His essay reads like a highlights reel of focus-grouped Blairite platitudes
Is it possible to read 12,000 words and emerge with less of an idea of a man and his politics than the one you had before starting? Unfortunately, it’s not quite clear what Keir Starmer’s “essay” is. As an article it feels light on content, as if stretched out to try to meet an editor’s word count; as a love letter it’s not winning anyone back. Instead, it reads like a (very) extended highlights reel of focus-grouped Blairite-cum-soft-Left platitudes.
This piece exists in the lexical world where opportunities must be seized, potential fulfilled, power harnessed, and productivity unlocked. The private sector is either “brilliant, innovative” or else it has an “innovative brilliance”. Sentences have verbs, but sometimes it’s not clear what action these verbs relate to — under a Labour government, “community, wellbeing, security and opportunity” would be “fleshed out”, which is nice, but doesn’t mean anything. There is the usual attempt to distinguish patriotism from nationalism; communities are good and culture war is bad.
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What lies behind this inability to communicate?
In a recent review of Sally Rooney’s milquetoast but pristine millennial erotica, Stephen Marche describes the transition in literary style from the Voice to the Pose. The Voice, a product of post-war literature’s emphasis on identity and experience, encouraged verbal originality and idiosyncrasy, the fullness of personality poured onto a page. It was flawed, often belligerent and short-sighted, lacking the range of the modernists or the authority of earlier writers. But at least it had spirit.
The Pose, however, is a product of distinctly 21st Century anxieties — its “foremost goal” is to “not to make any mistakes.” It is “language trying not be language, with the combed-through feeling of cover letters to job applications in which a spelling mistake might mean unemployment.” And as with Starmer’s brief reflections on his upbringing, “the style grows less personal even as the auto-fictional content grows more confessional.”
The trend Marche noticed is not just a reflection of changing prose styles but a wider flattening of culture. Creases are ironed, imperfections eliminated, character crushed in pursuit of a lowest-common-denominatorism. Nowhere is this truer than in politics and particularly within Labour, the party of the perpetually furrowed brow. (If we have one politician left who is of the Voice, it is probably the prime minister and perhaps that is why he is still regarded as more ‘real’ than the rest of them.)
It is indicative of something else, too. Not just a leader, or a party, but an entire political class that has run out of road. After a world-altering pandemic, all we can now do, Starmer writes, is “repair the public finances.” Where is the courage or creativity or vitality, the vision of how we might live different, better lives? The world has moved on from the purgatory of the pre-crash noughties, but our politics and our political class still seem stuck in it.
So don’t waste your time reading this 12,000 word cover letter. Go outside and read something else, something unpolluted by the torpid air of British politics.