By saying nothing of any interest, the UK's new Labour leader reassures the powerful that he is suitably dull.
Keir Starmer’s first leader’s speech has provoked a predictable range of reactions, on social media, from professional commentators, and across the political spectrum.
Leaders’ speeches are an entire field of scholarly erudition in their own right, and deservedly so. They remain pivotal to the processes by which political parties define their collective identities and their responses to the historic moments in which they find themselves. They help define the perceptions that voters have of the leader. They also allow the leader to signal to various elements of wider society just whose side they are going to be on in which battles to come.
If Starmer’s speech is to be remembered for anything much, it won’t be for the content. A new party leader, after an unsuccessful election, insisting on the novelty of their approach – and also on their status as all things to all people – is hardly news at all. And I think it should be understood that this was the real thrust of the speech. A great deal of attention has been focussed on the sections where Starmer appealed to ‘values’ which Jeremy Corbyn would not have evoked in such terms: ‘Decency, fairness, opportunity, compassion and security’. But Starmer also explicitly rejected a simplistic ‘Blue Labour’ agenda, that would appeal to out-and-out social conservatism, with his evocation of the radical modernity of all three of Labour’s post-war election-winning prime-ministers (a valid point that has been made many times before). He also rhetorically distanced himself from banal centrist versions of anti-racism, with his welcome and unambiguous statement of opposition to ‘structural racism’.
so devoid of definitive content that it could almost be taken for satire
In all of this, the speech very pointedly indicated the political strategy that I suggested Starmer was following in my long essay for openDemocracy a couple of weeks ago: appealing primarily to the perceived prejudices of the lost voters of the ‘Red Wall’, but with clear nods to the concerns of the socially-liberal middle-classes. As Aaron Bastani has pointed out , the speech included little on issues such as poverty and housing. These issues, as should be clear from the analysis I made there, are of little direct concern to the voters that Starmer is courting.
What the speech will be remembered for, if anything, is it’s startling – almost, frankly, embarrassing – bluntness. Speechwriters for predecessors such as Tony Blair would artfully weave themes like, say, ‘family’ ‘fairness’ and ‘decency’ into coherent and evocative rhetorical narratives. But here, it’s as if the concept board has been taken straight from the focus-group meeting and copy-pasted directly into the text of the speech. This gesture doesn’t just betray a certain laziness or lack of substance. It suggests a degree of conceptual weakness to the whole endeavour.
In his speech, Starmer referred to ‘Decency, fairness, opportunity, compassion and security’ as ‘values’. The thing is, they’re not ‘values’ in any meaningful philosophical sense. ‘Equality’ is a value, ‘ Justice’ is a value. ‘Fairness’ isn’t a value: it’s merely a name for the very idea of having some applicable concept of equality and justice. ‘Patriotism’ is a value. ‘Decency’ isn’t. ‘Decency’ is merely a name for the very idea of having and observing values.
What ‘Decency, fairness, opportunity, compassion and security’ are is not values, but themes. And they’re themes that need to be expressed through narratives if they are going to have any really persuasive meaning: narratives about what kind of country this is, what kind of country it has been, and what kind of country it could be. Almost no such account was discernible from any part of this speech. And the overarching slogan given to it, and to Starmer’s project as leader, is so devoid of definitive content that it could almost be taken for satire: ‘A New Leadership’. Honestly, isn’t the idea of ‘new leadership’ what every clever political slogan in the history of political slogans has been trying to convey? It’s as if the people given the job of writing the copy just repeated the project-brief verbatim…
the very contentlessness of the project might, in fact, be the project itself
Maybe this all indicates a new era of plain-speaking bluntness in political rhetoric, and maybe, in fact, the speech will be remembered for that. Maybe it’s easy to be clever about people having to write and deliver a speech like this under historically unprecedented conditions. The lack of substantial content in Starmer’s current vision for the country, or diagnosis of what might be wrong with it, is arguably forgivable at this stage of his leadership. But our concern should be that the very contentlessness of the project might, in fact, be the project itself.
The high praise heaped on the speech by centrist commentators might have been surprising, given its obvious rhetorical shortcomings, if it weren’t for what I think it was really intended to signal. What it’s all intended to signal is exactly what the centrist commentariat are longing to hear: that Starmer’s leadership, in fact, will not be new in any meaningful historical sense at all; that the interruption to normality imposed by Corbynism has now been superseded by a return to the status quo ante. Whether or not there is any chance of Labour winning the next election, the same people will be running the party as were running it between 1985 and 2015. The world may continue to burn, but at least it will not be turned upside down.
Arguably it’s an electoral necessity for any Labour leader to make just such reassurances. According to this theory, the overriding fact of electoral politics in England is the incorrigible conservatism of certain groups of swing voters, or at least of those large cohorts who apparently only ever turn out (in 1992, in 2019, arguably in 2015) when there appears to be a real threat of a genuinely social-democratic government being elected. This is certainly what Blair believed, and he was the only Labour leader since Wilson to win an election; even though it’s a theory that – like Tony Blair – cannot explain the 2017 general election result.
But neither Wilson nor Blair were facing social crises on anything like the scale of the Covid pandemic and its consequences; never mind the approaching historical cliff-edge of the climate crisis. How such calculating political caution will fare when faced with them, remains to be seen.