The road ahead? Keir Starmer's absent future.

AuthorJones, Morgan

Keir Starmer's perpetual leadership re-launches are by now, in the seventeenth month of his leadership, approaching cliche.

The first of them that I registered took place in January of 2021, in deepest lock-down. Keir Starmer had been leader of the party for eight months, months that had been defined entirely by the pandemic. It was the new year, and he was to give a much-briefed speech, which ran live on the BBC. Labour encouraged its staff to join a Zoom watch party; I sat and watched Keir Starmer give a speech about which I can now remember nothing beyond the concept of 'British recovery bonds', which I could not explain to you. What I do remember is a message a colleague sent to me shortly after: 'it's not exactly the welfare state, is it?'.

This is the phrase that returned to me as I read The Road Ahead, the pamphlet that the Labour leader released with the Fabian Society shortly before the 2021 Labour conference. It is safe to say that the pamphlet--which is some 11,500 words long, and focuses on ideas of 'opportunity' and 'security'--was not tremendously well received, (Rafael Behr, writing in the Guardian, said it suffocates 'decent ideas with platitude'. (1))

One of the most interesting choices the pamphlet makes--and it does not make many--is a structural one. It is ordered not by policy area, but by past, present and future. This choice serves to highlight the strange nature of Keir Starmer's rhetoric about the future, and bears out the assertion of the sociologist Will Davies that in The Road Ahead (and more generally) Starmer is operating 'under the shadow of Corbyn': more specifically, operating in a leftover rhetoric about ideas of possibility and futurity, to which his leadership is politically and perhaps temperamentally unsuited. (2)

One of the phrases which came--for myself and others--to sum up the 2019 general election campaign was the declaration that everything was horribly, brutally possible. This was not a party slogan: you could not find the Labour shop selling 'Horribly, Brutally Possible' merch. The phrase leapt not from the party faithful, but from a critic; it was the shocked reaction of Times columnist Iain Martin, expressing his fear at just what might be wrought by Labour's manifesto pledge on free broadband. (3)

Politicians do not talk like this. Jimmy Carter never even actually said 'malaise'. They say things like 'transformative programme' and 'roadmap'. But 'everything is horribly, brutally possible' is what will sit with you, is what pushes at...

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