Sam Leith

Keir Starmer’s essay is a cliché-ridden disaster

Keir Starmer’s essay is a cliché-ridden disaster
(Photo: Getty)
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Many years ago, a tabloid newspaper played an unkind prank on the author of a very long and much talked-about literary novel. They sent a reporter to various bookshops to place a slip of paper into copies of the book 50 pages or so from the end. The slip said that if you phoned a particular phone number, the newspaper would pay you a fiver. Gleefully, some weeks later, they reported that nobody had telephoned to collect their prize – from which they deduced that despite its sales figures, practically nobody was actually reading the book to the end.

About halfway through reading Keir Starmer’s new pamphlet for the Fabian Society – The Road Ahead – I wondered idly whether a similar prank had been played. Somewhere in italic type, halfway through a paragraph on the penultimate page, perhaps there was a message: ‘The first person to call 1-800-KEIR gets to be Shadow Home Secretary.’ It’s the only explanation – that the document is a loyalty test aimed at a very small handful of close advisers – that I could see for such a thing to be published.

The essence of political communication is getting your message across to voters. Who on earth does Mr Starmer expect to read 12,000 words on his political vision? We live, as he will recognise, in an attention economy – where the hour or two he asks of his readers is in competition with, among other things, catching up with Vigil on iPlayer, going for a healthful country walk, or watching the old Farrow and Ball mouse-grey mellow in colour as it dries on your living-room wall.

The only people liable to read this pamphlet are people who obsessively love Keir Starmer, who won’t be persuaded by it, or people who obsessively hate Keir Starmer, who also won’t be persuaded by it. Or people who are being paid to read and write about it, like me, who will very much resent the time spent and probably do it in a slightly half-assed way, what with the whole eyes-glazing thing.

A long read aimed at a select few isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. A sober, detailed pamphlet setting out the granular details of policy, or an argument that advances the intellectual framework for a political movement, may be just the thing to share among the faithful – with careful thought then given to how to convey an emotive essence of it to the voters at large. Das Kapital for the theorists; ‘Workers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains!’ for the rank and file.

But this pamphlet is not that. Instead, it’s the pieties, bromides and abstractions of campaign-trail sloganeering stretched out at quite inordinate length.

That is what philosophers might call a category error and political communications experts would call flat incompetence. Say what you like about Dominic Cummings (everybody does, and he doesn’t mind a bit); he recognised that the attention-span of the average British voter will run to about three words. Those words don’t need to make much sense – indeed, emotive abstractions work best – but if you repeat them often enough, they’ll have some sort of effect.

The only thing striking about Starmer’s pamphlet is how ridden with cliches, how boring, how badly written it is. It is a groaning tumbril of dead metaphors trundling along the slow road to nowhere. I imagine that his retreat into mind-numbing rote phrases is, politically speaking, an effort to avoid saying anything very much at all. Groovy epigraphs from the likes of Raheem Sterling, Joe Strummer and (checks notes) Professor Sir Michael Marmot don’t do much to polish this particular jobbie.

Just the one-page Foreword alone gives us ‘what matters most’, ‘our ambitious plans to remake Britain’, ‘harness the potential’, ‘fair pay for a fair day’s work’, ‘challenges and opportunities’, ‘challenge of our generation’, ‘tackled head on’, ‘people in this country are crying out for change’, ‘the British people’, and the emetic payoff: ‘Let us take the road to a better, brighter, more secure future together.’

God help us it’s ‘Reflections’ next. And strap in for ‘New Deal’, ‘Real Power In Your Hands’, ‘A Nation Remade’, ‘The Best Start In Life’ and any number of variations on the greatest hits of political rhetoric’s equivalent of Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

Whole paragraphs sail by, like these, saying as far as I can tell literally nothing at all.

