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Keir Starmer’s job would be easier if he disagreed with Boris Johnson on the biggest problem facing the UK. But that problem is the pandemic. Both men oppose the virus, which in the grand scheme of things puts them on the same side.
There is room for partisan argument over methods and targets to contain the threat, but those are second-order issues, not the stuff from which a newish opposition leader can mould his public identity. Starmer must strike a tricky balance between complicity and opportunism. He must hold the Tories to account for their failures, but without sounding eager for the government to fail.
There is a limit to how much people want to hear from the opposition in a crisis. It is possible to believe that Johnson has bungled the pandemic, while not taking any lessons in how it should have been handled by Labour – a party whose application to govern has been rejected in the last four elections.
It doesn’t help that Starmer is trying to unify a party that has no agreed explanation for those defeats and is uncertain how it should be speaking to the voters it has lost. There is consensus that change is needed, but not on what needs changing. Ardent remainers are not reconciled to Brexit. Admirers of Jeremy Corbyn believe he was misunderstood by voters and has now been mistreated by his successor. That makes a large combined portion of Labour’s membership who think that the electorate is wrong and the party has nothing to apologise for. In Scotland there is the extra conundrum of trying to woo nationalist voters without supporting independence.
Johnson is reliably incompetent, but he is also resilient, and the current national trauma will not be much use as a campaign resource once it is over. Labour would be rightly despised if it tried robbing the graves of Covid victims for partisan spoils.
Starmer’s difficulties were illustrated by a speech he gave on Monday, or rather it was illustrative of his problem that no one noticed the speech – a fully itemised account of Johnson’s failings. There were some personal notes and one bland, off-the-shelf nugget of emotional uplift. (“A dark winter will give way to a brighter spring.”) But mostly it sounded as if it had been composed on a spreadsheet. The tone was reminiscent of Ed Miliband, which is no accident. The former leader is the most experienced politician in Starmer’s shadow cabinet and an influential voice in his ear.
The comparison is maybe unfair. Public opinion is already vastly more receptive to the idea of Starmer in No 10 than it ever was to Miliband. The common element is not a likeness but an absence. It is the lack of rudimentary storytelling. Starmer tells his audience what he thinks, but he does not invite us on a journey or paint a picture of the destination.
As leader, Miliband set out a controversial argument about structural failings of British capitalism – the inequalities it entrenches and the rapacious ethos that drives it. That account is now mainstream. It has seeped into the Johnson government’s “levelling up” agenda. There are many reasons why Miliband lost to David Cameron in 2015, but a significant one was his failure to turn a complex analysis into simple reasons for voting Labour. When it became clear that the abstract ideas weren’t working, party strategists tried to armour-plate their leader with retail policy. It was an approach satirised by David Axelrod, a former adviser to Barack Obama, as “vote Labour and win a microwave”.
The same happened to Corbyn, but the offer was upgraded from a microwave to a luxury fitted kitchen. When the missing elements in a political offer are credibility and trust, the gap cannot be filled with free stuff. Starmer is now under pressure from demoralised Corbynites to identify how much of that stuff he would offer again, and how much he thinks should be discarded. He brought that challenge on himself in last year’s Labour leadership contest, where he defended the thrust of the 2019 manifesto and criticised only its “policy overload”.
There are things that frustrated supporters always demand of opposition leaders, many of them contradictory: be more pragmatic; be more idealistic; have a vision; be less ideological; attack the government louder; sound less angry; talk about values; talk about bread-and-butter issues.
Politicians do not need codified doctrines to break out of opposition. Ideally they would have guiding principles, but those are of limited use without the parables that explain them to a sceptical audience. This is not a matter of nifty slogans, nor is it a sop to goldfish attention spans in the digital age. For as long as people have used words for persuasion they have found success by arranging them into stories.
There is a certain leeriness of rhetorical simplification on the intellectual left, as if memorable imagery is tricksy and an argument is more compelling when set out to three decimal places. That aversion is intensified by contempt for Johnson’s use of metaphor as a weapon of mass deception – the “oven-ready deal”; “the moon shot”. Starmer could not match the prime minister’s linguistic prestidigitations, nor should he want to. But he still needs a more colourful script.
For more than a decade, Labour’s dominant message has been a litany of complaint about the Tories, supplemented at election time with a dense catalogue of policy. It is querulous, sometimes peevish. It comes across as resentful of the electorate for not being angry enough, or for being angry at all the wrong things.
It is probably unfair to expect Starmer to have achieved much more than he has done given the constraints of the job. It is an achievement not to have been written off as a tiresome irrelevance in the pandemic. He prosecutes government incompetence well, which is to be expected since he was director of public prosecution before he was an MP.
But that is not enough. A list of the government’s failings is not a reason to support Labour. Starmer will one day have to narrate a journey to a better Britain, not just add columns to the spreadsheet of gloom.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
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