Donald Trump paved his way to the White House by inventing extremely vicious and highly adhesive nicknames for his opponents. First, he used this unsavoury but effective tactic to demolish Republican rivals such as “Lyin’” Ted Cruz, “Little” Marco Rubio and “Low-Energy” Jeb Bush. Then he did the same to “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. The device that worked so horribly well for him in 2016 backfired in 2020 when he chose “Sleepy” as his sobriquet for Joe Biden. After four years of wild and scary Trump antics, a significant wedge of mainstream voters liked the idea of having a president who wouldn’t keep them awake at night. To them, “Sleepy Joe” sounded not like an insult but a commendation.
That outcome was an encouragement to anti-populist politicians and nowhere was the Trump defeat more warmly welcomed than among supporters of Sir Keir Starmer, the polar opposite of a populist. His people interpreted the 2020 American election as a turn in the global political tide away from the cheap, nasty and dangerous theatrics of nationalist demagogues towards cautious characters offering moderation, competence and a respect for integrity. Where sceptics have always worried about Sir Keir’s lack of dazzle and sometimes ponderous seriousness, his backers saw a growing electoral market for these traits. As Britain grew exhausted with the trashy pantomime of the Johnson regime, so, I was often told by supporters of the Labour leader, voters would be drawn to no-drama Starmer. So what if he was a bit boring? The times were making that a virtue. Professionalism, decency and dependability: these were qualities he had in abundance and they would be virtues that voters would value after their experience of the destructive psychodramas of populism.
The boring-is-best school received another morale boost when Olaf Scholz won Germany’s election last year to become his country’s first Social Democratic leader in 16 years. A bald and stolid lawyer who dressed in shades of charcoal, Scholz’s mechanical-sounding choice of words often made him seem robotic. The German media dubbed him “the Scholzomat”, a nickname he gladly embraced. His campaign slogan – “Scholz will sort it” – presented him as a reliable tradesman rather than a visionary statesman. It worked. Mr Scholz’s campaign successfully made a virtue of his image as a colourless but diligent technocrat.
The triumph of a grey lawyer across the North Sea gave Starmerites further cause to feel optimistic about their man’s prospects. They could also reach into Labour’s own history for evidence that dullness can be an electoral virtue. Winston Churchill sniffed that Clement Attlee was “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and a “modest man who has a good deal to be modest about”. But Attlee had the last laugh on his detractors in 1945 when the flamboyant war leader went down to a landslide defeat at the hands of the shy and taciturn Labour man.
This is the evidence for the thesis that Labour can bore its way to victory under Sir Keir. The trouble with this proposition is that its proponents have to go either abroad or back in British history more than 70 years to find an example of an uninspirational progressive leader winning power against a rightwing opponent. So a lot of Labour people are unpersuaded that it is a formula for success. That anxiety is prompting an increasing number of them to let it be known that they fear Sir Keir is boring the electorate to death. This has led to the Labour leader telling the shadow cabinet that he is cross with reading that some of them are going around grumbling to journalists that he is boring. “What’s boring is being in opposition,” he told them.
There would not be these outbreaks of anxiety about his performance from within Labour’s ranks if they were all completely confident that Sir Keir is going to get them out of opposition. They wouldn’t mind if he was duller than ditchwater if he had a massive lead in the polls. The trouble is, he doesn’t. One member of the shadow cabinet recently told me that Sir Keir should be greatly commended for making Labour less repulsive to voters, including rooting out the antisemitism that poisoned the party during the Corbyn years and re-establishing Labour’s credentials on security and patriotism. But this senior frontbencher went on to say that “there is a widespread feeling in the party that Keir has done as much as he can”.
Labour has moved ahead of the Tories on most of the issue areas that pollsters test, but this looks more like a judgment on the Conservatives’ abysmal record than an endorsement of the Labour alternative, not least because many voters express befuddlement when asked to say what they are being offered by Sir Keir. Labour has a lead in the headline polls, but it is not as decisive as the party would hope for against a law-breaking Tory prime minister who is described as a disgrace by a lot of his own MPs and presides over the most severe squeeze on living standards in more than half a century. We are probably two years away from the next general election. Labour people who have been around for a while recall that their party enjoyed a more impressive poll advantage over the Tories under Ed Miliband in 2013 before going on to lose in 2015. Though you are unlikely to hear any Labour MP say this publicly, some furtively harbour the thought that it could be good news for their party if Sir Keir receives a police fine for lockdown-breaking because he would be obliged to make good on his pledge to resign, further shaming Boris Johnson for not doing the same while offering Labour an opportunity to find a successor with more fizz and sparkle. “The parliamentary party is unsettled and getting windy,” remarks one of the Labour leader’s closest allies.
The twinned criticisms are that Sir Keir is failing to explain what he stands for and not enthusing the public. The first is unfair, the second goes to the heart of the matter. Those who bother to read Sir Keir’s speeches will find they contain plenty of analysis of what is wrong with Britain and the outlines of a potentially persuasive Labour prospectus. His speech to his last party conference contained an excellent passage articulating his values and explaining how they flow from his family background and life experiences. What everyone struggles with is recalling a compelling expression of his vision or a resonant explanation of how Labour would change Britain for the better.
Since January, Labour has produced one cut-through policy that seized the media’s attention and seems to have impinged on the public’s consciousness. That was the windfall tax on the bumper profits of hydrocarbon companies to raise additional funds to cushion people from the surge in energy prices. This policy was easily understood, it was relentlessly promoted, it created a crisp dividing line with the government, it split the Conservatives over how to respond and it was highly popular with the public. The Tories were then rattled into saying they would do a version of it themselves, allowing Labour to claim it was winning “the battle of ideas”, but dispossessing the party of its one standout proposal.
Labour needs more initiatives like that: emblematic ideas that make the political weather, discomfit their opponents, engage the public and offer guidance about what to expect from a Labour government. Each policy should contribute to an overarching theme about renewing Britain. That is the way to look like a credible party of power with a clear and engaging plan for the country.
“Sleepy” Joe Biden was the frontman for a programme that was, by American standards, ambitiously leftwing. Scholz was the face of a campaign that, borrowing a device pioneered by New Labour, made five signature pledges about bread and butter concerns such as wages, pensions and house-building. Attlee’s demeanour may have been modest, but the Labour manifesto to rebuild postwar Britain was anything but.
The lesson of past and more recent history may be this. A charismatic leader with the capacity to generate excitement can win from the centre-left with a cautious programme, as Tony Blair demonstrated in 1997. A dramatic manifesto of social and economic change fronted by a self-effacing leader can also be a successful blend, as Attlee proved in 1945. What doesn’t work is a radical project presented by an alarming leader, as Jeremy Corbyn confirmed in 2019. The combination of an uninspirational leader with a lacklustre prospectus doesn’t look like a promising formula either.