“We’re competent adults” is not a substantive electoral strategy.
“Dude, people knew that calling their congressman wasn’t gonna do shit. If you show people a problem but don’t provide them with a real solution to it, then they’ll just learn to live with the problem.” – Squeeze, Sorry to Bother You
We are a year and one month into Keir Starmer’s tenure as leader of the Labour Party, having ascended into the position over opponents neo-liberal Lisa Nandy and Jeremy Corbyn-loyalist Rebecca Long-Bailey with a pretty substantial 56.2% of the first-round voting. Whereas Long-Bailey and Nandy each represented the bitterly-divided wings of the party which had demonstrably (as we know thanks to a leaked internal report from April 2020) set about self-sabotaging during Corbyn’s tenure, Starmer campaigned on a promise of unity. Of bringing the party back together, retaking the “Red Wall” of Northern constituencies in traditional Labour heartlands lost during the catastrophic 2019 general election, whilst at the same time representing a clean break from Corbyn’s leadership in terms of image and party control in an effort to win back disillusioned voters. Several political columnists loudly trumpeted that “finally, there’s a grown-up in charge” whilst much attention was put on Starmer’s record as a QC pre-politics, somebody capable of putting together damning lawyerly cases that can pierce through the noise and hold bad/unqualified people to account, and how that would send Boris Johnson and the Tories’ popularity down the toilet one day at a time.
And… look, I’ve tried to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt so far. Yes, I was and still am a Corbyn supporter whose own bio on this very site reads “naïve progressive,” so I get Starmer loyalists’ natural response to that assertion to be a mildly-incredulous rolling of the eyes. But it is true. I have tried giving Starmer the benefit of the doubt for the last year cos, even as an amateur when it comes to political machinations, I do understand the seeming no-win roomful-of-hot-coals he’s inherited. The Labour civil war did not stop with the ousting of Corbyn. The 2019 election was a legitimate slaughter worse than any suffered by the party in almost a century. He’s got a still-powerful tabloid and broadcast press ready to pillory him no matter what he ends up doing and no matter how stupid the reason. Johnson and the Tories keep trying to spin long-overdue examinations into Britain’s history of celebrated systemic racism and transphobia, much like the US, as a “culture war” in prime *Mad Max “that’s bait”.gif* that worked wonders for them in 2019. And, of course, there’s been COVID-19 hanging over everything, the kind of traumatic disaster that naturally gives governments in power more airtime and a public who (understandably) doesn’t want to hear an opposition utilise this situation to go straight into party political campaigning; they want unity and decisiveness.
So, trust me, I get it and I have really tried to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt over the past year. And, before anybody starts, I will still be voting Labour at every chance I get because they are still the best chance we have to get the Tories out which takes priority over everything else – although that lack of realistic options resulting in a by-default two-party system (cos come on nobody is voting for Lib Dems with campaign material like this) in a broken voting process is a massive problem which needs addressing. But at a certain point, that grace period expires and cautiousness becomes at best cowardice and at worst arse-showing. So, with Starmer having been in the driver’s seat for over a year and a wave of local elections tomorrow, I have to honestly ask this question:
What does Keir Starmer actually stand for as Labour leader?
It’s a fair question to have. A year as party leader, even in the midst of a global pandemic sucking up all the attention and oxygen in the room, should be ample enough time to put together a prospective stable shadow government with a robust potential policy programme against the party in power and effectively communicate it to the public at large. Especially when you’re the runaway biggest opposition party, the face of the place.
And, yet… I honestly couldn’t tell you a single policy of Keir Starmer’s Labour. Not a single concrete policy or pledge that he or his party are committed to. Although I don’t go fully submerged in day-to-day politics, I am the kind of person who actively checks the news every day despite it only ever making them mad or sad and I can’t tell you that, so just imagine what it’s like for someone even less politically active. It took him until late February, ten months into his tenure, to finally hold a party speech with some kind of unique policy vision and even that was mainly a series of mostly substance-less buzzwords lacking the detail and ideological coherency of Corbyn’s various (arguably too detailed) manifestos. I know that he is against the Tories’ new draconian crime and sentencing bill, albeit only because his actually telling the party to vote against it instead of abstain made headlines for how it represented a u-turn from the initial abstention plan. (Something tells me the man who lead the CPS against the 2011 London rioters doesn’t care too much about rights to protest.)
