When I was a kid, growing up in a sleepier town just along the south coast, we’d occasionally go over to Brighton and visit the amusement arcades on and around the city’s Palace Pier. I was hardly a pinball wizard, but I absolutely loved playing it.
Those old enough to remember will recall that there were basically two approaches. You could simply bash the bejesus out of the buttons that controlled the flippers, not worrying too much about what the silver ball hit as long as it hit something, randomly clocking up points in the process. Or you could play things more strategically, working out which bits of the table offered the most points and, using the flippers sparingly and with rather more precision, try to ping the ball in the right direction.
On balance, the second approach may have produced less frenetic fun but it was nearly always more effective: ultimately, after all, you got to play longer and you tended to score more points — sometimes even enough to earn a replay.
And so it is with party leader’s conference speeches. Less can often be more. When you’re on the attack, aim for laconic rather than histrionic. And when you’re setting out your own stall, pointing to just a few special offers and hinting at more to come beats trying to leave your listeners spoiled for choice.
The model for me (at least for a Labour leader) will always be John Smith in Blackpool in 1992, making a speech to a party that was demoralised after its fourth defeat in a row yet just beginning to wonder whether, in the light of the chaos and incompetence displayed by the Major government in the days leading up to the Conference, the Tories were really as unbeatable as everyone had assumed.
The prospect facing Keir Starmer, another former lawyer, as he stood up to address the faithful (and the not-so-faithful) was, then, far from unprecedented.
So did he deliver? Well, maybe not totally. But, to be fair, it was far from the kind of epic fail that Boris Johnson and the Corbynite stay-behinds who did their best to heckle “their” leader were no doubt hoping for. And it may even have left some of those with no skin in the game but whose expectations were low (especially after the pasting Starmer’s 14,000-word magnum opus got from the cognoscenti), pleasantly surprised.
Personality — at least with a big P — remains a problem. As a courtroom lawyer, Starmer, unlike Smith, was never the kind of performer who has the jury eating out of his hands and the audience hanging on his every word. As a politician, nothing’s changed. I’ve never seen him on the dance floor but, as an orator, he has no sense of rhythm. Or, indeed, of tone. A party caricatured as preachy and po-faced could really do with a leader who doesn’t always sound quite so plaintive. I’ve no idea if someone on his staff has sat him down and told him he desperately needs to get some voice coaching, but they should do. After all, it never did Margaret Thatcher any harm.
Instead, Team Keir is clearly still convinced that there’s mileage in marketing their man as the antithesis to Boris — the responsible ying to the PM’s frivolous yang, the guy whose approach (as he himself, like some kind of Checkatrade-approved plumber, put it) is “Down to earth. Working out what’s wrong. Fixing it.”
Hence all the stuff about the good deeds Starmer was doing as a civil rights advocate and a prosecutor while Johnson was fannying around phoning in trivial blah, blah, blah for the Telegraph — all of which also served as a useful reminder to a public that he’s had a job that actually means something outside politics.
It sort of works — but even with a few jokes thrown in (of which the early one comparing hecklers with Tory MPs at PMQs was by far the best, and the best-delivered) — I’m still not sure that’s enough. To take an example, “Level up? You can’t even fill up” actually had the potential to be what passes in politics (a low bar, I admit) as a killer put-down. Coming out of Sir Keir’s mouth, however, it sounded a little leaden and contrived. Likewise, the more assertive and pleasingly alliterative “Get a grip or get out of the way.”
That said, to those who complain that we already know what Starmer got up to before going into politics, it’s worth saying (yet again) that the majority of people out there probably don’t. The same goes for him telling us (yet again) that his dad was a toolmaker and his mum was a nurse. How (and why), for instance, does anyone think so many people in London know that Sadiq Khan’s dad was a bus-driver?
Starmer’s family background shtick did tee up a peroration (“Work. Care. Equality. Security. These are the tools of my trade. And with them I will go to work.”) that was beautifully-crafted for television news. And those of us who complained about how long he was talking for as we watched live need to remember that those clips are all that sensible people (who weren’t) will ever hear.
The sheer length of the speech wasn’t entirely accidental, of course. By affording Starmer space to remind activists of his pukka-working class and NHS background, it made it harder for Labour’s Momentumite irreconcilables to lay into him in the hall — as did asking the always admirable Dame Doreen Lawrence to do his intro. They still had a damn good go, startling those in the broadcast media who, for some strange reason, think Starmer’s the first Labour leader to face a tough crowd — and so made it an integral (but totally disproportionate) part of their packages for the evening and morning news programmes.
Still, Starmer’s long address also gave him the chance to kick the Corbynites where it really hurts by promising never to “go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government” and (heresy of heresies) to “offer the Conservative party a lesson in levelling up” by listing (to one of the most genuinely striking standing ovations he received) the achievements of the last Labour government — one run by politicians who, like him, believed in “changing lives” rather than simply “shouting slogans”.
The ninety-minute speech also gave Starmer plenty of time to share some eye-catching (if not always entirely persuasive) policies on crime, state education and climate change — future-facing, focus-grouped to be voter-friendly and a retort to those who would otherwise bound to have banged on about a lack of “substance”.
To those of us watching for whom less is more, there was probably too much in there. But to those for whom “more is more” — those who might have taken the first, more frenetic approach to playing pinball down in Brighton all those years ago — that won’t have been a problem.
I’d be prepared to bet that Starmer (who’s three years older than me and so must occasionally have played when he was younger, too) would naturally prefer the second, more careful approach to the game. But this year he tried both. Whether that means he’s a wizard or whether there has to be a twist, we’ll soon find out.
Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/09/the-wizardry-of-keir-starmer/