By Benjamin Martin
The people want personality, not just policy - and Keir Starmer is the political equivalent of porridge.
You could hear the church bells ringing ominously, in a manner which would otherwise indicate an imminent funeral procession. The results of the so-called ‘Super Thursday’ elections were interesting to say the least, but one apparent trend was that the Labour Party has failed to regain the support they so catastrophically lost in December 2019. It would seem, therefore, that the church bells were forebodingly ringing in respect for the end of Sir Keir Starmer’s stint as party leader.
The acclaimed saviour of Labour after their worst performance in a General Election since 1935, Sir Keir was perceived as a moderate alternative to the Corbyn era’s return to the party’s socialist roots. Yet, while Starmer may be widely recognised as further politically right of his predecessor, there are still a multitude of issues surrounding his leadership, not least the fact that we don’t really know what he stands for.
It is difficult not to admire Starmer’s pragmatic approach to opposition during the pandemic. Admittedly, he has been too weak on the odd occasion, but in the midst of a national crisis, co-operation in the public interest is always advised. However, despite this initial policy, the degree of the criticism to which he has been subject has evidently motivated him to perform a rapid U-turn. Consequently, he has launched a tirade of attacks on the Government for even the most trivial incidents, not least how the Prime Minister paid for his wallpaper.
Simply, this line of attack is pathetic. It’s even more enfeebled than his initial strategy. Instead of advocating pertinent and substantial arguments, Starmer has opted to fixate on inferior inconsistencies in a desperate attempt to exacerbate them into some form of national scandal. It clearly backfired on him tremendously. Meanwhile, there are genuine questions being asked about illegal lobbying and the distribution of PPE contracts which have seemingly been set aside in favour of these petty and impertinent uncertainties.
Thus, it’s no surprise that the electorate rejected Labour in so many areas, not least their former northern-strongholds such as Hartlepool and Tees Valley. To Joe Bloggs on the street, Starmer stands for nothing at the moment besides his wishy washy changes in attitude towards the Government. Corbyn may have wholeheartedly failed, but at least people were aware of what he stood for. That’s democracy at work, he presented an idea which simply wasn’t in tune with the national appetite. Starmer, on the other hand, is as transparent in his convictions as a brick wall.
The ambiguity of his beliefs are not, however, the only cause for concern. Arguably, a result of his leadership which is an even greater hindrance to his party is a factor which has, in many ways, become far more pivotal in politics these days: personality.
This may sound quite cruel, and if I may disclaim before I elaborate further, I do quite like Keir Starmer as an individual and I believe he is a perfectly amicable man. However, it is needless to say that his personality is not the most exciting. To be perfectly honest, he’s bland. He’s like porridge, sure he could be capable of doing some good, but he’s just a bit plain.
Usually, a politician who personifies the colour beige would not be out of the ordinary. But for the past several decades, the personality of our political leaders has evidently become a far more important issue to the electorate. Blair was the charismatic alternative to the inherently grey John Major. Cameron presented a youthful alternative to the mundane Gordon Brown. Theresa May fared worse against Corbyn than her successor because she didn’t embrace Johnson’s unique personality.
It is an interesting trend, and perhaps the fact that the more boring Prime Ministers in recent years have arguably been more focused on getting on with the job is another indicator of an underlying issue in the mindsets of the electorate. But I digress. Starmer is always going to be at a disadvantage to Johnson simply due to the Prime Minister’s extraordinary and intriguing personality.
For all his flaws, Boris must surely be respected for the way in which he penetrated the barrier into politics. He presented himself as a real man of the people. This buffoonish, scruffy, down to earth eccentric with inexorable wit. He has never taken himself very seriously, and the people like this.
When you think about it, there is so much he can get away with which would have been political suicide for any other mainstream political figure. Could you imagine the reaction to an unflattering photo of Boris eating a bacon sandwich? He’d be speaking to the press at the first opportunity having a laugh at himself for it. If someone egged him, he would respond with some amusing remark about how he had egg on his face, or something funnier to that end.
It may sound like I’m trying to worship the man, but I believe it’s quite an objective fact that he has built his career and the success of it on the foundation of his peculiar personality. Against his unflappability, Starmer appears awkward and a little uncomfortable in certain situations. Consider the recent incident where he was prohibited from entering a pub. He looked quite sad, and I felt bad for him as a result. But it certainly didn’t convince me of his ability as a leader. If the same had happened to Boris, we would be treated to yet another memorable gaffe which, if anything, helped to improve his popularity.
In essence, therefore, it isn’t a matter of Starmer simply changing party policy, direction or the faces on his frontbench. Rather, if Labour are to succeed again under his stewardship, he must seek to change the public perception of himself. This is the primary inhibition upon Labour today and it will continue to serve as one so long as a personality less engaging than Mr Johnson’s is at its helm.
However, it would be misleading for me to conclude that personality has been the entire reason for Labour’s failure to re-enter government for over a decade. The aforementioned reasons certainly served a vital role in its defeats last week, but a greater deterrent to their ability to progress still remains; there is a rather gargantuan elephant in the room: Tony Blair.
It is very easy to pin all the blame onto Blair, and it may be a bit generic to do so. Yet, it doesn’t require an IQ of 150 to recognise that he hasn’t done his party many favours. This was a view I heard Peter Obourne propagate in a recent interview, and it does hold a lot of validity. The gist of it is that Blair neglected the working-class base of Labour support in favour of appealing to the rest of the nation.
The impact of this trend was most evident in the most recent elections, but it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge Brexit as another factor. But even without our withdrawal from the EU, Labour was still suffering in their former heartlands.
This all resorts back to the fact that Blair’s approach in 1997, the transformation of an outdated socialist platform into ‘New Labour’ was the only way which could ensure victory for the party. Due to Blair’s failings and the inherent aversion to the term ‘Blairite’ within Labour, it is now seemingly impossible for the party to ever attempt to return to this nature of campaigning, which in turn is arguably the only way they will be able to secure an electoral victory in the future.
I’m not suggesting that Labour will never win another election, but the combination of these factors, Starmer’s personality (or lack thereof) and ambiguous convictions, and the memory of Blair, have undeniably debilitated the party to quite a critical extent. They have attempted to reverse the damage Blair inflicted upon them by swinging in the opposite direction with Corbyn. It clearly didn’t work. Whether or not they will be able to once again rebrand themselves, either under Starmer or another leader, into a moderate and pragmatic force still remains uncertain. Either way, it is evident that there are underlying problems which will continue to impede progress if they are unaddressed.
Image credit: Chatham House