Sir Keir’s not here to entertain. If the media wants politics as panto, it’s playing in Clacton

sir keir’s not here to entertain. if the media wants politics as panto, it’s playing in clacton

Sir Keir Starmer looks increasingly comfortable wearing the skin of prime-minister-in-waiting. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

From the off, this election has been Labour’s to lose – and boy does it know it. Every indicator signposts victory, but Labour is fighting it as if there’s a real risk of defeat. “Change”, the simple one-word slogan inscribed on the front cover of the manifesto, emblazoned on every podium and never absent from a Starmer speech, is a clinically utilitarian compression of the core theme. The messaging is rigidly repetitive. “Stop the chaos, turn the page and start to rebuild Britain.” Rinse and repeat, members of the shadow cabinet, until your mouth is cracked dry and you’ve given your audience tinnitus. One of the campaign’s architects recently purred to me: “I do love message discipline”, as if he was talking about his children. Stick to the script. Never drop the ball. Ignore the opinion polls. Take nothing for granted. Leave nothing to chance. Get over the line.

Don’t think I’m being a critic. I say all this as a compliment to the professionalism of the Labour campaign, not least because I’ve witnessed so many past contests in which the party lacked the ferocious focus and the steely will to prevail in the brutal contact sport of electoral politics.

Despite the formidable advantages Labour enjoyed going into the campaign, there were plenty of nerves jangling in camp Keir at the sound of the starting gun being fired. Understandably so, given the party’s dire record of blowing previous elections. It may have been self-evident to everyone else that a Labour victory was guaranteed. It was not so to the high command of a party that usually loses.

The media thirsts for drama and novelty, but the Labour team’s contrary belief is that most voters crave stability

As we puff past the halfway mark, journalists pronounce themselves bored with Labour. Meant as an insult, it is flattery in the ears of Sir Keir’s team. They are not in this to entertain reporters by being “interesting” or to quicken the pulse of commentators by being “bold”. Still less is it their job to start making “gaffes” that might lend a hand to the wretched Tories. Sir Keir’s may be a compassionate party, but there are limits. Its core business is winning an election for Labour for the first time in nearly two decades. It is at the point when my profession is yawning that the average voter is beginning to engage. Journalists inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) groan when they hear, for the zillionth time, Sir Keir deliver his stock line: “My father was a toolmaker, my mother was a nurse.” Asked to review his performances in focus groups, to some voters his biography comes as a revelation. The media thirsts for drama and novelty, but the Labour team’s contrary belief is that most voters currently crave stability and predictability. At the smoothly choreographed event in Manchester to launch a carefully calibrated manifesto, journalists itched to ask: “What’s new?” Sir Keir pre-empted them by declaring that they’d find nothing that wasn’t already familiar in the 135-page handbook. “There may be some people today who say: where’s the surprise? Where’s the rabbit out of the hat?” If you want politics “as pantomime”, he continued, pop down to Clacton-on-Sea, where Nigel Farage is prancing about on the Essex coast. This rare Starmer joke was one that he liked so much he repeated it a little later in a slightly different form. “I’m running as a candidate to be prime minister, not a candidate to run the circus.”

The manifesto does indeed contain nothing you would not already know if you’ve been paying reasonably close attention to the “missions” and the “first steps” previously unveiled. That doesn’t make it fair to damn it as a timid prospectus. On the likes of housebuilding, clean power and achieving sustainably higher growth, the longer-term goals are almost heroically ambitious. It is bracing for some on the left to hear a Labour leader say that “redistribution” is a lower priority than “wealth creation”. Whether a Starmer government can boost growth will likely be the most crucial test of its success or failure as a project. It is true to say that the manifesto is crimped with caution about what Labour will be able to do in the shorter term. “We don’t have a magic wand,” the Labour leader likes to say to a jaundiced country he knows to be cynical about grandiose claims. There’s no pledge that New Jerusalem can be built overnight, not least because team Starmer believes that the lived experience of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss has inoculated the electorate against politicians who promise the moon only to cost you the earth. Labour’s pitch is as the party for voters who want to be governed by people who look sensible and sound realistic.

