Keir and the coronavirus crank: Why Starmer’s leftwing critics were wrong

One of the bizarre features of the much-publicised clash between Keir Starmer and Bath pub landlord Rod Humphris, which took place when Starmer was in town last week supporting Labour’s campaign in the West of England mayoral election, was that there were some on the left whose sympathies lay firmly with Humphris. They celebrated the Labour leader’s comeuppance at the hands of an irate self-proclaimed former Labour voter as a vindication of leftwing criticisms of Starmer and the direction in which he has taken the party. “Brilliant”, “Classic!” and “I would love a pint there, amazing!” were a few characteristic comments from one Facebook thread. I think this response was seriously mistaken.

It was quite clear from the widely-circulated videos of the now famous confrontation outside The Raven pub, of which he is co-owner, that Humphris is a coronavirus denialist and had denounced Starmer on that basis. Berating the Labour leader over his response to the pandemic, Humpris declared: “You have failed to be the opposition, you have failed to to ask whether lockdown was functioning…. You have allowed children to wear masks in schools when there has never been any evidence for it.” Speaking to the press after the clash with Starmer, Humphris demanded: “Why have we just accepted lockdown? Why have we just accepted the loss of all our freedoms?”

Humphris said he resented being forced to close The Raven in order to prevent the spread of the virus, despite the fact that keeping the pub open would inevitably have increased infections and people would have died as a result. But Humphris doesn’t see these deaths as a problem. He vigorously defends the view that most of those who lose their lives after contracting Covid-19 are over 82 and would have died soon anyway, so why shut down economic activity for their benefit? “We have fucked our economy because old people are dying” was his indignant complaint to Starmer.

During an appearance the next day on the Good Morning Britain TV show (an audio recording of which is available here) Humphris expanded on his argument, shrugging off Covid-related deaths among the over-80s on the grounds that “when we get old we die”. He repeated the familiar denialist myths that countries such as Sweden had avoided lockdown measures with no resulting rise in their death rates, and that the number of infections were already falling before lockdowns had been imposed, so “the causal link between lockdowns and lack of deaths and serious hospitalisations is just not there”.

I’m not a fan of Piers Morgan but his description of Humphris, following the latter’s appearance on Good Morning Britain, as a “callous ill-informed halfwit” nailed it.

Starmer’s response to Humphris during their argument outside the pub was forthright and to the point. He referred to his own wife working for the NHS and said that she and her colleagues had been “completely overwhelmed” by Covid-19 cases. He continued: “They’ve been on the frontline keeping people alive, so I really don’t need lectures from you about this pandemic.” I can understand why rightwing anti-lockdown loons like Laurence Fox and Julia Hartley-Brewer rallied enthusiastically to Humphris’ defence. But it beats me how anyone on the left could fail to back Starmer over this clash and instead express solidarity with the covidiot who was denouncing him.

The confusion that developed following the clash outside the pub was due to the fact that Starmer and his entourage were evidently unaware that Humphris was The Raven’s landlord. They presumably took him to be some random crank who had seized the opportunity to accost Starmer during the campaign walkabout in order to publicise his deluded views about the pandemic. So in an attempt to get away from this ranting fanatic, Starmer ducked into the pub. Humphris then lost it completely, chasing after the Labour leader while shrieking “Get out of my pub”, and had to be physically restrained by one of Starmer’s security guards.

Some leftwing critics blamed this imbroglio on Starmer’s advisers for failing to establish in advance that he would be welcome at the pub. However, in his Good Morning Britain interview Humphris acknowledged that the visit to the The Raven had been arranged by the pub’s co-owner Tim Perry, with his own apparent agreement. So you can’t really blame Starmer’s staff for failing to anticipate that Humphris might raise angry objections to the visit.

Humphris claimed that he hadn’t registered the fact that Starmer himself would be coming. “I’d failed to attend to the detail”, he told GMB’s Susanna Reid, “as I sometimes do.” The explanation was unconvincing. There are grounds for suspecting that Humphris turned up precisely in order to provoke a public row with Starmer. Rejecting an attempt by one of Starmer’s entourage to engage with him, Humphris pointed at the Labour leader and declared, “I came here to speak to this man”. He had even brought along a printout of a graph showing the age profile of Covid-19 fatalities that he presented to Starmer, to back up his point about the irrelevance of old people dying.

