One of the articles that frequently springs to mind when contemplating the utter bleakness that is the British political scene of 2023 is the pithily-titled I Hate Keir Starmer, a piece by Tom Whyman which makes a compelling argument as to why futile, impotent hatred of Labour’s current leader is a rational response:
Keir Starmer exists, less as a person than as an institution: he is a decision that has been decreed from on high. And so there is nothing that I can do about him, except fume and moan and shitpost about him online. If I met him, I sometimes think, what would I say to him? I’m not sure I would say anything, to be honest. I’m not sure there would be any point.
I think about this quite a lot because it neatly encapsulates the complete futility of being even centre- or soft-left in 2023 Britain. To explore why, we need to go back to the point at which the hope of better things being possible was finally put out of its misery; the 2019 election, followed by the 2020 Labour leadership election.
Absolutely fucking not
If Labour’s defeat in 2019 represented anything it was the final death rattle of the progressive strain of British politics that was ultimately represented, for better or for worse, by Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was an odd figure; despite being trailed as some kind of hardcore Trotskyite by both his detractors and a good number of his supporters, his actual domestic political views were quite boringly left-Labourist, and he showed every sign of being happy to moderate his less moderate views (e.g. on republicanism or foreign policy) in the name of consensus, even while being characterised as implacably ideological. The 2019 manifesto that wound up being described as a synthesis of Das Kapital and Mao’s little red book was broadly reflective of that, with the systemic change it promised being limited essentially to some worker representation on boards and maybe a bit of nationalisation.
You can argue about whether this manifesto – which would, in my view inarguably, have led to Britain being in a drastically better place than it is at the moment, even accounting for the wonderous one-two punch of COVID followed by the war in Ukraine – went too far or was too much for the electorate. As noted, I would disagree. Certainly its promises were far more suited to the times than the pathetic pamphlet offered by the Conservative Party or the mildly less jagged status-quo promised by the Liberal Democrats. The idea of spending money on things that needed money spent on them while increasing the role of the state was not manifestly less credible than Boris Johnson burbling about getting Brexit done with oven ready deals. But there it was, a document that promised that, in a very real sense, better things are not only possible, but feasible.
To say this got a reaction rather undersells it.
In 2019, various organs of the media and both the governing and opposition parties all swung together in unison, in a way that seemed quite alarmingly coordinated, to deliver a message that under absolutely no circumstances would a Labour victory be tolerated. Organisations that were nominally – statutorily, even – independent started to behave oddly, and the usual pre-election purdah and enhanced broadcasting impartiality rules appeared to simply be ignored. In 2017, those rules were broadly respected, and the campaign proceeded more or less according to expectations for a reasonably normal election1. This time around, the message was clear: absolutely fucking not. You will not succeed.
The BBC in particular had such standout events as Emma Barnett asking Angela Rayner if the party would “nationalise sausages”, Laura Kuenssberg parroting CCHQ’s entirely false line that a Labour campaigner had lamped a Tory aide outside a hospital without verifying that claim, and somehow accidentally splicing alternative footage of a Remembrance Day event from a previous year into news broadcasts, rather than the 2019 event where Boris Johnson appeared to be piss drunk. BBC journalists laughed in John McDonnell’s face when he discussed a (perfectly achievable) manifesto pledge to plant two billion trees; others mocked it on Twitter. This is literally just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. There are more.
Repeatedly, during an election campaign when broadcasting impartiality rules are supposed to be at their most stringent, the BBC made “mistakes”. That these repeated “mistakes” were consistently ones that made the Conservative Party and its leader look better, and/or the Labour Party and its leader look worse, was never remarked upon. While this had been a habit of the BBC’s for a number of years, in the 2019 election this behaviour went into overdrive.
For their part, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both made it plain that stopping Labour was Job One. This is rather understandable for the Tories, for whom a typical election campaign is more or less a zero sum game between them and Labour, but as it turned out was against the Lib Dems’ both stated and unstated interests. They’d made a big play about opposition to Brexit, but were also seemingly fixated upon attacking the only party of the two plausible contenders that was amenable to anything close to what they wanted, that being a second referendum. Not only that, but a party with a perception as a wasted vote that will let $undesirableparty through the middle not only outright endorsed the perception that $undesirableparty is a complete aberration to all good sense and decency, but made it perfectly plain that $undesirableparty was Labour.2
The Tories themselves also, through a variety of means, decided that norms and decency did not apply to them. They impersonated a fact checking account on Twitter during televised debates. They pumped out thousands of social media adverts that were, bluntly, lies, on a scale unmatched by any other political party. They evaded scrutiny, with its shambolic candidate hiding in a fridge from journalists and declining to be interviewed by the BBC in the same way as other party leaders.3 Bluntly illegal posters suddenly appeared on election day near polling stations which depicted a demonic Corbyn as a “threat to our safety and democracy”, from an apparently very well-funded and organised group that somehow got £134,000 from somewhere but won’t tell anyone specifically where. Simon Heffer claimed on LBC that Corbyn wanted to “reopen Auschwitz”, a fantastically ridiculous claim however you spin it.