The Tories are the party for those preferring one that frantically sprays out unfunded, slapdash, last-minute wheezes. As a strategy, that doesn’t seem to be working out all that well for Rishi Sunak.

The Labour campaign has not been flawless. There have been fumbles and stumbles that might have been more costly were the Conservatives not such duff adversaries. Days were lost and tempers ignited during the shenanigans about whether Diane Abbott would be permitted to stand as a Labour candidate, an issue that could have and should have been resolved long before the campaign began. Sir Keir was slow to counter the Tory attack on tax in the first TV debate and kicked himself afterwards for his sluggishness. He has not found a way to explain why he used to recommend Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister that does not sound very cynical. Yet these incidents don’t appear to have been anything more than briefly jolting speed bumps on the path of the Labour juggernaut.

Labour's leader is still asking for votes 'humbly', but is sounding more obviously confident that he’s going to harvest them

The driver looks increasingly comfortable wearing the skin of prime-minister-in-waiting. The hours he has put in doing performance training have had an effect. It has not transformed him into a reincarnation of JFK, but he is much more fluent and assured than he was when he first became Labour leader. He’s also become skilled at subtly slipping the dagger between his rival’s ribs. When the prime minister turned D-day into his unfinest hour, the Labour leader did not lunge in with a crude tackle. It was more artful to talk about how moved he was to meet the veterans while coolly suggesting the Tory leader would have to answer for his choices.

When the hapless Mr Sunak suggested that his childhood was deprived because his parents would not pay for a Sky subscription, Sir Keir responded by talking rather more convincingly about his upbringing in a cash-strapped household: “I know what it feels like to be embarrassed to invite your mates home because the carpet is threadbare and the windows cracked.”

He is still asking for votes “humbly”, but is sounding more obviously confident that he’s going to harvest them. Despite themselves, there’s a new note of deference in the voices of journalists representing rightwing media when they say “thank you, Sir Keir” for inviting them to ask a question. When he spoke at the manifesto launch, the shining faces of the assembled shadow cabinet turned to him as sunflowers follow the sun.

Unless the entire polling industry is perpetrating the howler of all time, he will be entering Downing Street in less than three weeks’ time. It will be a dazzling achievement to take Labour into power just five years after the party’s worst defeat since the 1930s. Those who want to cavil will say that the main propellant of Sir Keir’s success is not desire to see him in power, but loathing for the Tories. This is not such a killer point as some imagine it to be. The unpopularity of their opponents played a large part in putting Tony Blair in Number 10 in 1997 and Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

There are two worms of unease wriggling in Labour’s guts. One is that forecasts of a Starmer mega-majority may so alarm rightwing voters that they pinch their noses and rally to the Tories. Mr Sunak’s crew is already desperate enough to be implicitly conceding defeat by publicising graphics suggesting Tory parliamentary representation could be so eviscerated that there will be no meaningful opposition to a Labour government. The other concern for Labour is that there is an “enthusiasm deficit” that will mean victory is tainted by a depressed turnout. Some Labour frontbenchers think the time is coming when there needs to be more effort to lift the spirits of the electorate. One of the leader’s team agrees that “we need to make things sing” in the run-up to polling day. What more can the Labour campaign add? Food for the soul. Providing, of course, it is fully costed.

