Eighteen months ago, this profession of mine had Sir Keir Starmer down as a loser. Now that his UK Labour party is 20 points ahead in the polls, we are doing the gracious thing. We are telling him why he isn’t further in front. He “must be brave”. He “must be more radical”. His party must “expand its political imagination”. He has to “tell us who he is” and “spell out his real plans”. It is only fair to warn you that the “What is Starmerism?” pieces are imminent.
What is worse here, the presumption, after such hopeless underestimation of the man? Or the fact that all the advice is of a piece? Almost never is Starmer told to remain cautious and inscrutable. Almost never are half-measures urged on him. His pragmatism is described. His success is acknowledged. But the causal link between the one and the other goes largely undrawn.
Contrast Starmer with Nicola Sturgeon. Scotland’s departing first minister was boldness incarnate. The mission of her career was nothing less than secession from the UK. The bill she proposed on gender stretched public opinion to snapping point. In style, not just in substance, she took risks, likening a minister in London to a colonial “governor general” and reframing a mere election as a plebiscite on independence.
For all this audacity and imagination, she has to show, what? A career that is spent at 52. An independence cause that is no further along than it was a decade ago. She isn’t a failure. She won a landslide in 2015. But even her resignation speech seemed to rue her own forthrightness. How many voters might she have won to the nationalist cause had she measured her tone? Or focused on the technical grind of fixing healthcare and education? Or fudged her vision of what a sovereign Scotland would look like? By defining it so sharply as a progressive haven, she put a cap on potential support in a nation that has lots of conservatives, if not Conservatives.
Starmer should look north, then at his critics, and carry on as he is. To say that his cautious approach is going to make him prime minister by default, not by acclamation, is to say almost nothing at all. Every leader who is elected to government is elected by default. They win because swing voters fear them slightly less than the alternative. The closest thing to an exception in Britain during my lifetime was Tony Blair’s landslide of 1997. And even that has been glossed in retrospect. Turnout fell to a then postwar low. John Major had won more votes five years earlier. The national rapture cooled with a speed that exposed how frail it was to begin with.
None of this is criticism of Blair. The task of a politician is not to inspire. It is to get a plurality of voters to say, “Oh, go on then.”
And that is in normal times. In turbulent ones, voters are even likelier to seek out the lesser evil. Radical propositions are even surer to flop. This, I think, is the tragedy of Sturgeon. She governed during an era when the public appetite for risk was exhausted by outside events. Brexit, Donald Trump, Covid-19: the upheaval made secession, and provocative leadership, a disruption too far.
And it makes No-Drama Starmer more viable than his critics can believe. Political commentary suffers from a version of the principal-agent problem. The agent (the commentator) is invariably obsessed with politics. The principal (the reading and voting audience) has a lay interest in it. And so the commentator will over-index certain qualities in a leader: charisma, boldness, clarity. It is what we like because we turn to politics for drama and meaning. The audience gets those things from entertainment, or private life.
The result is chronic journalistic underestimation of a particular kind of leader. It is hard to convey the near-audible sigh of exasperation in Washington during the winter of 2018, when it became clear that Joe Biden would run for president. Bernie Sanders was a story. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were stories. A middle-of-the-road veteran hoping to get third time lucky was a drag. Yet here he is.
Starmer is right to lure the principals, not the agents, of politics. Voters want a leader to have definition, yes, but mostly in the negative. I won’t raise the basic rate of income tax. I won’t borrow to spend. I won’t reopen Brexit. Beyond that, politicians should view policy detail as some football coaches view possession of the ball: a liability, a chance to make a mistake. A “positive vision” is not what clinches elections. It is the absence of a scary one. In 1997, Blair was thought vague and tentative. He had to make do with just the 179-seat majority in parliament. Be less brave, Starmer. Narrow your political imagination.