Keir Starmer declared a few months ago that Labour was “coming home”.
Where exactly is home for Labour? The answer was decisively revealed this week by the leader’s conference speech: home is an Islington townhouse in the year 1996. What a time to be British! Hugh Grant is shagging Liz Hurley. Princess Diana is sparklingly alive. Football means Skinner and Baddiel, not Heysel and Hillsborough. Damon and Noel are the new Mick and John. Somehow, Ian Hislop is actually quite funny.
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Bonkers, barmy, grotesque Tories in pin-stripe suits dusted with dandruff are going mental over Europe. But on the telly, inspiring Tony and pragmatic Gordon are preparing, as smoothly professional as stockbrokers, for power. Things can only get… better.
Starmer did not have to mention Blair on Wednesday. The spirit of Tone was lurking underneath every word, dressed in greasy overalls, wrenching every rhetorical bolt into place. Tough on crime? Absolutely. Education? Say it three times baby.
More important than anything Starmer said was Peter Mandelson’s remark to Seumas Milne: “We’re back in control.”
Speaking of figures from the past who consistently ruin the breakfasts of Daily Mail readers, Gina Miller is back too. New New Labour was not the only centre party to stagger on to the scene in the last few days.
The party’s policies are yet to be announced, but they will be a homecoming for Miller as well. You have to imagine that they will be Rejoin-ishly pro-EU and described everywhere as “centrist”. Like every middle-aged product of British centrism, whether it is a political party, or a newspaper columnist, True & Fair would be better named: Let Down & Fed Up & Really Quite Tired.
Miller is, at least, about a thousand times more interesting than Sir Keir. In the long 2016 era, when the British middle-class were lost in a prolonged and anxious freak out, she was easily the most charismatic and exciting Remainer personality.
The others were lame. Elsewhere there was only terrible hair (A.C. Grayling), or needling over-familiarity (Alastair Campbell, Andrew Adonis), or sad, sullen machismo (Bob Geldof, James O’Brien, David Aaronovitch), or… Femi.
Miller was their antidote and foil. She intrigued in all senses. She was a cigar-smoking sports racer, and a parachutist. Her background was pure 1980s, pure Thatcherite graft. After her family lost its fortune, she chewed her way back through the class system, from hard-luck indigence to a £7 million Chelsea villa, by way of the City. She was serious and respected. A lawyerly battle axe. Joan of Arc to Remainers; the Terminator to Brexiteers.
She took flak, both of the legitimate and grimly racist sort. Her most intelligent profilers wondered whether her high-wire legal challenges to Brexit were motivated by “an extreme sense of civic duty” or the chance of another adrenaline rush.
The same question hovers over her new party. In a sense though the answer doesn’t matter. Like Starmer’s zombie centrism, True & Fair will fail, because there is no market for this politics anymore. Barely months have passed since the last attempts to rebuild the centre.
During the Brexit years, centrist fever dreams rolled above the land like rain clouds. In 2017, a Twitter-famous tax lawyer called Jolyon Maugham wanted to launch a new party called “Spring”. His plans were big, massively big. According to the Guardian: “He would hold a 28-day festival at the football stadium in Maidenhead, [Theresa] May’s constituency. Each day would be dedicated to the national dress and cuisine of a different EU member state. For the finale, Maugham planned to announce that he was standing in Maidenhead as a Spring candidate.” That sounds like satire written after a long, drunken seance with the hooting spirit of Auberon Waugh, but apparently it’s true. In the end Maugham “decided he didn’t have enough time to go ahead with it”. A wise choice!
There were smaller, but no less Partridge-into-a-dictaphone visions that year. Former George Osborne aide James Chapman called for an anti-Brexit party called ‘The Democrats’ in a Twitter meltdown, which only ended after he’d demanded — sad machismo again — that Theresa May personally debate him outside parliament. Even PR Week (not exactly Guido Fawkes) was moved to call this “an extraordinary rant”. A few months later, the then Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe proposed setting up a party called “The Radicals” — pro-tech, pro-Europe, social-liberal — and ultimately, anti-ever amounting to anything.
The biggest centrist bubble blown and pricked was Change UK. Or was it The Independent Group for Change? Or the UK’s Independently Grouped Change? Or the UK Group’s Independent Change? Nobody — not even lead member Anna Soubry, who called the party “Change.org” in the Commons — was very sure. (The only Change UK question anybody really wanted to know the answer to was what moisturiser Chuka Umunna used. Sadly, he never told us.)
Formed by 11 MPs fleeing Labour and the Tories, and born in Nando’s, Change UK died in bathos when every single member lost their seat at the last general election. But for me, Change.Independence.UK only really expired for good when its former MEP candidate Gavin Esler was booted off Celebrity Masterchef this summer after serving a dessert condemned as “incomplete” by John Torrode. The judge’s cruel reception of this pudding, which was also compared to “soup”, exactly mirrored the British public’s reaction to Change UK, namely: “WTF is this supposed to be lads.”
Anyway, by 2019 the public was done with soup. They wanted cake. At least Esler reached the Masterchef quarter finals — Change UK didn’t make it past two elections.
How many centrist parties have to get Hindenburged before this all stops? The strangest thing about Miller, and Starmer-Mandelson is that they can’t locate the centre ground at all. If there is a centre ground today in England, it is enormously unpalatable to those who self-identify as centrists. They would not vote for the “Hang the nonces, fund the NHS party”, but that’s where the centre is now.
The centre wants nationalised railways and birched criminals. It wants its borders closed and its healthcare free at the point of access. It is fear and loathing, and charity and kindliness; a truly mutant hybrid of Paul Dacre and Jeremy Corbyn. Pundits would love the English to be the stout and sensible strivers described in Orwell’s The Lion and The Unicorn; sadly, I fear the reality is that they are more like the suspicious and cruel folk described in Chesterton’s The Secret People.
And they’re getting stranger all the time. England is weirding. David Icke has never been so adored. Football fans descended on Nuneaton to defend a half-forgotten statue of George Eliot from BLM; no, they had not read Middlemarch. Parents style their children as Captain Tom. Sports mascots become ultra-large poppies every November. Jackie Weaver publishes books. There are candlelit vigils or protests on a seemingly daily basis.
The mood is jittery, not only in the petrol queues. The writer Clive Martin calls it “Radical Normal”. Gina Miller and Keir Starmer probably don’t know much about Radical Normal, but it has more to do with the future of British politics than they do.