by Tobias Phibbs
Thursday, 23
September 2021
Review
16:32

Keir Starmer strikes a 12,000 word long pose

His essay reads like a highlights reel of focus-grouped Blairite platitudes
by Tobias Phibbs

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.

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.

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago

Having no desire to read his pamphlet I’m grateful you saved me the effort – but having sat through his dismal “Fork in the Road” speech at the beginning of the year, your critique comes as no great surprise.
Having learned the lesson from Miliband, at least he only wrote a pamphlet, instead of carving his 10 Commandments Principles on stone tablets. I rather suspect he and his team rattled off 9 completely unoriginal platitudes for Sir Keir’s “Starmon on the Mount” and then, having kicked around various ideas including something about not coveting your neighbour’s ass, settled on that old favourite – ‘Patriotism’. But as a sop to Islingtonians who might otherwise have suffered a pearl-clutching fit of the vapours, diluted the toxicity of the idea by distinguishing it from ‘Nationalism’.
Earlier in the year, Starmer’s woeful media advisors let it be known that, among their attempts at rebranding would be, “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.”
Sure, that’ll win round Red Wall voters, just by Starmer cynically draping himself in the flag because a focus group told him (much to his surprise) that most people don’t actually despise Britain, or wish to see the monarchy abolished.
And I’m sure his professed love of democracy will convince all those who watched his 4 year campaign to thwart Brexit.
Starmer really isn’t getting much help from his team, if that’s the best they can do. Blair’s odious-but-undeniably-slick media machine is a distant memory. The current Labour press team is embarrassingly amateurish by comparison and clearly don’t understand the concept of “Under-promise and over-deliver”. They breathlessly previewed his aforementioned speech, promising it to be “on the scale of the 1945 Beveridge Report”, and then had their man deliver a sub-Miliband yawnathon, droning on in increasingly dull and uninspiring platitudes, hidden within which were only 2 discernible policies – both of which had already been suggested (and better) by a Conservative think tank. Rather than a “Fork in the Road” it was more “Follow the same path, only 4 paces behind”
What Starmer and “Starmerism” – if that really is a thing – have yet again failed to answer is ‘What is the current Labour party for? Whose interests do they seek to serve and promote?’
It’s certainly not workers. Except maybe some of those in the public sector. Most of the working class, whose interests the party was founded to serve, have long been an embarrassment to the Labour leadership. Emily Thornberry’s Van & St George’s Flag tweet, and Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy, were just moments that publicly laid bare a view that has been prevalent within Labour HQ for years.
John McTernan, Blair’s advisor, put it most succinctly when he dismissed working class supporters as the “lumpen mass with their half-formed thoughts and fully-formed prejudices”, and urged the party to ignore them and focus instead on ethnic minority voters, who could be attracted to Labour by stoking their sense of grievance.
The Labour front bench of recent years, whether NuLabour centrists or unreconstructed Trots, seems to have an agenda completely at odds with the hopes, fears and aspirations of their former heartlands – yet still imagined those voters were theirs to command by right.
Nothing that Starmer has written, said or done is likely to win them back to the cause. Though plenty that he’s said and done will have persuaded former supporters that he is a duffer. A North London fauxialist who seems to have wafer thin policy positions backed up by no principles whatsoever.
Even the cheerleading Starmtroopers over at the Guardian are struggling to back him – with several conceding that he’s going nowhere and his only hope of gaining ground is for the Conservatives to do something to lose support.
Starmer is an uninspiring, charisma-free technocrat, with no instinct for leadership. The Tories will never need any campaign poster against him, other than showing the Leader and his gobby deputy kneeling to BLM.
The sole reason for Conservatives to kneel should be in thanks for only having had to face Miliband, then Corbyn and now Starmer, and praying their good fortune holds.
As for myself, I’d sooner have a functioning opposition, that will force the Govt to up their game. For the last several years it has been like playing tennis without the net, against a man without a racket …. who insists your Ace is merely a social construct.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

Sounds like he’s been the to Harry and Meghan School of Word Salad…err, sorry, Writing.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

Admittedly I haven’t read the whole 12,000 (or 14,000 if you believe the Guardian – but who does these days?) words, but lol at the reported “allow the public to take back control of their lives” from the leader of a so-called opposition party who has repeatedly goaded a maliciously incompetent government into ever more restrictions and tyranny. A Labour government would now have us all locked up for life – the public know that, Starmer’s MPs know that, Guardian journos know that, Starmer himself knows that, but none of them have the moral courage to stop it.

George Glashan
George Glashan
1 year ago

focus-grouped Blairite platitudes won three elections, just sayin

William Cable
William Cable
1 year ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Back when that kind of thing was new. People are wiser to it now

jill dowling
jill dowling
1 year ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Nobody reads anything these days

Will R
Will R
1 year ago

Great article, loved the ‘torpid air of British politics’

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

Did a quick Ctrl+F on that essay. The word ‘immigration’ appears exactly once. The word ‘trust’ appears 4 times, 3 of which are in the citations section at the end (Nuffield Trust, Trussell Trust).
O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Last edited 1 year ago by Tom Watson