If anyone apart from Humphris himself is to be held responsible for this fracas, it’s his business partner Tim Perry. The Raven’s co-owner, it has to be said, was deeply embarrassed by the incident, complaining that the pub was suffering “death by social media, when actually Rod’s the one that held those opinions, not me”. The Raven issued a statement dissociating the business from Humphris’ views and claiming that there had been “no intention by The Raven to hijack Keir Starmer’s visit to Bath”. But there had obviously been such an intention on the part of an individual who after all does own half of the business. Frankly, his partner must have been well aware of Humphris’ belligerent attitude towards the Covid-19 lockdowns and should have foreseen that problems might arise as a result.

Nor can there be any excuse for Humphris’ unhinged behaviour. As already noted, by his own admission The Raven’s owners had agreed to the Labour Party visiting the pub. If he wanted to rescind the invitation in light of the argument about the Labour Party’s response to the pandemic, Humphris could have reasonably explained to Starmer and his minders that the Labour leader was no longer welcome and should leave. Instead, he lost his temper and showed every sign of intending to physically eject Starmer from the premises, before one of Starmer’s minders intervened to block him.

Whether it was the case or not, there did appear to be a real possibility of an assault on Starmer, and the security guard was quite right to take the action he did. He simply tried to keep this deranged idiot, who was clearly out of control, away from Starmer, with the minimum of force. Call me an old-fashioned Marxist, but I take the view that the organised labour movement has a right to self-defence against enraged and potentially dangerous members of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie. Personally I’d have thumped the bastard.

Not everyone on the left agreed with this. Again, they expressed misplaced sympathy for Humphris, depicting him as the victim of a violent overreaction on the part of Starmer’s minder. Here, for example, is how one veteran leftwinger responded to the tussle between Humphris and the security guard (in a tweet which, to be fair, he subsequently had second thoughts about and seems to have deleted):

Predictably, Steve Walker of Skwawkbox also joined the chorus of leftist criticism of the “manhandling” of Humphris. Having earlier published an article titled “Video: Starmer chased out of pub by COVID-denier landlord — despite demanding schools re-open and fighting against masks”, Walker followed this up with another headed “Video: pub landlord claims assault by Starmer’s minders for saying he didn’t want Labour leader in his pub”.

The latter article provoked some opposition on Skwawkbox’s Facebook page. “Oh come on, Skwawkbox, this is pathetic. I fucking HATE Starmer, but this is Daily Mail level reporting”, one critic commented, and went on to advise that, when it comes to exposés of the Labour leader, Walker would do better to “stick to stories with a bit of substance to them. It’s not as if we are lacking legitimate reasons to publish critical articles. At this rate, pretty soon you’ll be publishing stories about how badly he eats a bacon sandwich.”

As for the charge that Starmer himself was guilty of “fighting against masks” in schools, this was misleading to say the least. Walker linked to a Skwawkbox article from July 2020 as evidence that Starmer had “insisted schools open no matter what and sided against unions on masks in schools”. Walker chose to ignore the fact that a few weeks later Labour reversed its position and did call on the government to introduce masks in secondary schools. Admittedly this was after it became clear that the government was about to adopt that policy itself, so the change of line was entirely opportunistic. But that doesn’t justify implying that there was no change of line at all.

As usual, by the time I got round to writing up my thoughts on this particular controversy it was yesterday’s papers (not to mention yesterday’s social media). But there are some general points to be made here. If the left is to maintain any political credibility, then knee-jerk condemnation of Starmer irrespective of the circumstances, without any concern for fairness or accuracy, and in solidarity with those who are attacking him from the right, is not the way to go. There are, as Skwawkbox’s critic pointed out, enough genuine reasons to oppose Starmer without resorting to methods like that.

First published on Medium in April 2021