A tale of two Starmers
For about 10 seconds earlier this week, I warmed to Keir Starmer. Granted, reintroducing supervised teeth brushing for primary school children doesn’t represent the Khmer-Rouge-style Year Zero approach required by 40 years of Neo-Liberal devastation but, hey, it’s something.
Accompanied by chillingly ambitious Shadow Heath Secretary, Wes Streeting, the Labour leader toured the studios to let us know that, under them, state intervention will be making a comeback.
This was uncharacteristically nimble politics from Starmer. Interfering in every aspect of our lives is the only Socialist impulse Labour has retained in its current incarnation, so it makes sense to offer it as a virtue before Andrew RT Davies starts tweeting ‘Labour will forcibly clean your teeth with blankets’ 26 times a day until the election.
Rotten teeth are, according to Shiny Wes, the leading cause of hospital admissions for children. In the quiescent world of New New Labour (25% more new, 50% less Labour) absolutely nothing can be considered desirable unless it saves money.
It’s one thing that little Nathan has to suffer the trauma of having all his baby teeth extracted, but ‘the cost to our NHS’ is why action must be taken.
The political reason for making such a hullabaloo about this minor policy adjustment was that it allowed Starmer to say he was ‘Up for the fight’ against those who claimed Labour was proposing a nanny state.
The 20mph debate here has clearly spooked UK Labour. The tactics used to oppose that law could be applied to anything a Labour government seeks to do.
With the population disheartened by years of declining spending power, people are understandably tetchy about any government intrusion into the private sphere.
Separating your recycling is a far more cheerful task if you’re off out for the night afterwards. Doing it upon returning from the food bank, however, can feel like forced labour.
Most of us accept that it has to be done, however, and Starmer’s task is to persuade us that neglecting civic virtues is why things have got so bad. Rebranding society as a benevolent environment after decades of extreme individualist rhetoric is a laudable ambition.
The role of National Life Coach, however, comes with an expectation of personal rectitude that is difficult to fulfil. Boris Johnson managed to survive for as long as he did by projecting his dissolute selfishness as charming, thus relieving the electorate of any pressure to be socially responsible.
Starmer’s ‘I’m not angry with you, just disappointed’ approach will see his adherence to principle scrutinised robustly. His performance this week suggests that this will be an uncomfortable experience for him.
In 2020, when he was running for the Labour leadership, Starmer pledged to ‘pass legislation to say military action could only be taken if a lawful case was made, there was a viable objective and consent from the House of Commons had been given.’
This week, after immediately backing the UK/US bombing mission in Yemen, he was pressed on that commitment by Laura Kuenssberg.
He replied, ‘There is obviously a huge distinction between an operation, the like of which we have seen in the last few days, and military action, a sustained campaign, military action usually involving troops on the ground.’
Asked if he still proposed legislation, Starmer clarified,
‘I want to codify that – it could be by a law; it could be by some other means. I’m not ruling out law.’
People familiar with the fate of Starmer’s other pledges to the Labour membership will be unsurprised by this repositioning. The wider electorate, however, is yet to experience the temporary nature of his positions on fundamental matters of principle.
Starmer has bet the farm on Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity being the cause of Labour’s recent electoral woes. In doing so, he has overlooked the widespread anger at Tony Blair’s perceived dishonesty over Iraq and Labour’s failure to address underlying economic factors in the widening inequality that has marginalised much of the UK.
Discontent towards the end of the last Labour administration gave rise to UKIP and the chaos of Brexit. Resultingly, fissures that existed in society then have widened into chasms into which ever more impoverished citizens fall.
If Starmer plans an interventionist government, it will succeed only by example. A man who seeks to supervise the nation’s oral hygiene needs to watch what passes his lips.
Flags & Bones by Ben Wildsmith is available to order from Cambria Books
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