DDonald Trump paved the way for the White House by inventing extremely vicious and highly adhesive nicknames for his opponents. First, he used this unsavory but effective tactic to tear down 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 a nickname for Joe Biden. After four years of wild and scary Trump antics, a sizable chunk of mainstream voters liked the idea of having a president who wouldn’t keep them up at night. To them, “Sleepy Joe” didn’t sound like an insult but a recommendation.
This result was an encouragement for anti-populist politicians and nowhere was Trump’s defeat more warmly welcomed than among supporters of Sir Keir Starmer, the polar opposite of a populist. His people interpreted the 2020 US elections as a turning point in the global political tide, moving away from the cheap, mean, and dangerous theatrics of nationalist demagogues toward cautious characters offering moderation, competence, and respect for integrity. Where skeptics have always worried about Sir Keir’s lack of brilliance and sometimes ponderous seriousness, his supporters have seen a growing electoral market for these traits. As Britain wore itself out with the trashy pantomime of the Johnson regime, supporters of the Labor leader often told me that voters would be drawn to Starmer without drama. What if he was a bit boring? The times made it a virtue. Professionalism, decency and reliability: these were qualities he had in abundance and would be virtues that voters would appreciate after their experience of populism’s destructive psychodramas.
Bored school is better received another boost when Olaf Scholz won German elections last year to become his country’s first social-democratic leader in 16 years. A bald, deadpan lawyer dressed in charcoal shades, Scholz’s mechanical-sounding choice of words often made him sound like a robot. The German media dubbed him “the Scholzomat”, a nickname he gladly adopted. His campaign slogan—”Scholz will sort it out”—presented him as a reliable tradesman rather than a visionary statesman. It worked. Mr. Scholz’s campaign has succeeded in making a virtue of his image as a colorless but diligent technocrat.
A Gray Lawyer’s triumph across the North Sea has given the Starmerites yet another reason to be optimistic about their man’s prospects. They could also draw on Labour’s own history to prove that boredom can be an electoral virtue. Winston Churchill sniffed that Clement Attlee was “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and a “modest man who has plenty of reason to be modest”. But Attlee had his critics’ last laugh in 1945 when the flamboyant wartime leader suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the timid and taciturn Labour.
This is proof of the thesis that Labor can fight their way to victory under Sir Keir. The problem with this proposal is that its proponents have to go either overseas or into British history over 70 years to find an example of an uninspired progressive leader winning power against a right-wing opponent. So many Labor are not convinced that this is a winning formula. This anxiety is prompting a growing number of them to make it known that they fear Sir Keir will bore the electorate to death. It has led to the Labor leader telling the Shadow Cabinet that he is upset to read that some of them are walking around grumbling at reporters that he is boring. “What’s boring is being in opposition,” he told them.
There wouldn’t be these bouts of anxiety about his performance in the Labor ranks if they were all totally convinced that Sir Keir is going to get them out of opposition. They wouldn’t mind if he was duller than ditch water if he had a massive lead in the polls. The problem is, it doesn’t. A member of the Shadow Cabinet recently told me that Sir Keir should be heartily praised for making Labor less loathsome to voters, including rooting out the anti-Semitism that plagued the party during the Corbyn years and restoring the credentials of the Labor Party on security and patriotism. But that senior MP went on to say that ‘there is a widespread feeling in the party that Keir has done all he can’.
Labor has outstripped the Tories on most issues pollsters have polled, but that sounds more like a judgment on the Tories’ abysmal record than an endorsement of the Labor alternative, not least because many voters express bewilderment when are asked to say what they are offered by Sir Keir. Labor has a lead in the polls but is not as decisive as the party hopes against a law-breaking Tory Prime Minister who is described as a disgrace by many of his own MPs and presides over the most severe pressure on living standards in more than half a century. We are probably two years away from the next general election. Labor who have been around for some time will recall their party enjoying a more impressive polling advantage over the Tories under Ed Miliband in 2013 before losing in 2015. Although you’re unlikely to hear from a Labor MP saying this publicly, some stealthily harbor the idea that it could be good news for their party if Sir Keir is fined by the police for breaking the lockdown, as he would be forced to keep his promise to quit, further embarrassing Boris Johnson not to do the same while offering Labor an opportunity to find a successor with more sparkle and sparkle. “The parliamentary party is agitated and carried away”, remarks one of the closest allies of the Labor leader.
The twin criticisms are that Sir Keir does not explain what he stands for and does not enthuse the public. The first is unfair, the second gets to the bottom 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 outline of a potentially compelling Labor prospectus. His speech at his party’s last conference contained an excellent passage articulating his values and explaining how they stem from his family background and life experiences. What everyone struggles with is remembering a compelling statement of their vision or a resonant explanation of how Labor would change Britain for the better.
Since January, the Labor Party has produced a cutoff policy that has garnered media attention and appears to have intruded on public consciousness. It was the windfall tax on oil companies’ windfall profits to raise additional funds to protect people from soaring energy prices. This policy was easy to understand, it was promoted relentlessly, it created a sharp line with the government, it divided conservatives on how to react, and it was very popular with the public. The Tories were then pressured to say they would make a version of it themselves, allowing Labor to claim they were winning ‘the battle of ideas’ but dispossessing the party of its one outstanding proposal.
Labor needs more initiatives like this: iconic ideas that shape the political climate, baffle their opponents, engage the public and offer guidance on what to expect from a Labor government. Each policy should contribute to an overarching theme about renewing Britain. This is the way to look like a credible ruling party with a clear and engaging plan for the country.
“Sleepy” Joe Biden was the leader of an agenda that was, by American standards, ambitiously left-wing. Scholz was the face of a campaign which, borrowing a device pioneered by New Labour, made five signature pledges on key issues such as wages, pensions and home building. Attlee’s behavior may have been modest, but the Labor manifesto to rebuild post-war Britain was anything but.
The lesson of past and more recent history may be this. A charismatic leader capable of generating enthusiasm can win over the center-left with a cautious agenda, as Tony Blair demonstrated in 1997. A dramatic manifesto for social and economic change presented by an unobtrusive leader can also be a successful mix , as Attlee proved in 1945. What doesn’t work is a radical plan presented by an alarming leader, as Jeremy Corbyn confirmed in 2019. The combination of an uninspired leader with a lackluster prospectus doesn’t look like a promising formula either.