In fact, that’s pretty much the only thing I can definitively state he is against at the moment, since his time at the helm has so far been marked by a strange love affair with abstention. COVID tiers, the Covert Human Intelligence Source bill which would allow undercover cops to break the law in service of their investigations, the Overseas Operations Bill which would include a presumption against prosecution for the actions of British soldiers serving abroad (at least until the very last reading). Those last two being especially curious since Starmer made his name as a public defender of the Human Rights Act, which those bills seemingly stood in opposition to. Of course, that would just be another former pledge/stance of his being added to the sacrificial pile. I remember when he pledged to fight for the return of free EU movement, only to go on live television this January and throw that under the bus. Instead of party unity, he’s further stoked the ongoing Labour civil war with the worst-possible handling of Corbyn, Long-Bailey and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi in the antisemitism clean-up. He’s still refusing to hold Johnson to account for the ongoing Brexit omnishambles despite insisting during his campaign that he would. Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, transphobia, white nationalism; all things he’s failed to effectively call out in a timely manner at best.
Honestly, I only know two things that Labour currently definitively stand for. The first is patriotism which, err, is not actually a substantive political stance you can base party identities around unless you’re going to go full right-wing nationalism and the Tories already have that market covered. The second is pro-competency and anti-sleaze. For much of that first year in office, Starmer has spent PMQs “forensically” taking apart both general Tory policy and Johnson’s character and trying to position the government as being chronically incompetent. Which they are, demonstrably, over the course of the last 11 years not just through COVID. In recent weeks, upon fresh public revelations of governmental corruption and abuse of power, Starmer has gone all-in on that attack line in the run-up to these local elections, attempting to paint the government as an elitist corrupt chumocracy of self-interested bullies who turn nasty when you call them out on that. Which they are, demonstrably, also over the last 11 years, and they do.
That’s not inherently a bad thing to be doing since, again, the Tories are demonstrably incompetent, sleazy, self-interested liars and they should never be allowed to escape that tar-and-feathering. What is a bad thing, and the major pitfall Starmer and Labour’s campaign team at large have made, is when you make seemingly your entire platform “those guys are corrupt idiots, vote for us.” Because, y’know, that’s not a substantive political platform. That’s a reason not to vote for the other guy, it’s not a reason to vote for you.
For starters, and the most obvious danger zone: positioning yourself solely as the adults in the room who will be competent in the face of ineptly corrupt bozos means that the second your opponents demonstrate even basic competency causes your entire electoral platform to be utterly wrecked. Voters have short memories and like to focus more on the good times than the hard ones they had to suffer through, even if said good times arrived effectively out of luck. So, if the government you’ve spent a year building your entire platform around their being useless manages to pull off a big win, you got nothing to respond with. Thatcher won her government a second term largely as a result of this. This kind of position only works for the loyalist party base, it doesn’t persuade swing voters or undecideds who want substantive reasons to vote beyond “it’s us or the gun.” Johnson and the Tories are undergoing that good times glow right now with the vaccination programme which even I, someone whose life motto is “puer autem ¡llorum,” can begrudgingly admit hasn’t been terribly handled (especially in comparison to the rest of the pandemic response). Yet Labour persist with accusations of improper funding for No. 11 refurbishments instead of anything else.
But let’s say that your opponents don’t magically fall into a boom period that leads to people forgetting about almost 128,000 UK citizens dead and counting (at time of writing). Fact of the matter is that attacking Tories over incompetency and corruption is not the silver bullet Labour leadership and circlejerk political commentators clearly believe it to be. To think otherwise is to overlook the fact that a lot of voters, not all and maybe only some but clearly enough to make an impact if current projections are anything to go by, know these things to be true and simply do not care.
