What is it that defines Keir Starmer? Perhaps it’s his likeness to film critic Mark Kermode, his ‘forensic’ approach, or the way he gingerly enjoys a curry and a pint. Whatever one’s take, claiming that his crowning feature is his ideology would be a tough sell to any crowd. Not only will his long-awaited reveal of what this looks like be welcomed by his fans, but also to lovers of democracy. After all, by irritating the executive, it is the responsibility of a government’s opposition to keep democracy afloat.
Much to his chagrin, nowhere is this sentiment more obvious than in his home camp. Emblazoned in The Times this week were the words, “Stop boring everyone to death”, words which were apparently levied at Starmer by unnamed shadow cabinet dissenters. According to the piece, a swathe of Starmer’s nearest and dearest are becoming disillusioned by his straight man routine and lack of “energy or direction”.
Regarding his electoral prospects, Starmer’s austere style might conceivably play well. After all, with Conservative policies now mimicking Labour’s in all but accent, it seems that personality may be what decides the next general election. When faced with another five years of unpredictable charlatanism, why wouldn’t the more clinical, safe pair of hands take the gold?
However, polling results released this week by JL Partners paints a decidedly less simple picture of Starmer’s road to power. Common adjectives used to describe Sir Keir included “dull”, “uninspiring”, “bland” and most damningly, “weak”. A boring leader, people can tolerate, particularly after a stint of Johnson’s perplexing fusion of charisma and cowardice, but an impotent leader carries graver implications.
With Putin doing his best to revive Stalinism in Eastern Europe and prices rising across the board at home, what these isles do not want is weakness. While Starmer may need more than a new suit to convey an assertive image, setting out a cogent ideology would be a start. What has become clear is that he cannot afford to rely solely on being Mr ‘Not-Boris Johnson’.
It seems the government has now provided the groundwork for Starmer to start outlining his grand vision for the shape his government would take. By adopting policies such as the windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas firms and hiking Corporation Tax to 25 per cent, the government has conceded a victory in the war of ideas. Clearly, the government’s adoption of policies, which would not look out of place in a Labour administration, have given the opposition an ideal opportunity.
Vacuity of principles aside, Sir Keir, through his carelessness, has backed himself into a corner where he risks leaving the government unchallenged at the general election and undermining the significance of opposition parties in a democracy. The formulation of an innovative political credo will prove the antidote to ameliorate both.
Starmer’s embroilment in a police investigation into his supposed participation in a clandestine beer and curry binge and now, the investigation by Parliament’s standards commissioner over the purportedly late declaration of gifts and rewards, makes his condition even more urgent.
Consequently, without articulating a palpable impression of what shape Starmerism will take and how it will impact the population, it seems likely that Sir Keir may well be remembered as another opposition leader who failed to reignite our democracy. He could even do with taking a leaf out of comrade Corbyn’s book. When Jezza faced weak Conservative leadership in 2017, he doubled down on communicating his vision and saw some joy in the polls as a result.
Now, it is not because I consider myself a Starmerite (whatever that is) or a Corbynite that Starmer should conceive an ideology. Rather, as a free-marketeer and a democrat, Starmer’s outlining of a coherent vision to rival Johnson’s is crucial in fostering a truly competitive political system. Since 2010, we have seen a series of increasingly ideologically stagnant Conservative governments faced with insincere opposition leaders. Such a condition is surely not conducive to a healthy political contest.
If, because of Starmer delivering a decisive vision for his Prime Ministership, the Conservatives lose at the next election, then so be it. A few years in the wilderness may even be just what the doctor ordered. I fear that without time for serious reflection, the Conservative Party will drift further into centrist populism and away from the principles upon which its popularity rested, and the notion of well-fought electoral battles may become a distant memory. So, Keir, for the sake of democracy, show us what you’re made of.