Here we are supposed to have the intellectual background. What is revealed is a sad lack of intellectual background. Paul Demarty reviews Keir Starmer's 'The road ahead' (Fabian Ideas, 2021, pp32, £5.95)
In my 15 or so years as a CPGB member, there have been - let us say - trying times.
I have heard Left Unity members defend overweening ‘safeguarding’ policies by breaking into song. I have read the entirety of Wes Streeting’s Wikipedia entry. I have participated in a university occupation that consented to being relocated from a large lecture theatre to an obscure classroom, so as not to cause too much bother; and in a student left conference that decided not to decide anything, so as not to be too authoritarian, and spent the rest of the available time arguing about exactly what it had decided not to decide. (At least, on that occasion, my old comrade, Laurie McCauley, thought to bring a crossword.)
However, dragging my eyes over all 11,500 torpid, forgettable words of Sir Keir Starmer’s ‘ideas pamphlet’, The road ahead, might just be the worst of them all.1 We learnt, not long ago, that Sir Keir - in simpler times - edited a Pabloite newspaper. There is no surprise that it no longer exists - editing is clearly not something that comes naturally to the Labour leader. A text smeared over 32 printed pages might as well have been a haiku. It is a literary sub-clause of Murphy’s Law: those who have nothing to say always find ways to say it at punishing length.
The task before Starmer is, ostensibly, to return Labour to power at the next time of asking. He works under considerable constraints, however. He must marginalise the left to appease the bourgeois media; he must reconnect with ‘red wall’ voters who dropped Labour over Brexit; but he must maintain some clear blue water between himself and the Tories. It is not clear that this task is even possible; but, on the basis of The road forward, it is certainly beyond our brave knight.
Apart from some prefatory remarks pointedly reminding us of his modest family background (if you have to make a big song and dance about that, you’ve already lost … ), the structure of this screed is substantially in three parts, called ‘Past’, ‘Present’, and ‘Future’. I say ‘substantially’, but only four pages are devoted to the past, and one rather gets the impression that it is more the demands of the structure than any real interest that motivates them. Indeed, he starts off, after the routine litany of Labour’s ‘great achievements’, by admonishing the party for being too backward-looking:
The Labour Party at its best does not wait around for the public to decide we are right. Instead, it adapts and updates. It does not look backwards - it marches forwards. It does not endlessly litigate the war effort - it wins the peace. It uses its history as a guide, not a parable (p9).
The only period of history discussed in the remainder of the chapter is 2010-19, in which various statistics are marshalled to show that things are much worse now and it’s the bad Tories’ fault on various fronts. The selection is so obviously a work of Blairoid triangulation that it nearly tips into self-parody: NHS backlogs and child poverty for the bleeding hearts; a rise in “anti-social behaviour”, blamed on declining police numbers, for the hanging’s-too-good set (p10).
We then move on to the ‘present’, which is to say the handling of the pandemic. And, of course, there are plenty of easy points to be scored here, given the catastrophic errors made by the government throughout 2020; but we almost wonder if Starmer is guilty of not taking his own advice from four pages earlier. If it is bad for Labour to “endlessly relitigate the war effort”, then presumably it is no use for Starmer to whinge that “the breaching of lockdown by senior members of the government undermined public faith at a crucial time”, without even naming the miscreants (we guess Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings). Boris Johnson and friends weathered this stuff at the time; now, surely, it is just old news, but not old enough for us to have any real empirical handle on whether it really did fatally ‘undermine public faith’, never mind for the Barnard Castle debacle to crystallise into an iconic image of the historical moment.
To zoom out for a moment: is this not supposed to be the grand visionary account of Starmerism? Is it not published on an imprint called Fabian Ideas? Admittedly, that phrase nowadays is a bit of an oxymoron, like - to borrow a favourite of Terry Eagleton’s - ‘business ethics’; but Starmer’s bilge barely meets that bar. We have here another few pages of the same sniping, vacuous, tactical criticisms of the government that have been the stock-in-trade of Starmer’s world-historically forgettable shadow cabinet throughout the pandemic.