There are multiple sub-reasons for this, of varying severity and varying convertibility. On the one hand, there is a very real and very understandable misbelief held by many working-class voters (in particular) that sleaze and uselessness is just part and parcel of politics. That everyone’s on the take and any promise any party makes is just a lie to get themselves in power, which is a view that disillusions voters, allows those corrupt assholes to skirt by unchecked, and fosters a cynicism when actually passionate and radical and intelligent politicians come along with ambitious plans to make things better instead of empty buzzwords. In the game of politics, even if that line does work, it’s a short-term gain capable of long-term backfire. It’s all well and good attacking the opposition’s character, but you still need to give the people something to vote for otherwise they’re just going to back the devil they know again.
And, of course, there’s that third reason. That many of the people voting Tory in the face of everything this last decade – because, again, this is not just COVID – genuinely want this. They’ve seen the serial incompetency, the inflammatory openly hateful rhetoric, the 128,000 dead, the rising unemployment rate, the human rights abuses, the economic disparities and they are fine with it. Fine with it enough to actively keep voting for it, in any case. And you can blame the (provenly biased) right-wing media or broken first-past-the-post voting system or government-backed anti-intellectualism social stance or culture wars or whatever you want, but fact of the matter is that it should not be like this and Tory vote shares should not be this high. You need to show people an alternative, a real alternative, otherwise they either get complacent or they get actively courted over to the far-right dog whistles of the current Conservative Party.
Take for example, and the committed progressive in me absolutely hates to give this man any modicum of props, Tony Blair. The last man to successfully lead Labour into Downing Street. When he took over party leadership in 1994, he immediately set about reforming Labour’s image and standing with radical shifts from prior party politics that – whilst bitterly divisive and ultimately sending the formerly-socialist party down a centrist rabbit hole to its current no man’s land predicament – were clear and unmistakable and staunchly in opposition to the incompetent disliked Tory government in charge. He spotted that shift in the political landscape, immediately pivoted and started actively campaigning in a way that got his name and policies out there, and put up the believable perception of something different to a degree that meant his Labour could landslide their way to electoral victories in previously-safe Tory seats. (Yes, this is heavily reductive of how things went down. Yes, I know that Blair’s Labour perhaps irreparably destroyed the party and its identity. Yes, I know he is allegedly back in the Starmer fold alongside actual Blairite appointees. Don’t @ me, I’m making a point.)
Or, for a more recent example, how about the shock success of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the 2010 General Election. Partly thanks to the introduction of televised election debates meaning that the Lib Dems were able to get clear mainstream primetime exposure without being drowned out by the deafening rabble of New Labour and Tory, the perpetual third-wheel of British politics positioned itself as distinctively different to its opponents. With a green-centric youth-oriented manifesto (albeit one with several alarming right-wing red-flags befitting their ultra-centrist approach), Clegg and his party, as well as David Cameron and his resurgent Conservatives, offered up genuinely different visions for how Britain would look under their leadership compared to Gordon Brown’s Labour in addition to attacking them over serial incompetency and the 2007 financial crisis. And whilst the Lib Dems’ vote share only increased by 1% come election day, and saw them actually lose five seats, they managed to play spoiler enough to create a potential hung parliament, something inconceivable in elections before and since.
(Of course, they immediately sold out their principles and vision to jump into bed with the Tories, subsequently breaking most of their manifesto pledges, but you get what I mean in both of these cases.)
Now, I know what the big counterpoint to my argument about Starmer’s current nothing of a political stratagem is: “what about Joe Biden?” The current U.S. President, after all, spent much of his 2020 campaign against incumbent President Donald Trump also running on a very centrist substance-less “would you look at this clown, vote for me” messaging platform. He pitched himself heavily as “a return to normalcy” following the chaos and division of the Trump years, only really committing to and campaigning on specific policy pledges in the last month or so of the trail. And he won on that! He received the most votes of any presidential candidate in US history (81.2 million)! He retook the White House and Congress and the Senate! So, that naturally means such a campaign strategy still works in these heightened political times, right? Trojan horse your way in to then start pushing through more progressive agendas with your majority mandate.
