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25 January 2022

The man without qualities: why Keir Starmer can’t afford not to have a political vision

The Labour leader’s neutral, depoliticised approach risks faltering against a less scandal-prone Conservative leader.

By Rory Scothorne

John Reith, the first director general of the BBC, was not a man to be swayed by popular appetites. Wielding a semi-autocratic influence over the formative years of public service broadcasting, he had little time for audience research and was sceptical about television, which threatened to pander too directly to public tastes. “Reith often argued that the public did not know what material it wanted,” wrote the BBC historian WH McDowell. “Thus it was left to the BBC to provide the necessary cultural enlightenment and cultivate a more informed democracy.” It took the arrival of the Second World War to shift the BBC towards a more responsive approach, expanding morale-boosting entertainment over enlightenment and laying the foundations for postwar “light” programming.

The state broadcaster’s traditional paternalism – however diluted today – has helped to make it a long-standing bugbear of the Conservative Party, especially during and after Margaret Thatcher’s reign (Denis Thatcher called it the “British Bastard Corporation”). No wonder Boris Johnson, in the middle of his own personal war, has sought to boost party morale with a pledge to scrap the licence fee from 2028.

The manoeuvre made some political sense: Johnson, an instinctive populist, was chosen by Conservatives as a means of corralling the anti-establishment sentiment unleashed by Brexit back into the arms of the establishment’s favourite party. Taking on the BBC is supposed to remind wavering Tory MPs of Johnson’s early promise, keeping them on the side of the people against a sanctimonious, hectoring public-sector elite.

But if such populist tactics worked in 2019, Johnson’s plummeting approval ratings suggest they may be poorly suited to actually holding on to power. While Johnson was rewarded for flouting the rules on behalf of the people, like the proroguing of parliament or the contravention of his own Brexit deal, revelations about parties at Downing Street have flipped his administration on to the receiving end of popular disgust.

All of this feeds into Keir Starmer’s gamble that British politics is ready to move on from the binary of paternalism and populism that defined the Brexit era. The Economist has described Starmer’s political project as “post-populist”: “A bet that voters are nauseous after the tumult, and hankering for stability and professionalism.” Johnson’s sudden unpopularity suggests that it’s not rules in general that the people hate so much as double standards. But if Starmer is a post-populist, it’s worth remembering that “post” means after, not against. This is not so much a rejection of populism as an effort to reincorporate the UK’s populist moment back into the rules and routines of legitimate, cautious governance.

This means avoiding overt populism while also trying to steer clear of anything that sounds like paternalism. Since its humiliating election defeat in 2019, Labour’s narrative has been that its punishment by the people was a necessary and justified wake-up call. Labour had been “too paternalistic” under Corbyn, suggested Lisa Nandy – Starmer’s shadow levelling up, housing, communities and local government secretary – in her own leadership campaign. More recently, Starmer has argued that “we had to learn the lesson… not because the electorate was at fault, but because it was us. And we needed to change our party.”

His argument is that the UK is an instinctively liberal, pluralistic and sensible country that needs neither Johnsonian ruptures nor Reithian lectures. His vision of “patriotism”, a means of transcending the populism-paternalism binary, is less about representing the people personally and directly – as a populist would – and more about restoring some coherence to a divided and dysfunctional political culture; placing a steady, neutral hand on the country’s institutions so that the electorate can reveal its desires organically, without much cajoling from above.

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These triangulation efforts are nothing new. Under Corbyn, Labour published a report on the role of civil society titled From Paternalism to Participation, stressing its determination to decentralise and democratise the economy alongside politics, as part of “a government that does things with people instead of doing things to them”. Such rhetoric would hardly have been out of place in Tony Blair’s Labour Party, whose emphasis on an “enabling government” that would “help people to help themselves” sought to appropriate Thatcherite attacks on big-state paternalism for the centre-left.

