The Labour leader is in trouble. His party has been cast adrift from its moorings in the working-class and is languishing in opposition. He has tried to drag Labour towards electability, but so far, his only reward has been members’ hostility and plots for his removal. If his Conservative counterpart, safe in No. 10, is hardly impressive, the voters seem to like him much more: 48 per cent see the Labour leader as simply ‘boring’ and many aren’t even sure what he stands for.
This is not a pen portrait of Keir Starmer. It is, instead, a description of George Jones, David Hare’s fictional Labour leader, and the protagonist of his 1993 play The Absence of War. However, while Jones is not real, he has more than a passing resemblance to then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
Wisely or not, and on Kinnock’s instigation, during the 1992 election period Labour allowed Hare access to its top-level strategy meetings. The playwright consequently had unrivalled access to help him craft what is possibly his most insightful political play. For while The Absence of War provides a commentary on Kinnock’s tenure, it also includes insights into the nature of the Labour party and the perils of leadership that remain relevant today.
1992 was the election Kinnock hoped would end Labour’s thirteen years in opposition; instead, it was Labour’s fourth loss in a row. This provoked some experts to wonder if the party was doomed to forever remain in the wilderness. As a result, and as we discuss in the most recent episode of the Zeitgeist Tapes podcast, a sense of fatalism pervades The Absence of War. Like all tragic heroes Jones is doomed through his own personality, which Hare presents as reflecting that of Labour as a whole.
So, we all know that – just like Kinnock – Jones is going to lose the general election he faces in the play. Hare suggests Jones has become a prisoner of his advisors, that they have suppressed his radical instincts to make him acceptable to the electorate. Jones’ chances of becoming prime minister are finally destroyed during a TV interview in which he is wrong-footed over a key Labour policy, something which confirms voters’ misgivings about his lack of grip.
This means that – with the election slipping away – the Labour leader decides to throw ‘responsibility’ aside and return to his old socialist voice, only to find that the inspiring words were no longer there. He had emasculated himself.
Many of Keir Starmer’s current problems echo those of his fictional predecessor although there are some differences. While recovering Corbynites complain that the Labour leader stands for nothing, lack of competence is however not one of his issues.
But many voters certainly look on him as more of an absence than a presence. This is perhaps not surprising given the constraints of Covid and that he has been an MP for just six years. Neil Kinnock was in the Commons for thirteen years before he became leader in 1983, although during that time – like George Jones – he had established for himself a reputation as a firebrand from which – again like Jones – he subsequently sought to distance himself.
In contrast, so far as most voters are concerned, Starmer rose to the leadership almost without trace. If Jones’ problem was that he turned his back on his authentic radical self, Starmer’s is that nobody knows if he has one.
His once-positive personal ratings having plummeted after losing the Hartlepool by-election, Starmer decided to address that concern by agreeing to be interviewed on TV by Piers Morgan as part of his Life Stories series.
For a politician so uncomfortable talking about his private life this was a big and potentially disastrous step. Morgan’s usual interviewees are fading soap stars and reality TV alumni: during its decade-long run the only other party leader to subject themselves to his tabloid probing was Gordon Brown.
Like Starmer, Brown hoped his appearance would help him win over voters. But despite shedding tears when discussing the death of his baby daughter, the infamously buttoned-up Brown failed to do enough to shift opinion. A few months later, Labour lost the 2010 election.
Starmer’s appearance was more successful. It definitely challenged perceptions of himself as ‘Sir Keir’, the (as Morgan put it) ‘robotic’ member of the metropolitan elite. The interview was however only watched by 1.6 million viewers, although this being an ITV show, most would probably have been elderly working-class voters, the very people Starmer needs to win back to the party.
And seemingly going down well with Morgan, the self-anointed King of the Anti-Woke cannot have done Starmer any harm with Conservative-voting pensioners. More work on crafting a clearer policy remains to be done but if this interview encourages Starmer to open out, it can only help Labour counter the enigma that is Boris Johnson.
In The Absence of War, David Hare implied Labour, like his character George Jones, had, as the cliché goes, ‘lost its soul’. Starmer’s critics say the same of Labour under his leadership. Like others on the left at the time, Hare wanted Labour to cast aside Kinnock’s moderation, believing that had definitively failed in 1992.
Starmer is similarly being assured that his embrace of patriotism and the toning down of aspects of Corbynism is going nowhere fast.
Yet soon after 1992, Labour was on course for its biggest ever Commons majority under Tony Blair. Quite whether Starmer can engineer a similar turnabout, time will tell. But if he does, he may well look back on his time being lightly grilled by Piers Morgan about his working-class roots and love of football as a turning point.