Nobody got censured for these things and there was no expectation or hope that they would be, certainly not before the campaign was over. They just happened.
It’s really hard to overstate, having paid attention during this period, just how much you could palpably sense all of this fundamental oddness, all slanted in the same direction, all at once. It sounds conspiratorial, but from being a Labour activist that year, the feeling of being gaslit by pretty much every organisation that was not actually the Labour party was oppressive. It felt like Labour had to fight an uphill battle not only against the Conservative Party, but against all of the meagre regulations that exist in relation to political campaigns and political news and broadcasting all suddenly being disapplied all at once, or being fundamentally unfit for purpose. It was hard enough to deal with some of the actual problems that Labour faced in that election without having the deck so thoroughly and clearly stacked against it.
The end result is that quite apart from dealing with the stumbling block of Labour having a doddering old fool for a leader, whose heart was in the right place but goddammit why did you have to say that ten years ago, we all now had to contend with him being the worst human being who’d ever lived, and his espoused programme for government being a risible Stalinist mess, while the actual Prime Minister sailed through without anywhere near the scrutiny he deserved. We got the result that that implies. Johnson won with a massive majority. Corbyn resigned as leader and initiated a leadership contest, which Keir Starmer won.
Better things, it turned out, were not possible at all.
Starmer won the 2020 leadership contest with a mandate derived from a campaign in which he promised, essentially, to be the electable Corbyn. His ten pledges were of a piece with the sort of thing that won the contest for Corbyn in 2015 – hitting all the right beats to gain the votes of erstwhile Corbyn voters, from nationalisation through to freedom of movement, all delivered with a thick coat of electability frosting. What wasn’t to like?
While a lot of the left were, naturally, sceptical – after all, Starmer was a 2015 intake MP who did not have many perceptible left credentials or a history of supporting left-wing policy, bar serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – his outward message was that if you liked Corbyn, and voted for Corbyn, and wanted all of Corbyn’s approach to politics just in a nice electable package, he was your guy.
I cannot find it in me to blame people for believing this. A lot of the Labour left had spent the past five years fighting what was, depending on your perspective, either a noble fight, a quixotic fight or a noble-yet-quixotic fight, and they’d had enough of fighting battles and wanted to start winning them. Much has been said about the Labour left’s bunker mentality, but the thing about bunker mentalities is that a sure-fire way to develop one is to actually be in a bunker, getting attacked from all sides. The appetite for staying in the bunker getting shelled by everyone was minimal, to say the least. In that context, a man who promises to give you everything you want while making all the insults and arguments and the sting of failure go away is going to be an attractive prospect. That that man lied through his fucking teeth is not their fault.
Keir Starmer, put simply, lied to the Labour membership’s face to get where he is, in a way so utterly brazen that he should be disqualified from criticising the mendacity of anyone else ever again. His ten pledges, and their current status, are assessed here on RationalWIki. To summarise, of the seven that are statements that are even concrete and measurable enough to assess against ensuing reality, not a single one survives fully, or even mostly intact. Two of the remaining three he’s broken in spirit. Keir Starmer is simply not a trustworthy figure in any objective sense.
A lot of discontent within the Labour party, and the wider agglomeration of the broadly-Labourish “left”, is related to the issue that this abundantly obvious and easily-evidenced fact is so frequently denied, or obfuscated with appeals to “unite to get the Tories out”. Worse, it is sometimes glossed over with claims that it needed to happen for Labour to be “electable” in some non-specific sense. All of this dances around the substance of the point that if he’d told the truth about what he was going to do in the three years since – swinging the party ever to the right, bringing dismal Labour right ghouls like Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting right into its core, letting Peter Mandelson have basically any influence over anything, telling everyone that we couldn’t have better things because the country can’t afford them – he wouldn’t have won the leadership election. It is, once again, like being gaslit. Who do you believe – Starmer, or your lying eyes?
(This is independent of polling or what anyone else thinks, incidentally. I don’t need to give a shit what YouGov says the man on the street thinks about Starmer or Labour to have my own opinion of the situation. Nobody does. That the compulsive liar who gained his position through a clear and obvious fraud is being – debatably – successful in that position does not change the bit where he cheated his way into it, nor does it render it any less morally suspect, nor does it mean that the people who were cheated have any less right to feel aggrieved.)