What really distinguishes Starmer from Corbyn is the same thing that aligns him with Blair: his attitude to his own party. Corbyn appealed to Labour members for support against party elites and national elites alike – what could be called a “projective” populism, often masquerading as the real thing, which projected members’ priorities on to the people as a whole. Classically populist tactics involve far more artifice in their invention of popular demands, and tend to more effectively camouflage the real agenda that lies behind them; Corbynism, however, was startlingly upfront about its socialist politics and its alliance of disenchanted millennials, trade unions and veteran Bennites – as if it genuinely couldn’t distinguish between these interests and those of the wider public.

[See also: Keir Starmer has a big idea – but he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it]

Starmer, on the other hand, has been able to appeal to an idea of the British people that now haunts Labour’s post-Corbyn conscience: hostile, distant and – worst of all – borderline inscrutable. We might call this an “introspective” populism, in which those jarring doorstep encounters in 2019 bounced a naïve and optimistic vision of the people back into members’ faces; the result is a deep pessimism about popular appetites, leading many members to either resign from the party or defer to the wisdom of its “new management” rebrand.

This places the Labour Party precisely where Starmer wants it – in a state of regression to the pre-Corbyn era of cantering depoliticisation, when members existed to knock doors, distribute leaflets, clap at conference and participate gladly in a lumbering, stage-managed policymaking apparatus. If more radical members still have a purpose, it is as a punching bag for a leadership determined to show how much it wants rid of them. “Membership in my constituency is falling and that’s a good thing,” Starmer’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves recently told the Financial Times; they “should never have joined the Labour Party. They never shared our values.”

This is not just a side effect of Starmer’s new, post-populist and post-paternalistic vision; it is an essential part of it. Again, this is nothing new. In 2000, the political scientist Peter Mair described New Labour’s rigid internal discipline as part of a “strategy aimed at transforming democratic governance… designed not to promote party government but rather to eliminate it: instead of seeking to enhance partisan control, New Labour strategy seems directed towards the creation of a partyless and hence depoliticised democracy.” Mair argued undermining party-based democracy “hollowed out” democracy itself: for all their flaws, parties offer a far more thorough and deliberative means of enacting popular demands and organising collective interests than the occasional snapshot of mass opinion gleaned from elections and polls. Much of the hostility towards Corbynism boiled down to a widespread cultural disdain, cultivated over decades, towards this form of engaged, popular and competitive democracy.

But when Blair was in charge, his vision of partyless democracy was attached to a much more serious vision of the future than Starmer has displayed thus far: one of untrammelled “modernisation”, in which the purpose of politics was to facilitate the smooth arrival of the globalised future on our shores, allowing the service sector to boom and Britain’s crusty old industries to continue their decline. Disciplining the Labour Party was a vital part of this, because it still contained people who wished to contest the fundamentals of that future. Sidelining left-wing members and trade unions alike, Blair claimed that Labour was “the political wing of the British people”, inventing a “people” who just happened to side with him against his critics.

Blair had enough of a distinctive vision, in other words, that he couldn’t afford to dispense with populism – he needed it to legitimise the imposition of his own priorities on the country. And for all New Labour claimed to be reflecting the people’s will, Blair was also a quintessential paternalist, convinced that he knew what was good for the people and that they had no choice but to accept it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation,” he told Labour’s 2005 conference. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

Starmer’s claim to be neither populist nor paternalist depends on the absence of the kind of conviction politics Blair inherited from Thatcher, and which Corbyn also promised in spades. Critics have emphasised Starmer’s lack of a clear vision, despite some left-leaning policy proposals for improved workers’ rights and a more developmentalist industrial strategy. This lack of vision has been essential to Starmer’s unifying pitch so far – all possible futures have winners and losers. But having established himself as a plausible alternative to Boris Johnson, Starmer now needs to establish his own agenda in the public mind, especially if he finds himself up against a less scandal-prone Conservative leader.

As that new phase begins, a pivot to either populism, paternalism, or some combination of both will be impossible to avoid. Whether it concerns climate change, the Union with Scotland, economic reform or international trade – not to mention ongoing culture wars – Starmer will need to either convince the people that he knows what’s good for them or claim to speak on their behalf against his opponents. In doing so, he’ll risk unravelling the neutral, depoliticised image he has so carefully established for himself.

[See also: Events have conspired to give Labour another chance. Will Keir Starmer seize it?]

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