‘Over the summer, people have been cautiously but enthusiastically returning to the things they love. Pubs, cafes and restaurants have filled up. Families and friends have met without restriction. The roar of the crowd at sporting events has returned. For my own part, I was finally able to do what I always wanted to do as leader of the Labour party: take our ideas for the future to people.

I have travelled the length and breadth of the country, hearing people’s hopes and concerns, their plans to make up for lost time, their ambitions for the future. I have spoken with people of all ages, backgrounds and experiences. Some vote Labour, some vote for other parties, some do not vote at all. But everyone has a story to tell and a desire to be heard.’

Naturally, the country is ‘at a crossroads’ – which country in a political pamphlet has ever been otherwise? And of course that crossroads is, like all political crossroads, actually not a crossroads – in which typically you can turn right, left, or go straight ahead – but one of the sort that motorists will recognise as a ‘fork’ rather than a crossroads.

‘Our country is now at a crossroads. Down one path is the same old insecurity and lack of opportunity. But down the Labour one is something better: a society built on everyone’s contribution.’

He has another bash at it a few pages later and, lo, the crossroads is now a fork after all

‘Britain is at a fork in its history. Down one path lies the same old economic and societal weaknesses, with predictable consequences and squandered opportunities. Down the other is a better, bolder, brighter future, one in which we learn the lessons of the pandemic and build a new society and economy that harnesses the strength of people coming together.’

Or is this a different part of the road system? This one has some slightly different ‘same old’ things, and it contains opportunities even if they’re squandered. I can see lessons learned and strength being harnessed down the other way: is that the same as the society built on everyone’s contribution? Looks a bit more like one of those ancient Greek gymnasia where you learn reading and writing in between physical jerks. Who knows? Who cares?

But later on, whoops, it’s a crossroads again:

‘Our country now stands at a crossroads. The choice facing us is as stark as it has ever been. Down one path is the same old Tory approach to the economy and society […] The Labour path leads to a better, brighter future.’

That clumsy way with metaphor is everywhere. ‘The sound of laughter and the fizz of ideas are more potent when shared with others,’ he tells us solemnly. Drink in that potent sound. Share that fizz. Or check out Keir’s way with a painterly image.

‘There are two fundamental things we need to fix in this country: insecurity and inequality of opportunity. Wherever you look, from the housing market to jobs, from young people to old, these are the primary colours that make up the palette of challenges facing us.’

Would it be possible to make up a palette of challenges with only two primary colours? It’s certainly not possible to make up a palette of paint that way. Also, isn’t a palette generally something you paint with rather than something that faces you and that needs fixing?

I light on details like these not to be pedantic, but because they're symptomatic of writing that isn’t paying attention to what it’s saying. Political cliches are strung together here to produce something that sounds like rhetoric but contains nothing but that sound.

The supposed nub of this pamphlet – promised on the very first page and only delivered on the last one as bullet-points – is Sir Keir’s ‘Ten simple key principles to form a new agreement between Labour and the British people’.

Here, for those who don’t want to wade through the nonsense that precedes them, they are:

  • We will always put hard-working families and their priorities first.
  • If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be rewarded fairly.
  • People and businesses are expected to contribute to society, as well as receive.
  • Your chances in life should not be defined by the circumstances of your birth – hard work and how you contribute should matter.
  • Families, communities and the things that bring us together must once again be put above individualism.
  • The economy should work for citizens and communities. It is not good enough to just surrender to market forces.
  • The role of government is to be a partner to private enterprise, not stifle it.
  • The government should treat taxpayer money as if it were its own. The current levels of waste are unacceptable.
  • The government must play its role in restoring honesty, decency and transparency in public life.
  • We are proudly patriotic but we reject the divisiveness of nationalism.

See if you can find one among those that adds up to a specific promise; one among those that contains an original thought or an original turn of phrase; indeed, see if you can find one among those that is not so vague that any politician or voter could agree with it.

If, as it’s reported, Sir Keir has toiled and agonised for months to produce this cobblers, God help him and the party he leads.