• Andrew Rawnsley is the Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

OTHER NEWS

23 minutes ago

UAE condemns terrorist attack in Mogadishu

23 minutes ago

Ranking the top contenders for this week's British Open

23 minutes ago

A tech stock with a name sounding like 'Trump's Big Win' surged by the maximum in China after the Pennsylvania assassination attempt

23 minutes ago

Nepal authorities say 65 people were on board the buses missing in a river since Friday

23 minutes ago

Apple AirPods Pro reduced to lowest price in Amazon Prime Day sale

23 minutes ago

Sats to expand partnership with China’s SF Group to more global locations

23 minutes ago

French competition authority confirms investigation into Nvidia

23 minutes ago

'Exactly Like Jasprit Bumrah': Viral Video of Pakistani Boy Imitating India Superstar Impresses Wasim Akram

23 minutes ago

Video: Skye Wheatley's wild list of plastic surgery demands is revealed as she prepares to travel to Turkey for a 'fox eye lift'

23 minutes ago

Video: Ariana Grande's brother Frankie Grande unveils the results of his nose job as he shares before and after snaps: 'Still swollen'

23 minutes ago

Half a million workers caught in 60pc tax trap

23 minutes ago

‘Big step for us’: Family of 12yo killed in car crash slog through court delays

23 minutes ago

Aussie sounds the alarm over a 'beggar' in Europe

23 minutes ago

China’s Entertainment Industry Set To Grow At Double The Rate Of U.S. Over Next Four Years – Report

23 minutes ago

Kendrick Lamar's ‘Not Like Us' Leaps Back to No. 1 on Billboard Global 200 Chart

23 minutes ago

Demon's Souls is the Peak of One FromSoftware Design Trend

23 minutes ago

How Donald Trump’s assassination attempt impacted the RAND

23 minutes ago

FS mayor Khalipha unveils transformative R4.4bn Khautha solar project

23 minutes ago

Lazio and Getafe to visit St Mary's in pre-season

23 minutes ago

Man Utd transfer news: Huge new Mason Greenwood offer as Casemiro upgrade discussed

23 minutes ago

Tottenham friendly vs. Hearts to be streamed on CBS Sports Golazo Network in USA

23 minutes ago

Photojournalist recalls capturing ‘1 in a million’ image of bullet whizzing by Trump at Pa. rally

23 minutes ago

See the bizarre online theory about Mary Fowler and her boyfriend Nathan Cleary's shock injury

23 minutes ago

Jay Slater's 'totally devastated' mother demands answers about body

25 minutes ago

The ultimate survivor: How Princess Margaret's lady-in-waiting Anne Glenconner, 92 today, battled through trauma of husband's violent abuse and the loss of two sons - and she has attended TWO coronations

25 minutes ago

Stuck for a birthday gift for Camilla, Charles? Well the Queen LOVES her animal-themed jewellery and she has SIX designs from Van Cleef & Arpels - but there's 44 more to collect!

25 minutes ago

California bans school rules requiring parents notification of child's pronoun change

25 minutes ago

Michael van Gerwen beats Luke Littler in first round at World Matchplay

25 minutes ago

Is Sweden v England on TV? Channel, kick-off time and how to watch Lionesses tonight

25 minutes ago

NASCAR Crash Course: Ryan Blaney leading Ford's epic turnaround with win at Pocono

25 minutes ago

Jordan’s tourism revenue declines by 4.9 per cent in first half of 2024

25 minutes ago

Daniel Msendami has been backed to be a star in the PSL after joining the rebranded Marumo Gallants

25 minutes ago

Science Museum caves to pressure to end deal with energy giant Equinor

35 minutes ago

Video: NBC's Kristen Welker's stunned reaction when asked why network downplayed gunshots at Trump rally as simply 'popping noises'

35 minutes ago

Video: Incredible new footage shows immediate aftermath of Trump shooting and why former president kept asking Secret Service agents for his shoes after assassination attempt

35 minutes ago

Texas man facing execution for 1998 killing of elderly woman for her money

35 minutes ago

Hong Kong is testing out its own ChatGPT-style tool as OpenAI planned extra steps to block access

35 minutes ago

Peerless Tadej Pogacar seizes control of the Tour de France to evoke memories of the greats

35 minutes ago

Predicting England’s squad for the 2026 World Cup after Euro 2024 final heartbreak

35 minutes ago

Have England found Bazball’s missing piece in Jamie Smith