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What Keir Starmer can learn from the history of Labour leader documentaries
The news that Keir Starmer is considering starring in a fly-on-the-wall documentary, brings back memories of similar endeavours. Kinnock: The Movie (1987), Blair: The Biopic (1997), Ed Miliband: A Portrait (2015) and Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider (2016) were each part of attempts to return Labour to government.
Kinnock, Miliband and Corbyn looked to revive their flagging personal opinion poll ratings through these documentaries, while Blair looked to maintain his popularity. The films gave behind-the-scenes insights into the leaders and tried to convince the public that Labour had changed.
In 2021, if he is thinking of having his documentary, Starmer is likely hoping it will help to turn around his own low approval ratings. A Labour party source revealed to The Times they believed the documentary would be “a highly effective way to broadcast Starmer’s personality”.
Looking at the history of Labour leader documentaries, Starmer, if he does go ahead with his own, can learn what works and what doesn’t.
Kinnock: The Movie
The Kinnock documentary, directed by Oscar-nominated director Hugh Hudson, formed part of Labour’s 1987 election campaign. The film marked a decisive shift in Labour’s message but did not focus on specific policies.
The Movie presented Kinnock as the family man who could be a tough leader. In particular, it highlighted his 1985 expulsion of members of the Militant Tendency (a Trotskyist group) from the Labour Party. The documentary was successful because it distanced Kinnock from Labour’s 1983 election campaign, where the party, on a left-wing platform, achieved its lowest number of MPs (209) since 1935. To achieve this separation, The Movie foregrounded the leader, ending simply with the word “Kinnock” displayed alongside a Red Rose in contrast to the usual “Labour” branding.
It had a significant impact on Kinnock’s popularity with his approval ratings increasing by 17% after the broadcast. However, overall, Kinnock still recorded a negative satisfaction rating of -13%. Moreover, the film seemed to have little impact on voting intention and at the 1987 election, the Conservatives secured a landslide majority of 102 seats.
Following the 1987 defeat, Kinnock embarked on more ambitious changes through a policy review and attempted to redefine the party’s aims and values. Despite reducing the Conservative’s majority to 21 at the 1992 election, his modernisation project fell short. Yet, the policy changes implemented under his leadership would form part of a new narrative under a different party leader, Tony Blair.
Blair: The Biopic
Blair’s use of a film in 1997, directed by the acclaimed Molly Dineen, played a very junior role in his overarching narrative of “New Labour”. In the broadcast, Blair established himself as a leader who would change Britain, but many of these changes had taken place before 1997.
From 1994 to 1997, Blair significantly transformed Labour’s branding to New Labour and shifted the party towards the centre ground. This agenda built on the Kinnock-era changes, where the party had distanced from the left-wing policies of the 1983 manifesto, such as nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament.
With Labour already substantially ahead in the polls and his personal approval rating overwhelmingly positive, Blair’s 1997 biopic showed a different side to his character. Interspersed with clips from his kitchen and action shots of Blair playing football and tennis, the Labour leader looked back on his childhood, his father’s stroke and his mother’s death.
Yet, the broadcast also made subtle, but effective, references to policy changes, highlighting Blair’s “education, education, education” speech, his commitment to get “250,000 young people off benefits and into work” and the battle for resources in the National Health Service. Blair put forward a convincing case that “things can change” in the country because things had changed in his party. This message resonated amongst the electorate with Labour securing a landslide victory at the 1997 election.
Ed Miliband: A Portrait
Miliband took inspiration from both Blair and Kinnock during his leadership. Echoing Kinnock, Miliband embarked on a policy review and commissioned his short documentary, directed by the BAFTA-winning Paul Greengrass, in the run-up to the 2015 election.
The film sought to rehabilitate Miliband’s approval ratings and offer an insight into his family and beliefs. Yet, it was roundly criticised by the Conservatives for failing to include any reference to the economy while being light on policy detail.
Instead of such information, Miliband’s “portrait” merely indicated that he had “thought deeply about how the country needs to change”. Unlike Blair’s biopic, it offered little in the way of concrete policy and it was unclear how the party had changed since its 2010 defeat.
Through family stories, Miliband’s documentary attempted to alter the public’s opinion of his leadership. However, the film made no impact on his approval rating, which remained static at -19% before and after the broadcast.
At the 2015 election Labour suffered its second successive defeat. Polling from this election indicates that the two central reasons for Labour’s loss were Miliband’s leadership and the party’s economic policy (which wasn’t mentioned in the documentary).
Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider
Suffering from poor personal opinion poll ratings in 2016, Corbyn allowed youth media outlet Vice to film his movements over eight weeks. The result was a true fly-on-the-wall documentary that exposed the leader’s strengths and weaknesses.
“The Outsider” showcased heated arguments within the leader’s inner circle, suspicions of a leak within the head office and a senior aide suggesting that Corbyn’s opponents should “let Jeremy fail in his own time”. Consequently, the documentary had little positive impact. Corbyn’s approval rating fell by 6% after the piece aired.
Although Corbyn established a distinct left-wing narrative during his leadership, which was highlighted in “The Outsider”, it did not lead to a huge turnaround in either his or his party’s polling. It was not until one year after the documentary that Corbyn saw a rise in his favourability ratings during Labour’s 2017 election campaign. However, despite this increase in Corbyn’s popularity, never more than 44% of the public ever had a favourable view of his leadership.
Starmer suffers from similar problems to his predecessors, aside from Blair. He’s struggled to identify a core narrative or brand with accusations that his leadership is both “Corbynism with the breaks on” and “Blairite”.
Starmer inherited a party that his predecessors had pulled into a multitude of different directions, with no central, continuous narrative – across four consecutive general election defeats. Following his party’s disastrous showing in May 2021, Starmer needs to begin his modernisation project to definitively show that his party has changed to recapture the support of its former voters. Based on the experiences of Kinnock, Miliband and Corbyn, any fly-on-the-wall piece must be combined with a clear and definitive narrative change paired with solid policy to regain the trust of the British electorate.