second wave of infections with terrible consequences for public health and for the economy. Or, on the other side, if furlough payments are cut, it will reduce spending at precisely the moment where many businesses [are] already facing bankruptcy. So, setting in train the kind of economic doom loop we saw in the Great Depression. A comparison I use advisedly and deliberately. This is the situation that we could be facing with the sudden withdrawal, or even a slower but still too quick withdrawal of government support.

But there may be some dissent in the Tory ranks in their telling little exchange at prime minister’s question time [yesterday] after Keir Starmer neatly skewered him, the prime minister told a backbench Labour MP asking about austerity that “I can tell him the government has no intention of returning to the a word. That’s not going to be [our approach]…”.

Now, some of this will be spin, but some will be a sharp political appreciation by Boris Johnson of the deep unpopularity of austerity measures, even amongst his own ranks, and certainly amongst his own membership and, in particular I think, among some of those newer Tory voters, [who] are outside of more traditional Tory voting areas.

Left to their own devices, the political balance in the Tories will probably play out as some combination of regressive tax rises, increasing VAT, this sort of thing – divide and rule austerity measures targeting pensioners, as urged by some think-tanks – or migrants, as no one’s publicly urged quite yet, but rest assured that will be somewhere down the line. With squabbles about the speed with which the furlough payments can be withdrawn.

It’s worth noting we’ve got this furlough provision after lobbying from the TUC in particular. One striking development in all of the pandemic, and the guide I think to the future, has been the return of labour – not Labour – in a big way. We saw strikes across the US last week as workers an Amazon and other major retailers protested for their conditions. Here in the UK, we’ve seen top level bargaining by the trade’s union congress with government and employers’ organizations taking place in Number 10 and with Number 11 – I’m quite sure Rishi Sunak never intended to introduce [this level of bargaining] on his watch.

The political savings of work, and of those who work, is back in a big way. The arguments over the next few months are likely to centre on who has the power and authority to insist on a return to work in different parts of the economy: the government – who moved too slowly at the start of the crisis and that now [is] moving too quickly in the belief it is at an end – or do we believe those actually having to work, potentially, in virus conditions, perhaps without adequate protection?

Already, we can see the rhetoric being lined up by nameless senior Tory sources that those on the job retention scheme are already “addicted” to payments – that in many cases they haven’t even received yet. The competitive pressure to try accelerating return to work is clear as other major economies, having bungled their own virus response somewhat less than the British government, are moving already towards easing lockdowns.

It is up to all of us to restrict any return to work to the pace demanded not by The Telegraph front pages or lobbying by business factions and Tory donors, but to the needs of public health. As ever, the health of the people is the highest law.

AS: Thanks for that James.

Headlines today

Last night it emerged that Labour MP Nadia Whittome had been sacked from her job as a carer after speaking out against working conditions across the social care sector. The Nottingham East MP had gone back to her job working with elderly residents at a retirement centre for the duration of the pandemic, but was sacked by ExtraCare Charitable Trust after [she made] statements to the media about the chronic lack of PPE and testing availability in the industry.

In one of the world’s coronavirus success stories, New Zealand is moving towards a significant easing of lockdown conditions from next week. It [has been] reported that Ardern’s government are considering adopting level two restrictions: reopening schools, non-essential businesses, and capping public gatherings at 100 people. Wow. Do you remember 100 people?

Anyway, the official death toll from coronavirus is at 21 people, with excess deaths between January and April at 129. For comparison, the UK had 43,000 excess deaths between March and April when the death toll was at 22,000.

In today’s papers, the death cult at The Telegraph leads with “Stay at home advice to be scrapped” .

The Times, with “Obesity doubles risk of hospital“.

The FT reports “Johnson looks to border checks as price for easing lockdown”.

The Guardian leads with “Pressure on Johnson as UK’s daily coronavirus testing target missed again”.

The Independent, “Coronavirus testing restricted across London after chemical shortages, as Boris Johnson announces even bigger target”.

The Mail sees Britain become the first European country to officially exceed 30,000 deaths, and says hoorah, lockdown freedom beckons… Jesus fucking Christ.

Today’s the day for a review of lockdown recommendations. So, keep an eye on the briefing war that will emerge between now and Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday.

In Commons business today, the home affairs committee meets to hear evidence on pandemic preparedness in both immigration and custody settings.

And if you’re looking to get stuck into something non-corona related, I suggest getting your hands on some nectarines, slicing them in half and grilling them with a honey glaze – a bit of mascarpone on the side and you are well away.

That’s it for this morning, you greedy swine.

You can get in touch with me on Twitter @ayoceasar, and as ever, you can keep your questions, tips and shade coming by tweeting us at Novara Media or using the hashtag #TheBurner.

If you liked what you heard, please do let us know. And if you didn’t, well let’s just say the experience was character building.

Tomorrow, James Butler is back to helm the good ship burner and I’ll be below deck cowering until the same time next week.

Until then, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t be a prick.

I’ve been Ash Sarkar. This is The Burner.

Ta ta for now.


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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.