Starmer’s Fabian pamphlet: not up to the job

By David Osland

Angela Rayner managed to define exactly what she stands for in a single late-night rant to a fringe meeting, quite possibly after partaking fulsomely of the liquid refreshment at hand.

Calling the Tories ‘scum’ is a somewhat less cerebral act than writing the 11,500 word essay from Keir Starmer published last week, and not a tactic anyone would recommend he replicate.

But blunt instrument though it was, it got the message over. It certainly gives something for the Labour leader to think about ahead of his promised ‘primary colours’ speech on Wednesday.

Rayner’s outburst was very much ‘brand Angela’. She talks the way Labour activists talk, and connects directly with the gut.

Dawn Butler achieved essentially the same effect with her recent ‘liar’ taunt at Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, conveniently timing the inevitable suspension for the day on which Parliament went into recess, and then going big on social media.

Starmer’s problem – which I identified after attending one of his leadership campaign rallies last year – is that he packs all the oratorical presence of one of those old fashioned I-speak-your-weight machines.

He is unable to work a crowd, and is genuinely poor as a face-to-face communicator. I’m offering that as objective criticism: I’d say the same about many MPs more to my ideological liking.

I remember finding that surprising. He was, after all, once a criminal barrister, and surely would have been called upon to sway a jury on occasion. But perhaps I watch too many courtroom dramas.

While not even his strongest allies would big him up as the new Martin Luther King, the Starmer selling point was supposed to be forensics. QCs specialise in pleading cases, cross questioning, demolishing the other side of an argument.

So I was looking forward to the publication of The Road Ahead, the Starmer pamphlet published by the Fabian Society a few days ago.

After all, he’s no intellectual lightweight. And given that he reportedly drafted in a team of capable wordsmiths to craft the prose into something readable, the opportunity was there for a crisp statement of twenty-first century social democratic principles.

Excursions by leading Labour politicians into the realms of ideas have been vanishingly rare ever since the Party’s inception.

The three that spring immediately to mind are Bevan’s 1952 book In Place of Fear, Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism from 1956 and Roy Hattersley’s Choose Freedom from 1987.

The merits and demerits of these works are a longer debate than can be included in a blog post, and there are criticisms I would proffer of all three from a Marxist perspective.

But they were undeniably marked by a degree of coherence, incision and literary style that make them worth reading, even decades later, for those seeking an understanding of the evolution of Labour’s political thought.

The Road Ahead will not be joining this select company. Predictably panned on the left, the reception has been lukewarm even from those closer to its central precepts.

Bereft of a single memorable phrase, the finished product reads like the anemic academic literature from which it is patently cribbed.

Jon Trickett was entirely correct to point out that a fairly ghostwritten credo of this ilk won’t be read by the drinkers in Hemsworth miners’ welfare club. But it wasn’t aimed at them: it was aimed at people who read these things.

Starmer’s job was to set out a vision, which others could have condensed for popular consumption. He failed to do so.

At one level, there was very little to disagree with; what flinty-hearted malevolent Trotskyite evil-doer would not want Labour to “always put hard-working families and their priorities first”?

Who – even among the ranks of Tory MPs – would disagree with the hardly controversial contention that “your chances in life should not be defined by the circumstances of your birth,” or even that “people and businesses are expected to contribute to society, as well as receive.”

But in the political circumstances that now face the Labour leader, it could and should have transcended the vast expanse of boilerplate tedium that now constitutes the bulk of writing from politicians.

Most of all, it needed to say what Starmer is for, in terms more concrete than allusions to such nebulous abstract nouns as the contribution society, fairness, security and opportunity.

Major issue after major issue shaping political debate today – globalisation, foreign wars, immigration, the environment, the trans rights/gender critical feminist debate – don’t rate a mention.

Where we do get actual policies, we get commitments to a green recovery from the pandemic and boosting the car industry in successive sentences. That has to be a contender for unfortunate juxtaposition of the year.

Not only will The Road Ahead not dispel the impression that he has nothing much to say, it will reinforce it.

It will not inspire disillusioned Labour Party members to remain motivated, or even to remain members at all.

As for connecting with the public, forget about it. That speech on Wednesday better be bloody good.

Meanwhile, a few impromptu sentences from Angela Rayner have left nobody in any doubt where she is coming from. And probably where she wants to go as well.

David Osland is a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Keir Starmer. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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