Keir Starmer’s Televised Meltdown Was Decades in the Making

After last week’s calamitous election for the Labour Party, party leader Keir Starmer was asked to explain his “vision” for Britain. His humiliating inability to answer the question was a window into the hollowness of Britain’s center.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer leaves his home on May 12, 2021 in London, England. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Faced with an absolutely disastrous set of results in last week’s local elections, Keir Starmer waited a few hours to emerge from the shadows and answer questions from the media. When he finally did appear, the leader of the Labour Party had nothing to offer beyond a series of verbal circumlocutions so meaningless he might as well have stayed silent. Asked by the BBC about his catastrophic election performance — which saw Labour hemorrhage council seats throughout the country, but also the County Durham constituency of Hartlepool, a solid Labour seat since its creation in 1947 — Starmer proved so unable to say anything of substance that he was ultimately forced to regurgitate the same stock answers for several minutes straight.

STARMER: This is not a question of left or right. It’s a question of whether we’re facing the country. We have changed as a party, but we’ve not made a strong enough case to the country. We’ve lost that connection, that trust, and I intended to rebuild that and do whatever is necessary to rebuild that trust.

BBC: But what does change mean in, say, policy terms?

STARMER: It means stopping, as a party, quarreling amongst ourselves, looking internally, and facing the country, and setting out that bold vision for a better Britain . . .

BBC: Sorry, Sir Keir, what is that vision?

STARMER: . . . changing the things that need changing, and that is the change that I will bring about.

Pressed again and again by his interviewer, Starmer’s evasions only grew more absurd — his solitary brush with anything even approaching a political vision being a momentary reference to ending “the injustice and inequality that millions of people face every day.” Encouraged to develop the idea further, however, he again defaulted to the same vague language about learning lessons, facing the country, and rebuilding trust:

BBC: What are you going to change over the next few days? What are you referring to?

STARMER: I will set out what we need to do to reconnect the Labour Party to the voters that have cast their verdict on us last night, particularly in places like Hartlepool. We have changed as a party. We have changed as a party. But we need to go further, and we need to set out that strong case to the country. We have not done that.

BBC: So you’re going to set out a new policy agenda? Is that what you’re saying?

STARMER: I am going to set out a strong case to the country, learn the lessons of the elections that have come in so far, and accept that we must reconnect and rebuild trust with working people, particularly in places like Hartlepool.

The most sympathetic reading of this car crash is that some combination of stress and poor sleep caused an embattled politician to bungle an interview. Both may be applicable in Starmer’s case, but they hardly negate the more obvious interpretation that he was ultimately unable to articulate a vision or policy agenda because he doesn’t really have them. Paul Williams, Labour’s candidate in Hartlepool, could do little better when asked by Owen Jones to articulate his party’s vision for Britain earlier this month:

JONES: Don’t use any platitudes when you answer this: What is Labour’s vision for the country now? What does Labour stand for? Don’t say “fairness” and everything being nice . . . What, concretely, is the vision?

WILLIAMS: People in this election aren’t talking, though, about Labour’s vision for the country. They’re talking about Labour’s vision for Hartlepool.

JONES: Okay, what is Labour’s vision for Hartlepool that is unique and different and distinct?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, so . . . the best companies come to Hartlepool to provide the best jobs because we have the best trained people . . .

JONES: Do the Tories disagree with that?

WILLIAMS: . . . because we’ve invested in people right from the start of life. And you make that difference to children, so by the time they start school, they’re able . . . they’re not behind their peers, they can read . . . they can . . . you then have small class sizes and really, um, you know . . . You help people get to a point where they can be . . . have really great skills, really great training, and then employers come to you not because you’ve got the lowest taxes [but] because you’ve got the best people.

Even for those unsympathetic to him, it can be difficult to fathom how a politician like Keir Starmer, capable of rising to the leadership of a major political party, has proven quite so unable to offer anything resembling a coherent political vision or statement of purpose after more than a year on the job. Whatever its original pretensions may have been about offering a more digestible and electable version of the program championed by Labour under its previous leadership, Starmerism has been a vapid farce from its outset: a Westminster-centric project with no discernable agenda or policy offerings, unwilling to fulfill even the most rudimentary obligations of a parliamentary opposition during a period of crisis, and so wedded to branding as an organizing principle that its adherents seem to think they can reverse structural political decline simply by bludgeoning erstwhile Labour heartlands with patronizing slogans and empty flag-waving.

Under Starmer’s leadership, the party has bled more than one hundred thousand members, been outflanked by the Tories from the left on corporation taxes, and, as of last week, can add electoral catastrophe to its ignominious roster of political achievements. If nothing else, it’s a somewhat ironic outcome for a leadership whose entire modus operandi was supposedly about offering a veneer of professional “competence” that its predecessor lacked.

