Thursday 16 June 2022

Being Boring

I can picture the scene. Keir Starmer gathers his lieutenants together for the weekly meeting. Some call in over Zoom. The session begins with Wes Streeting apologising to the shadow cabinet for offering encouragement to rail workers taking industrial action. We hear anodyne anecdote from the front lines in Wakefield - the scores on the door shows the contact rate is up x per cent and Labour promises have long broken the five figure mark. And then the centrepiece of every meeting: Starmer's summing up and lines for the week ahead. But instead of discussing the cost of living crisis and taking the fight to the Tories, he complains about leaks. "I'm fed up of being described as boring", he whinged. What's "boring", he cried, are leaks undermining Labour's chances of getting back into government. "What’s boring is being in opposition", he added in his Partridgesque tones.

He should feel touchy. The focus groups he sets great store by say the same thing. But does it really matter? Starmer thinks so, with his cringing allusions to the popular culture of yesteryear at Prime Minister's Question. Unfortunately, that makes him look try hard and inauthentic, a tag Labour are keen to shake off. Instead, Starmer should lean into it and embrace the grey. Back in the dim and distant, the party thought about capitalising on Gordon Brown's dour and austere image with a poster campaign that declared "No Flash, Just Gordon". One doesn't have to be a Brown fan to recognise this as a stroke of advertising genius, which is why Labour decided not to run it. It preferred to run posters with Dave posing on a Quattro and have Brown smiling awkwardly on YouTube instead.

Starmer's strength among Labour members who voted for him was an apparent seriousness of purpose. He was the "grown up" who would carry Corbynism to parts of the electorate the sainted Jeremy could not. He was boring and the membership wanted boring. It should be an advantage vis a vis the creature of constitutional havoc that is Boris Johnson. Where the Prime Minister lacks honour Starmer has integrity. Where Johnson says the first thing that comes to mind to get through the day's scrapes, Starmer is diligent and on top of his brief. Where the Tory leader lies Labour's leader will always tell the truth. Veteran watchers of Starmer's leadership know otherwise, but the Forde Report, the stitching up of Jeremy Corbyn, and the leadership pledges lost down the back of the sofa aren't well known. It's just internal Labour froth and noise little different to what the public have grown accustomed to since 2015 - and long tuned out.

Starmer could capitalise on this. After all, when the mud slinging starts and the likes of The Mail and The Express suddenly discover his past misdeeds, it's unlikely to land. Inner party minutiae is even more boring than the protagonist of this post. Looking at the polling comparing him to Johnson, he scores higher than his opponent on nearly every metric. Why is he refusing to turn what some see as a weakness into a strength? Because it means committing to something. Brown had his record and heavy weight reputation to rest on. Clement Attlee was a charisma-free zone, but had ideas. Starmer has neither of these. In politics he was previously Second Referendum man. And in policy, it's a Union Jack branded binder with nothing but blank sheets inside. For boring to work, substance is required. One has to stand for something. Which puts Starmer at a massive disadvantage versus Johnson, who has an inchoate culture war and a tepid modernisation project to lean back on.

Whether it's his judgement or the clueless crew he's surrounded himself with, Starmer is refusing to commit to anything. We've seen it over the Rwanda deportations, the train strikes, free school meals, and Covid mitigations. The Tories stole his one policy and there's little left. It appears Starmer is following the path set by Ed Miliband during his ill-fated tenure: stay silent on big ticket pledges, get the public on side with patriotic vibes, and 18 months to a couple of years out from election day start rolling out the policies. Promising nothing now gives the party a couple of years worth of grace so the Tory press can't turn mild mannered pledges into massive wedge issues. When they do pull these sorts of tricks the carefully cultivated vibes will insulate Starmer and co. from attack. So goes the theory, but in practice we're seeing a word more damaging than boring cropping up in poll findings: weak. By refusing to define yourself politically, the Tories will have a go for you. Predictably, the Captain Hindsight monicker has taken off, something Starmer might have avoided had he challenged the government's Covid strategy at the time instead of going along and uttering process criticisms. His silence on the train strikes won't save him from getting depicted as the RMT's marionette. And on it will go. We can write the headlines now.

In conventional political terms, there's never been a better time to be boring. The chaos and division of the Johnson years have produced a large section of the electorate who want to switch off from the antics and shenanigans, safe in the knowledge there's a competent hand on the tiller and things are improving. As cookie cutter politicians go, this should be Starmer's moment. He was made for it. But thanks to political cowardice and an absence of nous, he's trying his damnedest to pass the opportunity up.

Image credit


David said...

God I wish he would read your posts.

PurplePete said...

Like you say, if only Starmer was just boring. I struggle to see what value he brings to the Labour leadership. He's a crap rhetorician, he's dishonest, he's craven and he sounds like Norman Wisdom. Like a fart in a lift: he stinks on every level.

Ken said...

Just as I read this, the likely replacement list popped up.
Wes Streeting
Lisa Nandy
Yvette Cooper
Angela Raynor - the only one whose TU donations are more than private donations
Rachel Reeves
Andy Burnham
and one I’ve never heard of
If I was a betting man, which I’m not except for the occasional punt on politics, I’d bet on Angela Raynor on the basis of her showing the last time. However, if Labour wins Wakefield, which seems likely, and Currygate goes away, then it’s all just fantasy politics.

Anonymous said...

Burnham's out of the picture cos he's not an MP. Smart money's on Streeting as continuity Blair/Starmer/anti-Corbyn. Raynor & Clive Lewis would be the best ticket but will never happen.

Graham said...

Boring isn't a personal attribute of Starmer - it is the manifestation of Labour politics.

Labour can do about the cost of living crisis or inflation without adopting radical left wing policies. It's not going to do this so it is reduced to gesture politics or saying nothing.

Boredom is the sound of a party who's only role is not being the Tories but has run out of any alternative to the Tory agenda.