A blank void where a better future should be
Part of the problem with Starmer is not even his lies, or his approach to politics, or his empowering of the worst shits in the Labour Party. It is that he offers nothing meaningful to respond to any problems Britain faces, and instead has pivoted into the usual Labour right position of better things aren’t possible. In turn, his defenders completely miss the reasons for the contempt and discontent he faces in favour of a simplified, insulting and bluntly wrong caricature of what his detractors think.
Starmer’s leadership campaign, cynical as it was, only hit the mood of the selectorate by accident. What he was aiming for was people loyal to Jeremy Corbyn as a person, hence his rapidly-discarded pretences to Corbyn being a personal friend and quickly-curtailed doe-eyed tributes to the former leader. But the Labour left were and are not principally motivated by or loyal to Corbyn the man, someone whom most of them would freely agree is a deeply flawed individual with a history of repellent stances and behaviour. “Corbyn cultists”, inasmuch as they are a real thing as opposed to a snarl word used by the worst people in the world, are a tiny minority. Instead Corbyn acted as an avatar for the simple notion that better things are both possible and achievable, largely because for a period he was the only person with any prospect of winning anything who dared to say it.
It’s really difficult to understand this notion without also understanding how Corbyn came to be leader in the first place. Andy Burnham, with bitter hindsight, would probably agree with me that if he’d said the exact same things Corbyn did, at the exact same time, he would have been elected leader in 2015. He belatedly realised this during the contest itself, not quite managing to pull things back around after a hasty swing leftwards when it became clear that Corbyn was going to sweep the board.
It’s also really difficult to understand that phenomenon without considering the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The policy response to the crash in the UK, particularly after the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition started in 2010, was underwhelming at best. Austerity was outright toxic, and the Labour leadership under Ed Miliband shied away from making any coherent argument otherwise, preferring instead to accept the criticism that latter-day New Labour was too spendthrift and respond accordingly. It turns out, as some4 may have foreseen, that accepting right-wing critique of what was ultimately not all that left-wing a policy programme as fundamentally true does nothing to actually make a not-very-left-wing programme more appealing. Virtually everyone now accepts that austerity was a harmful, pointless mistake5 but nobody with any real influence was making the argument at the time. Instead it was tacitly accepted that this was just how things would have to be – it could not be reversed, much less politically opposed. Better things were not possible.
In the event, in 2015, after Miliband lost an eminently winnable election amid a miasma of centrist gibberish, minutely focus-grouped non-offers and weird stone carvings, what the selectorate were presented with was “better things are possible”, two lots of “we might be able to have a small couple of better things, as a treat, alongside lots of worse things, maybe, if you’re good”, and one lot of “better things are absolutely not possible, shut up and like it”. Shockingly, the first option won.
It’s that simple animus – better things are possible – that drove the Labour membership to overwhelmingly vote for Corbyn, and then to believe Starmer’s lies, and then to disdain them in no small part. They believe – know – that better things are possible. That not only do we not have to choose between reversing austerity and continued prosperity, but that they are two sides of the same coin. That we don’t have to have a politics predicated on racism, transphobia or bashing asylum seekers. That we don’t have to starve people on benefits, or let the NHS fall apart. That things like crap public transport, decaying infrastructure, ridiculously expensive housing and decimated communities are not just real meaningful problems, but solvable ones.
To the extent that Starmer understands this, he repudiates it. He disavows the simple solution of spending money in a country that has been deliberately and methodically starved of it, and whose problems are primarily caused by that. He also disdains the role of the state in solving problems, instead making paeans to business and economic growth as an abstract. He talks of not getting out the “big government chequebook”, of “sound money”, of devolving public services onto local authorities but without giving them any more funding, all of them shibboleths of Cameron and Osborne’s catastrophic austerity politics and the latter in particular a blunt repeat of Cameron’s dimwitted Big Society canard. He talks of prioritising economic growth while having little to concretely say about where the proceeds of that growth will land or what he intends to do with them. His shadow chancellor dismisses “trickle-down economics” while also espousing all of its precepts. He indulges in transphobia, in treating immigration as a problem to be solved, all the social policy sins of the Tories but delivered with some leftish-sounding pablum on the side. To the extent he’s not directly saying that better things aren’t possible, he’s certainly giving no indication that he thinks they are.
When these things are noticed by his detractors, they are dismissed by his defenders. Yes I know he said that, but he also said this. Yes I know he said that too, but he also said this. The inconsistency between his words and deeds, or even between his words and his other words, becomes spun as a virtue. One cannot take as read the clear pattern in what he says and does; one must instead trust him when he or his supporters dismiss that that pattern exists. Once again, we come back to the idea of gaslighting, confident denial of what one can plainly see in front of their face. Even when he clearly, obviously and demonstrably lies to you, you should trust him.
