Against “savvy” politics

Sunday National, 17th July 2022.

About ten years ago, I came across a lecture by the American writer Jay Rosen. Rosen has been writing for some time about what he characterises as the “savvy style” of American political journalism. You’ll probably recognise it from your own experience of reading about British politics – and the things which get the hacks of Fleet Street and the politicians they write about particularly animated. For Rosen:

“In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts,” Rosen wrote. “It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane.  Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)  Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.”

The savvy style brings you headlines which say the UK government’s Rwanda policy is “good politics,” rather than reporting, challenging – or even being passingly concerned – about the human cost and human cruelty of the expulsion programme.

The savvy style doesn’t ask if the tax cuts promised by Tory leadership candidates are affordable – or even consistent with their past choices in government. Instead, they reflect on whether the pitch will “land well” with the party selectorate. Suella Braverman’s grand plan for Britain to follow Russia out of the European Convention on Human Rights? Forget the merits. Forget the consequences. All that matters is that it’s a bold political move, to be appraised primarily on whether it gains or loses her votes. (Nae luck Suella.)

For the savvily-inclined, policy is judged not on substantial merit – but on mouthfeel. The political efficacy of announcements are based on whether they annoy the right people rather than whether they address the underlying social and economic problems confronting the community. While fetishizing the idea of “realistic” politics, the savvy analysts of our public life are curiously unanchored in the everyday political problems we face.

As Rosen reflects, this savvy attitude to politics is condescending, cynical insiderish, ideologically vacuous, manipulative – and assumes everyone who isn’t part of the bubble is basically an eejit who doesn’t understand how the world “really works.” Politics, for the savvy commentator, is a game which the well-placed source and the gossipy lobby correspondent understand best.

And critically, the savvy style isn’t only the preserve of folk who write about politics – it also colours the thinking of many practitioners, in their occasionally symbiotic and often toxic relationship with the wider media.

Enter Sir Keir Starmer, stage right. As the Conservative Party continues to experience a collective breakdown, the Labour leader has concluded that this week is a good opportunity to dump what remained of his Corbynite policy commitments. Earlier this year, Starmer announced that all of Labour’s previous manifesto commitments were off. “What we’ve done with the last manifesto is put it to one side,” he said, “the slate is wiped clean.”

In 2019, Sir Keir outlined ten pledges as he launched his leadership campaign. Starmer has now taken his shammy to these solemn statements of purpose too. And the language he’s used to justify doing so is pure politics in the savvy style.

When it came to immigration, in 2019, Starmer committed himself to “full voting rights for EU nationals. Defend free movement as we leave the EU. An immigration system based on compassion and dignity. End indefinite detention and call for the closure of centres such as Yarl’s Wood.” Just this week, he told the media – not only that Labour wouldn’t argue for any return to the common market or European free movement – but that there was apparently “no case” for doing so. His main objections to Priti Patel’s Rwanda policy remains that it is too expensive, baulking at expressing the idea in public that the policy might not only be inefficient, but immoral too.

Trade unions have also benefited from Starmer’s changing affections. Having written up the relationship in the strongest terms in his leadership pitch, he is already getting cold feet. As the RMT strikes were impacting on Britain’s railways and pickets were forming outside stations across the country – the Labour leader was admonishing his frontbenchers to “show leadership” on the crisis. “Please be reminded that frontbenchers should not be on picket lines” the internal communique read. Quite how this represents “leadership” is a question for the philosophers. Solidarity, comrades.

Then there’s the rest of the economy. Back in 2019, Starmer suggested “we can rebuild our economic model, in place of the failed free market one” and “unify around a radical programme.” The radical programme Starmer now has in mind is, apparently, deregulating the City of London. This week, he called “for the UK to diverge from EU-era financial services regulations to maintain the City’s competitiveness.” I doubt many Labour members figured his radical vision was an amnesty for spivs and speculators.

There’s no escaping from the old clause 4 debates about Labour’s attitude to public ownership in the aftermath of the Tories’ decades of privatising public utilities – from the rail track and electrical grid to England’s water supply. When he was chasing after the Labour leadership, Starmer told his activists that “public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders,” committing himself to “the common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water; end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system.”

This week on LBC Andrew Marr tested the Labour leader’s continuing commitment to these ideas. “Do you stand by your pledge to support common ownership of tail, mail energy and water?” he asked. Starmer’s response was characteristically flaccid: “Andrew, I’m pragmatic about this, not ideological,” he said. “But we’ve got to face the reality of the situation that post-Covid our economy is in a different position. But I’m not one of these people who is ideological about it. It must be one thing or the other. We’ve got to be practical.” Marr then picked up Starmer’s commitments to end private provisions in the NHS. “Is that still operative?” “Well, look, there is some private provision in the NHS and we’re likely to have to continue with that but actually, I do believe strongly in the NHS as a public service.” I think that means “no”.

It is remarkable to hear a Labour politician – who chose to stand on this political platform – talking about public ownership using the kind of language you might hear from any of the wights and ghouls currently contesting the Tory leadership – as if it is “practical” and “non-ideological” to flog public goods to private interests, losing effective democratic control, watching the asset strippers maximise private profits, while stoical Britons are encouraged to make do with less. Nobody forced him to adopt this ten-point pledge. Nobody obliged Starmer to incorporate specific commitments on public ownership into his platform.

Politicians pretending to be apolitical – and ideologues denying their ideologies – are amongst the most contemptible specimens in our public life. Starmer’s routine is the essence of political savvy. Ideological commitments are seen as gauche, political convictions as represented as unworldly, as evidence of an unformed and uniformed political character. It is all very well the Labour leader telling Andrew Marr that he was crossing his fingers, and that his main pledge was to have a “is laser-like focused on winning an election.” But I doubt many folk voting in the leadership election imagined this meant every pledge was susceptible to renegotiable, and every policy commitment hollow. If these ideas seem now so impractical, so ideological so fanciful, why did Starmer choose to stand on a platform endorsing them?

How can the Labour leader dole out homilies about “restoring trust in our politics,” when he sold his leadership to his party on what he now more or less admits was a false prospectus? ir Keir’s apologists argue that he did what he needed to do to win the leadership race – and having done so, all bets are somehow off. Folk who spend their days railing against the ratbaggery and chicanery of the outgoing Prime Minister seem content with the idea that it is the job of political leaders to lie to their activists, and the greater part of statesmanship is betraying the ideas you once said you entered politics to deliver. And this being the United Kingdom, Starmer can expect the media to applaud these betrayals, to pay warm tribute to his political savvy – and come election time, to back the other guy.

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