The ‘Future’ section is, for the most part, a soup of ill-defined policies. (It is ever the privilege of the rightwing Labour opposition to be pedantically precise in criticisms of the government, but soft-focus on the alternatives.) Power will go out from Westminster to the localities … somehow. We will be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime. We “would put wellbeing at the heart of government decision-making”. On and on it goes.
If there is a major policy theme worth mentioning, it is the need for a great push for good new jobs. This is cast in both green terms (just don’t call it a green new deal … ) and in national-autarkic ones - the two sides perhaps best summed up in another snipe at the Johnson administration:
The government has failed to invest in the industry to manufacture wind turbines here. As a result, we find ourselves in the farcical situation of having to ship in wind turbines from Denmark and Indonesia. (p16).
For shame! This certainly is a departure from the Blairite script; but the safest imaginable one in the age of Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plans and, of course, the Tory rhetoric around ‘levelling up’ and facing up to the climate crisis and whatever else. Repeated references to “repairing the public finances” offer a hostage to future rightwing calumny, if Starmer somehow miraculously turns all this into a winning ticket.
A spectre is haunting Sir Keir - the spectre not of communism, but of a thousand focus groups. Policymaking by focus group tends to have a small-c conservative effect - the net result is that things which ‘test badly’ get taken out, rather than that amazing new ideas are brought forth. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the idea goes, Labour alienated too many people; and only by reflecting these voters’ existing prejudices back at them may victory be achieved.
The trouble is that people want different things. Starmer denies that British people are as polarised as is commonly assumed; but the text of his pamphlet is so muddled because he cannot in the end refute it. He must offer something to the more radical-liberal wing of his party - hence the climate stuff, the denunciation of Tory culture war offensives, the schmaltz-sodden tributes to the England football team, and the promise of a new Racial Equality Act to root out ‘structural racism’. Simultaneously, he has been told that voters in the towns are conservative, and so he must drape himself unconvincingly in the flag, and further proclaim that “community, family and country are not conservative or backwards ideas - they are the building blocks of strong societies” (p20). (If ever a sentence was focus-grouped to death, this is it - clinical in tone, drowning in cliché and in the end utterly meaningless.)
His attempt to square all this is to proclaim that there is an essential difference between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ (which conveniently also gives him an amalgam of the Tories and Scottish Nationalists):
Nationalists like to portray themselves as patriots. But patriotism and nationalism are not the same. In fact, they are opposites. Nationalism represents an attempt to divide people from one another; patriotism is an attempt to unite people of different backgrounds. Nationalism is about the casting out of the other; patriotism is about finding common ground. Nationalism is the flag as a threat. Patriotism is the flag as a celebration (p19).
At best, this is a piece of Humpty-Dumpty semantics. Yet, again, it is not even that; it is both astonishingly vague and self-contradictory. To put it clearly, asserting that being a good British patriot means supporting sports teams who take the knee and crusading against ‘structural racism’ is itself divisive, since definitionally you are fighting against the bad ‘nationalists’ for the meaning of the patrie. When his wonks tell him that he needs to win over small-c conservative working class voters in northern towns and the way to their hearts is ‘patriotism’, he cannot accept the reality: that, insofar as this is true, this ‘patriotism’ consists of hatred of people like Sir Keir - the archetypal, aloof, metropolitan remoaner.
We are left with the question: who is this document for? Certainly not for ordinary voters, any more than ordinary consumers read the Coca-Cola CEO’s LinkedIn posts. Not for ‘serious’ readers interested in ideas, either, since ideas are entirely absent. For Labour members en masse? Perhaps, as a vague wave in the direction he hopes to go; and a piece of unity-mongering blackmail.
But above all, surely, it is for the ladies and gentlemen of the press. It is the media that could take this morass of contradiction and cliché and dress it up as a visionary glimpse of a great national future. On that front, it seems to be a damp squib; for all the calamities of Johnsonian misrule, the mass deaths and the shortages and the naked corruption, the bourgeois media still consider Boris a safer pair of hands than Starmer.
So long as that reality holds, Starmerism is merely Blairism revived as a cargo cult. We wish it the success it deserves.
It is available online at fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-Road-Ahead-KEIR-STARMER_web.pdfif you really must.↩︎