The culture war rages, the country is recovering from the largest pandemic of our lifetime, and there is a run on the pound – meanwhile, some commentators are pontificating about whether Keir Starmer is somewhat ‘boring’:
Starmer is seen as “decent” […]. The flipside is he can come across as a bit dull. […] there is something wavering in Starmer’s self-presentation that makes it hard for the public to “get” him .
We need to abandon measuring leaders by how exciting they are or whether we can see ourselves ‘having a drink down the pub with them’. In fact, we should want the opposite – I specifically don’t want to imagine the leader of the country down the pub, particularly off the back of a No. 10 operation that was ‘boozing while Rome coughed’.
It’s never been of particular importance to me to have a Prime Minister that was relatable on that level. We shouldn’t need to relate to them as we do pals in the pub at the weekend – we should need them to do the job and do it well. We didn’t need the bombast of a Prime Minister who built a career of the back of guffawing, and we don’t need one now who built it off the back of photo ops for likes on Conservative Instagram.
Nor should leaders feel the need to be ‘cool’ or ‘charismatic’. They are politicians. They’re not supposed to be cool, or overly charismatic – that all too often leads to demagoguery. Politicians are supposed to be slightly wonky and overly interested in making good policy. I still maintain that despite his un-photogenic efforts in eating a bacon sandwich, Ed Miliband would’ve made a good Prime Minister.
We don’t need to look far in our history for the perfect example – Clement Attlee. Attlee is widely regarded as Labour’s greatest leader, and often features within the top three on lists of the greatest PM. For the uninitiated, here’s his resume:
Attlee is the [Labour Party’s] longest serving leader, having held the office for 20 years. Between 1942 and 1945 he was Deputy Prime Minister in the wartime coalition, before becoming Prime Minister after the Labour landslide of 1945. That Labour Government oversaw the creation of a real welfare state in Britain, including founding the NHS.
Attlee’s government was radical and revolutionary in many senses. It ushered in many of the cherished progressive institutions of modern Britain. But Attlee was far from radical himself. Attlee was an unassuming man, who had a conservative disposition.
Attlee was often described in, shall we say, understated ways. When he was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1935 he was termed ‘a little mouse’. Churchill described Attlee as ‘a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about’. In his biography of Attlee, John Bew paints the picture of the ‘quiet man’:
Attlee’s outstanding quality […] was that none of his qualities were outstanding. He was not a deadly debater, even though he had bested Mosley. His tone was ‘metallic’ and his sentences overly precise. Loquaciousness was not one of his characteristics. With his tinny voice, he did not sound like a great statesman in the mould of Winston Churchill or Ramsay MacDonald.
Sound like someone we know? Keir – don’t fear the label of ‘boring’ too much. Don’t be distracted by the personality politics of the national media. Embrace the ‘quiet man’ image, the Attlee template. Show some self-awareness about how you might not be as bombastic or salacious as others, and turn it to your advantage. Be conservative in disposition, radical in policy.
In your pitch to the public during conference tell them that they won’t see you everyday over their cereal bowls on the news or as they doom-scroll through Twitter. Assure them that you’ll be quietly on the case of rebuilding this country – promise them a scandal-free, competent period of government. The public are fatigued by the upheavals of politics. They are screaming out for a sense of consistency, competency and security – provide them with that and they will give you the keys to Downing Street.