The pub landlord that gave Keir Starmer both barrels on Monday accused the Labour leader to his face of failing.
Starmer failed all right. He failed to respond to Rod Humphris’ verbal assault properly.
Humphris, co-owner of The Raven pub in Bath, first assailed Starmer in the street during a walkabout in the west country city. He claimed Labour had failed to ask the right questions on coronavirus. He waved some graphs around and insisted the economy had been sacrificed “because old people are dying”.
Starmer chose not to engage. This is an improvement on previous Labour leadership figures meeting the public. Tony Blair was famously ambushed by Sharon Storer for his failings on the NHS, John Prescott punched a man and Gordon Brown called an old lady a bigot. Better to stay schtum than get in the that sort of hot water.
Instead, Labour responded on Twitter with a link to a voter registration page and an insistence that any further response would be to spread the disinformation Humphris was spouting.
Cue division on social media.
Supporters insisted Starmer was best to broadly ignore an angry, rude man. And that the Labour leader’s security were right to bundle Humphris away. Bear in mind a sitting MP, Jo Cox, was murdered in the course of campaigning just five years ago.
Opponents of Starmer were enraged. One particularly on point tweet came from Martin Daubney, Brexit party MEP turned man-that-shouts-at-lockdowns-on-the-internet. He accused Starmer of demanding “sooner, harder, longer lockdowns”. Which is true. But anyone who values human life over beer now concedes that every lockdown so far should’ve started sooner and laster longer.
How to have a productive disagreement
The reaction online summed up exactly why Starmer failed in his response. It sounds counter intuitive, but in fact the best way to bridge divides is to argue.
Humphris was talking nonsense. Starmer should have taken him on. But he should not have set out to diminish, destroy or mock the pub owner. He should have sought to disagree productively.
A recent book called Conflicted by ad man turned centrist guru Ian Leslie could have helped. At its core is a plea for more conflict, conducted with empathy and civility, to harness disagreement to useful ends. There is value in hearing a range of voices. And, crucial for Starmer’s chances in any and all of the upcoming elections (apart from the London mayoral election which Labour doesn’t need to worry about because the Tory candidate is a clown and Sadiq Khan has bagged the all important endorsement of New Rules singer Dua Lipa) is the fact that folk respect reasoned debate and politicians who stand up for themselves.
Starmer had an opportunity to show that he stands up for something, engages with other points of view, and disagrees respectfully and productively
Starmer got stage one of a productive disagreement right. He made it clear he disagreed. But instead of walking away, he ought to have welcomed the opportunity to have a barney. Ian Leslie includes a toolkit on doing it right in his book. Key in the first instance is to make a connection with your opponent. That’s easy. Starmer could have established that both he and Humphris don’t like the pandemic and would like things back to normal as soon as possible.
He could have asked about how lockdown had impacted the pub and its staff, drilled in to what the government could have done better to help them, established that Humphris and his ilk ought to direct their ire at those in power rather than Starmer who, as leader of the opposition, can’t do much about lockdown.
Perhaps he could have calmly picked at Humphris’ claim that the economy had been sacrificed because old people are dying and pointed out that that is actually a good thing, unless you think that people lose their worth past a certain age. And, if Humphris actually thinks old people are worthless, perhaps throw in the sample of noted geriatrics Colonel Tom, Mary Berry and the Queen to persuade him to ditch that argument.
Good politics is about figuring out how to work and live together
Other golden rules of Ian Leslie’s approach include trying to like your opponent, hearing them out, considering how their point of view impacts and challenges your own, avoiding the temptation of cheap victories and working together to produce something new from the disagreement. If it sounds like a guide to good politics that’s because it basically is.
Politics at its best is not about dismissing disagreement and vanquishing your opponent with a well rehearsed barb. It’s about having arguments around huge issues but ultimately figuring out a way to work and live together. It’s about using those disagreements to fuel a better vision for the future.
Outside The Raven, Starmer had an opportunity to reap respect from both the man haranguing him and from the electorate at large, by showing that he stands up for something, engages with other points of view, and disagrees respectfully and productively. In other words, by showing he’s everything Boris Johnson is not.
James Millar is a political commentator and author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post