Whilst it is indeed true that Biden won, that’s only looking at the ends and not the data and details leading up to those ends. Yes, Joe Biden received the most votes of any presidential candidate in US history. You know who received the second-most? Incumbent Donald Trump with 74.2 million, an increase of almost 12 million votes from his performance in 2016 (62.9 million). 12 million people spent four years in Trump’s America, looked at Biden’s campaign and went “yeah, I’m so good with this right now that I’ll vote for four more years of it.” It really should not have been that close. Honestly, I don’t find it hard to believe that Trump’s failure to do anything about COVID was the deciding factor and that he’d have been re-elected handily were COVID not a thing or handled better. Yes, Democrats retook the Senate, but that was heavily down to the influence and tireless campaigning efforts of progressive Stacey Abrams in her home state of Georgia, flipping the red state blue after already pulling off the herculean task of taking those Senate races to run-offs. And, well, Biden’s still nowhere near as progressive as he frankly should be.
To re-iterate: I understand and sympathise with the unenviable task that Starmer has by becoming Labour leader. I know that you need to win over swing voters and undecideds in order to take victory in an election. I know that this is a marathon not a sprint, especially after 2019. I know that Starmer has definitely been hurt by not being able to, for much of the year, get out and travel up and down the country to properly canvas and interact with constituents to make his case heard, instead being limited to PMQs with a Prime Minister who simply refuses to answer questions most of the time in an environment most of the public (read: the non-politically attuned who make up most of that swing/undecided vote) does not pay attention to. I know that he will be pilloried no matter what he does, especially by the media. I will still be voting Labour any chance I get and I am not advocating Starmer’s sacking when these byelections inevitably go horribly for him. Politics is not sportsball, you don’t keep sacking managers midseason every time they hit a slump.
But this? Spending an entire year defining himself and his party entirely by what they don’t stand for and refusing to provide any substantive policies or political stances, instead just going full bore on “Tories are useless, vote for us” centrism without offering alternatives or reasons for people to do so? This isn’t working, and it’s not “a cry-baby emotional response” to point that out. Boris Johnson is an idiot, a flagrantly corrupt and bigoted and incompetent idiot, but he’s a smart idiot. That’s his whole brand. Remember when he greeted journalists doorstepping him over his Islamophobic comments comparing Muslim women wearing the burka to letterboxes and bank robbers by offering them cups of tea that they took whilst refusing to answer or apologise for his actions? Charges of incompetency, sleaze and bigotry don’t stick to Johnson because that’s what people like about him, he’s Teflon in that regard, and it’s dumbassery of the highest order to make that your entire campaign base when even the slightest modicum of tact or Prime Minister-ialship from him is considered a praiseworthy event.
I would genuinely not be surprised to find Johnson calling another general election before the year’s out, especially if the byelections do as well for him as they’re predicted to. Ride that boost of the vaccine rollout and being the man to have successfully delivered both Brexit (whilst everybody’s continued to forget about it and the chaos it is wreaking) and a COVID cure (whilst downplaying the 128,000 dead as tragic yet inevitable casualties of war or some shit). Pull the trigger early enough that the worst of the financial and mental effects from his handling of both COVID and Brexit haven’t yet hit so he doesn’t have to risk that backlash electorally. Take advantage of a weaksauce opposition which has yet to set up a coherent identity for itself with a leader whom Labour heartland loyalists are tarring as “a Tory in a red tie” and steamroll his way into a landslide five-year guarantee. That’s what I’d do if I were him, and were someone who treated politics as a game designed only to enfranchise myself and my rich friends instead of earnestly helping ordinary people.
In the middle of his very public meltdown against Starmer’s dogged questioning over (ugh) Downing Street decoration invoices last Wednesday, whilst not actually answering the question, Johnson made a depressingly salient point by shouting “what people want to know is: what plans a Labour government might have to improve the life of people in this country.” Cos, right now, I don’t know what a Labour government might have to improve the life of people in this country and it seems the vast majority of the public don’t either. That’s why Starmer is failing with the public whilst Johnson holds steady.
At least we know what Johnson stands for, even if it’s only himself. What does Starmer? What’s the real solution? Cos Starmer right now isn’t working, centrism isn’t working, and I am tired of living with the problem.
Callie Petch is blankin’ out on all of these dipshits.