The era-defining question facing Labour: is there such a thing as Starmerism? | Alan Finlayson

Politics is all about telling a story of how we got here and where we could go. So far, the leader has only hinted at such a vision

Retired generals in the Labour camp are restless. In April Alastair Campbell noted how political discussion was rarely “framed by things Labour has said or done”. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Peter Mandelson urged Keir Starmer to “construct a project of his own”, something more than a “short-term political fix”. These are just two of the more prominent voices concerned that Starmer’s Labour has yet to outline, in Mandelson’s words, “how it would do things differently”.

The issue here is the question of vision. Starmer’s cautious competence has given him approval ratings higher than those of a particularly poor prime minister. But can Labour look further ahead than next week’s poll? If so, what does it think it sees? We know that Starmer is in charge, but will there be a Starmerism lighting a path to the future and defining the party’s agenda?

Political “isms” give movements a sense of direction and purpose. They redraw the lines of disagreement and provide a compelling explanation of what is happening and how we got here. For Thatcherism, the national culture had been corrupted by an overgrown state, the rejection of traditional morality and growth of liberal and socialist beliefs in local councils, trade unions and schools. For Blairism, the “modernisation” of society and economy was held back by the discriminatory, change-averse forces of conservatism. For Brexitism, distant elites who “loved the EU” were ignoring “the people”.

Those movements also identified the heroes who would slay the dragons in our path. For Thatcherism it was patriotic entrepreneurs rationally pursuing their self-interest; for Blairism, upwardly mobile professionals cool with diversity but not their kids’ education; for Brexitism, stout-hearted Englishmen sticking it to the French. They staged national melodramas, adventures of decline and redemption that invited people to play a starring role in the next act. Instead of merely identifying social groups to target, they used language in which people could talk about themselves and feel part of political history. In doing so, these ideologies brought new political identities into being, and changed politics irrevocably.

Margaret Thatcher’s vision was already present in her speeches and writings during the 1970s. Tony Blair was arguing for “a modern, active society with a modern notion of active government to go with it” long before he became party leader. But the shape of Starmerism-to-come is hard to make out. Because he has only been in parliament since 2015, there is no archive of Starmer’s speeches from which to divine his political theory. His writings on politics and the law show a sophisticated commitment to protecting the rights that underpin democratic freedom. He has criticised New Labour’s emphasis on “no rights without responsibilities”, argued that a “radical and ambitious” project for Labour could be anchored by the idea of human rights and expressed support for both electoral reform and a convention to review the constitution.

But these claims are technocratic, not dramatic. They are not linked to a broader explanation of how we got here, nor what we must overcome if we are to go somewhere better. And in Starmer’s more recent speeches, moral gesturing crowds out political analysis. In his April leadership acceptance speech, for example, he said that the pandemic had “brought out the resilience and human spirit in all of us” arguing that the party “must go forward with a vision of a better society built on that resilience and built on that human spirit”. These vague ideas were evidently so important to Starmer that he repeated them word-for-word in May when responding to Johnson’s address on coronavirus.

Stronger hints of what Starmerism could be are found in The New Working Class by Labour’s director of policy, Claire Ainsley. She recognises the continued centrality of class to Britain’s society and economy while stressing that it can’t be reduced to a uniform set of outlooks and attitudes. But Ainsley’s trenchant criticism of political and cultural elites’ “systematic dismantling of working-class institutions” and “denigration of what it means to be working class” is not matched by an analysis of economic elites. At times, her book treats shifts in labour markets and changes to people’s working lives and incomes as natural occurrences rather than things that are done by some people to others.

Instead of a political theory, Ainsley offers an electoral strategy informed by psychological research and opinion polling. A political movement cannot ignore polls, but if it follows them too slavishly it will miss opportunities to lead. Labour Together’s report on the 2019 election showed that the party’s political future (if it has one) requires uniting social groups that currently have contradictory outlooks. Doing so will take more than triangulation and targeted adverts on Facebook. It requires “the vision thing”.

Now is not the time for “retail politics”, the offer of a few pence here and a percentage point there. The pandemic has robbed us of certainty about what next week might hold: whether we will still have a job, send our kids to school or be able to visit friends and relatives. This occlusion of the future has intensified anxieties. Meanwhile technological upheaval, economic turmoil and the social media outrage cycle prevent us from seeing what lies ahead, still less imagining a place there for ourselves. If politics cannot provide us with a vision for the future, then we look to past utopias, cling to conspiracy theories that tell us who to blame, and build barricades to protect what little safe space we have left.

Even at the best of times the Labour party looks inward, its factions keen to prove their moral superiority over others who lack commitment, seriousness or realism. The leadership’s political analysis seems stuck at the last election, the drama it wants to enact confined to the repeated overthrow of Corbynism. But nothing can be gained from refusing to think and talk about the existential challenges we face.

Starmer’s commitment to human rights and democratic reform, and Ainsley’s strong advocacy of the “self-organisation of the new working class” and original ideas about economic ownership could yet be the foundations of a persuasive political ideology. If that is to happen, Labour needs be less risk averse. It needs to share in the growing recognition that we have wrecked our politics by centralising power in the hands of a few whose only qualification for office is that they want it most. Our leaders have harmed the economy by treating common interests as a hindrance to the wealth accumulation of a few, and neglected the institutions, people and professions most needed in a time of crisis.

Alongside recognising these truths, Labour needs to offer a compelling explanation for why we got here, what we have to overcome, and who we need to be to create a better future than the overheating dystopia that we feel in our bones is already here. To coin a phrase, there is no alternative. Starmer needs a Starmerism, and he needs it now.

  • Alan Finlayson is professor of political and social theory at the University of East Anglia.

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Alan Finlayson

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