Having followed up last week’s electoral disaster with a botched reshuffle that has further inflamed internal tensions and will ultimately see Labour’s front bench become even more right-wing, Starmer will presumably spend the coming weeks attempting to craft answers to the questions he so spectacularly failed to answer on the BBC. Whatever sound bites he and his besieged team of advisers do manage to assemble, it’s decidedly unlikely they’ll amount to much beyond a more polished (or perhaps a more explicitly conservative) version of what Starmerism has offered already.

Though it’s invariably tempting to put the failures and vacuousness of a political project down to individual leadership, centrist hollowness of the kind reflected in a figure like Keir Starmer is not ultimately about the personal flaws or deficiencies of a single person at the top. Starmer might have proven a better retail politician or someone quick enough on his feet to avoid cringeworthy phrasings like “changing the things that need changing,” and he’d still have been ill-equipped to offer a coherent vision or meaningful contrast with the government he’s charged with opposing.

Revisit the Labour leadership hustings from 2015, and you’ll similarly find the coterie of largely interchangeable centrist automatons who dominated its earliest stages struggling to articulate anything resembling a positive political vision beyond a handful of buzzwords. From the vaguely center-right figures (Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Liz Kendall) to the vaguely center-left ones (Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham), there seemed little of substance to debate beyond how a warmed-over version of New Labour–era triangulation was going to be packaged. In Starmer’s leadership, we’ve finally gotten a glimpse of what the Labour Party might have looked like between 2015 and 2019 had any of the various alternatives to Jeremy Corbyn succeeded, and the result has been every bit as politically nebulous as the early race to succeed Ed Miliband.

Once again, it’s tempting to ascribe this lack of dynamism to the individual calibers of the current cohort of centrist politicians. And, true enough, there has been a marked decline in talent among those who broadly embrace the New Labour consensus since it was first inaugurated nearly a quarter century ago. It’s next to impossible, for example, to imagine a Liz Kendall or a Keir Starmer laying out their political vision with the clarity, rhetorical skill, and ideological zeal possessed by Tony Blair in 1998:

My vision for the 21st century is of a popular politics reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic — patriotism and internationalism; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination . . . Human nature is cooperative as well as competitive, selfless as well as self-interested; and society could not function if it was otherwise. The grievous 20th century error of the fundamentalist left was the belief that the state could replace civil society and thereby advance freedom. The new right veers to the other extreme, advocating wholesale dismantling of core state activity in the cause of “freedom”. The truth is that freedom for the many requires strong government. A key challenge of progressive politics is to use the state as an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organisations and encouraging their growth to tackle new needs, in partnership as appropriate. These are the values of the Third Way.

Blair was ultimately able to articulate his vision in such lucid terms not because he was a vastly superior politician — though he was — but because it gave real expression to the zeitgeist of the late 1990s. In 1997, the neoliberal consensus (whatever else you might say about it) was still relatively new and untested in its post-Thatcherite incarnation, and there remained plenty for the apparatchiks of New Labour to do when it came to sweeping away the old order. If the neoliberal center today seems unable to communicate any substantive vision beyond the inane language of focus groups, a major reason is that the project that originally animated it has, by and large, already succeeded.

Blair’s revolution has come and gone, and with it a world where anything about its core tenets could be recognized as dynamic or modern. With neoliberalism now firmly embedded as the lingua franca of British politics, there remains little for its present-day adherents on the center right and center left to do beyond try to put lipstick on the proverbial pig of an order to which they have already surrendered. (The only other course available is to fall back on old slogans, reflexes, and habits — a fact that explains why the Starmer leadership has found its few moments of genuine energy in fighting or smearing the Left.) To this end, they debate empty catchphrases and microscopic differences of policy, trading in vague narratives about how British capitalism might be rebranded to seem ever so slightly less cruel.

With a Conservative Party dexterous enough to reinvent itself every few years, this effort will come to nothing in nine elections out of ten. Large sections of the British media, and even larger sections of British capital, will invariably prefer a Tory government over even the most neutered Labour opposition. Labour’s structural decline will continue as long as its leaders preclude the kind of radical critique and mass membership strategy that enabled Corbyn’s near-victory in 2017 — the sole exception to two decades of hemorrhaged votes and professionally managed political ossification (and, more recently, a handful of Labour councils where local activists bucked the leadership and ran on municipal socialism).

Keir Starmer’s spluttering inability to respond to even basic questions about the contours of his vision is thus about much more than the ineptitude of a single, sleep-deprived centrist out of his depth and suddenly worried about his job after a year of kid-gloves treatment from the media. The terror in the Labour leader’s eyes was that of a man not only unwilling to offer answers but congenitally unable to even imagine what they would be. A less mediocre figure than Starmer might have possessed the skills necessary to avoid the disastrous press tour and subsequent near-toppling that accompanied last week’s election results. But anyone waiting for a more politically savvy leader to draw a substantive political vision from the atrophied corpse of Britain’s neoliberal center will find themselves just as empty-handed as his interviewer on the BBC.