Labour tries out ‘Brand Keir’ ahead of personality battle with Rishi

Sir Keir Starmer took an empty spot on the stage alongside colleagues, open-collared and with sleeves rolled up
Sir Keir Starmer took an empty spot on the stage alongside colleagues, open-collared and with sleeves rolled up - Getty/Leon Neal

The shadow cabinet had clearly not got the memo.

On rows of seats ascending in height as if for a school photo, the male members of Labour’s front bench had jackets on and tie knots firmly fastened over top buttons.

Which meant when Sir Keir Starmer eventually took an empty spot on the stage alongside them, open-collared and with his sleeves rolled up, the contrast was all the more striking.

“We didn’t know what they were going to wear,” admitted one of the Labour leader’s aides as jokes were shared on social media about a supply teacher hanging with the kids.

But there was nothing unplanned about Sir Keir’s appearance on stage in Essex on Thursday for what was, in all but name, the launch of his general election campaign.

The New Labour echoes in the six-point pledge card and the swish stage management made the headlines. “Blair without the flair”, as former Ukip leader Nigel Farage dubbed Sir Keir.

There was something more subtle at play, however, according to those who had been planning the speech for months: an attempt to elevate and clarify “Brand Keir” in the minds of voters.

Election campaigns can be defined by policy clashes, ingenious attacks, or which side has the keenest instincts when the unexpected breaks.

Sir Keir will go one beyond Sir Tony Blair, who never faced a televised election leaders debate
Sir Keir will go one beyond Sir Tony Blair, who never faced a televised election leaders debate - Getty/Leon Neal

But they are also, to an extent politicians like to downplay but know they cannot escape, a battle of personalities. A race, in reality, between one of just two people who can become prime minister.

Just ask Ed Miliband.

As shadow environment secretary, in charge of delivering clean energy by 2030 in a Labour government, Mr Miliband was among the chosen few to speak before Sir Keir on Thursday morning.

And as a former Labour leader, he bears the scars of the 2015 election race in which his team made a concerted effort to improve his personal poll ratings.

There was a speech taking head on his geek image, referencing how he looked like Wallace from the cartoon Wallace and Gromit. There was the endless use of a lectern for his campaign speeches, even one in a garden, to project authority.

His team knew that never before had an opposition won back office when polling behind on which party was most trusted on the economy; and which leader would make the better prime minister.

Mr Miliband’s ratings did tick up, but in the end it was a cross on each score. It was David Cameron who was swept to re-election with an unexpected House of Commons majority.

There is an acceptance among “team Keir” that there is still work to do to communicate to the public who he is and what motivates him, as well as the party’s policy platform.

For the Prime Minister's own election framing moment this week, the jacket and tie remained firmly in place
For the Prime Minister's own election framing moment this week, the jacket and tie remained firmly in place - Getty/Carl Court

When the Tories – and recently Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader – argue the public is yet to fall in love with Sir Keir, there is polling data to back them up.

Surveys in recent months are, around half the time, finding more respondents disapproving than approving of the job the Labour leader is doing. Rishi Sunak’s approval ratings are significantly worse. It is an area, though, where Labour seeks improvement.

The indications were there to see at the launch event near Thurrock. The list of six promises was branded “my first steps”, not the party’s first steps, alongside a photograph of Sir Keir.

On stage, the Labour leader spoke without physical notes – although bullet points were on the teleprompter in case he lost his flow – and he roamed the stage while talking, no lectern in sight.

Political performance never came naturally to Sir Keir, who only became an MP at the age of 52 having spent his career away from Westminster in the legal profession.

His inner team over the years has sought to teach him to relax when taking press questions and how to land an attack at Prime Minister’s Questions. Practice sessions took place before this week’s “no-notes” speech.

There have been more sensitive chats too, attempts to convince their boss to open up about his upbringing, as is the expectation in modern politics, while still keeping his family away from the spotlight.

Policy wonks and allies

Mr Sunak’s team is also aware of the significance of personal image in politics, having made the slickest leadership videos as the race to succeed Boris Johnson broke out in July 2022.

For the Prime Minister’s own election framing moment this week, a speech on Monday putting safety and security at the heart of his re-election pitch, the jacket and tie remained firmly in place.

The backdrop was not beaming colleagues but a think tank logo on a white screen; before him in a small room in Westminster were policy wonks and allies among the gathered media.

The 30-minute address warned Britons that it was not safe to vote Labour at the election. Come Friday, Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, bookended the week with another dire warning: tax would rise “as sure as night follows day” under Labour.

No 10 bats away the suggestion that Mr Sunak’s framing speech looked small next to Sir Keir’s more campaign-style event, which featured emotive addresses from voters.

“The Prime Minister had detail,” a Sunak ally said. “He talked about some of the biggest challenges we faced, things like the rising welfare bill. Starmer did not mention defence at all.”

More attacks on that last point – Labour’s failure to match the Tory promise to spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence by 2030, instead giving no timeline – are being worked up by Downing Street.

Away from the policies, discussions have been had quietly on Mr Sunak’s outward image, not least in the context of the “out-of-touch” charge thrown by Labour and carefully linked to his wealth.

Use of private planes wanes

Once Mr Sunak’s No 10 revelled in issuing press comments defending his use of private jets whenever The Guardian reported on it. “He’s the leader of a G7 nation!” they would insist.

In more recent weeks, with the election looming on the horizon, use of private planes for domestic travel has appeared to wane, or at the very least gone less reported in the media.

The private grumbles from at least one person who has the Prime Minister’s ear that it would be politically wise to wear Prada shoes less often in public may well have been acted on too.

For months there has been consideration about whether, like Mr Miliband did in 2015, Mr Sunak should take the personal criticism head on and explain why swipes on his personal wealth are misguided. (The argument, as the Prime Minister deploys when challenged in public, being broadly that Britain is a country that rewards aspiration and he should be judged on his record, not his money. )

The shadow boxing will keep going and going – the election may well still be six months away, if No 10 hints are correct – but it cannot last forever.

At least two head-to-head TV debates between the two leaders are expected by broadcasters involved in the early discussions, as at the 2019 election, although Mr Sunak appears to be publicly pushing for more.

On that count at least, Sir Keir will go one beyond Sir Tony Blair, who never faced a televised election leaders debate – they were only introduced in 2010.

The “heir to Blair” knows he is his own man, whatever the jibes. Getting voters to see who, exactly, he is remains a work in progress.