Starmer is, as Whyman says, “a blank void where a better future should be”. But ultimately he continues the same trend from the 2019 election and its unified swing in the same direction – someone from up on high, unable to be removed or countered, making a fundamental truth plain – if you think that better things are possible, absolutely fucking not.
Keir Starmer’s Labour is currently on track to win the next election. The party is polling at 50%. We can argue about the reasons for this. Certainly I think that they are a lot less to do with Starmer as a political figure than his supporters want to give him credit for, and a lot more to do with a succession of clown car Tory governments having got bored of impoverishing the poor and deciding to have a go at impoverishing everyone else as well. The inescapable fact remains however that regardless of the reasons, barring some massive upset, it looks likely that he will be Prime Minister within a year and a half.
Starmer is, in that sense, an inevitability. I can write as many blog posts as I like, throw as many tantrums on Mastodon as I please, throw his stupid smirking face into as many content aware scale algorithms as I like, but it does not matter. He will win, and probably win quite handily.
On the one hand, I’m quite pleased with the idea of the Conservatives being out of office. Lord knows they deserve it. The idea of them being on under a hundred seats is very pleasant indeed. But on the flipside, I can summon no joy about the prospect of a Labour government. I can’t bring myself to feel any happiness about the prospect of a government led by a man who has, methodically, over the past three years, openly repudiated everything I might come close to recognising as my personal politics while embracing all the worst aspects of the worst governments of my lifetime. I definitely cannot get behind the idea I should actively vote for this creature simply because the alternative is worse, when what I am being asked to vote for outwardly neither wants or needs my vote.
The reason for this is simple. Over the past thirteen years, I’ve watched as the country I live in, and for all intents and purposes am stuck in, gets hollowed out from the inside. The root cause of this state of affairs predates Ukraine, or COVID, or Brexit, or whatever other singular event you want to blame them on; it is endemic and cultural. Everyone with any power to do anything about it, as well as a good swathe of the population, has implicitly accepted austerity logic. It speaks to something seemingly innate in the British psyche, and particularly in the segment of politics self-defined as “the centre”, where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This blunt stupidity has calcified, and led to a peculiar form of collective Stockholm syndrome in which things have got so much worse, they can never get any better. If something doesn’t exist now, if it factually isn’t here in front of you as a tangible thing, it never can exist. It may have existed in the past, but it never can again. We may have had the money for this before, but now we do not, and although we found it before, we cannot now. Better things aren’t possible.
The end result is that the UK as it is now is to a normal country as a Travelodge is to a Holiday Inn; a crude, bargain basement (but still not cheap enough to be good value) facsimile of the real thing, where nothing works quite right, you get woken up at 3am by a hen party, the staff don’t care that you got woken up at 3am by a hen party, nobody’s going to tell the hen party to shut up, and you wind up paying £8 for the shittiest breakfast you’ve ever eaten in your life served with the worst coffee you’ve ever drunk just to get enough caffeine to survive the day. I’m tired. Of this. Of watching every comparable country leapfrog this one. Of looking out from the Travelodge at the Holiday Inn across the street and wondering how even that meagre increase in comfort feels so unachievable.
Keir Starmer accepts the austerity logic. Keir Starmer sees his job as managing Britain’s national decline slightly better than Rishi Sunak does it. Keir Starmer wants to take over the Travelodge not to improve it in any material sense, or because he fundamentally thinks the current guy is doing a bad job of it, but to change the brand of awful coffee it serves to a marginally cheaper one that tastes exactly as much like an ashtray.
Keir Starmer believes better things aren’t possible. He tells us as much every time someone brings up those pledges he made and now discarded.
I don’t know to what extent he actually believes the shit he’s currently spouting. It may be that he doesn’t believe it at all, and maybe his supporters are right, and all this right-wing “sound money” crap is just a facade so he can get into power and make the MMTers’ wildest wet dreams come true. After all, he nakedly lied to win an election once, why can’t he again? If that ever comes to pass, I will gladly accept that I have been terribly owned and that my perception of him was completely wrong. Until that point, I will take him at face value and assume that the simple summation of the things he says and does is what it appears to be, and assume that his government will follow this credo to the very bitter end – better things aren’t possible.
- Theresa May deserves some level of small credit here for actually engaging with the 2017 election in a relatively normal way. Naturally this probably reflects that she never expected to lose it, but even as polling narrowed, she could have gone a fair bit lower than she ever did.
- There is of course a lot more to this than I can summarise here, but I think the blunt statement of “Jo Swinson was an absolutely abysmal politician who made Corbyn look like a master statesman” suffices.
- The BBC notably made an angry pouty face about this, saying that Johnson wouldn’t be allowed on politics shows for doing such a beastly thing, and then went back on it just a few days later.
- A piece I wrote a few years back compared David Cameron’s premiership to the Love Canal, which in hindsight is still too kind.