Jeremy corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 was an early warning that the populist virus was spreading to the Anglo-Saxon world. The next few years saw Donald Trump win the White House, Britain vote to leave the eu, and, after three years of gridlock, Boris Johnson take over the Conservative Party on a promise of getting Brexit done “do or die”. Could Mr Corbyn’s retirement from the leadership on April 4th bring about another big change in politics?
The populist fires are burning brighter than ever in the United States, where Democratic activists love Bernie Sanders for the same reasons that Corbynistas loved Mr Corbyn, and with the same disregard for their hero’s electability. But the fires seem to be dying down in Britain. The latest YouGov/Sky poll of Labour Party members shows Sir Keir Starmer, a former barrister and director of public prosecutions, beating Rebecca Long-Bailey, a left-winger who is his principal rival for the leadership, by 53% to 31% of first-preference votes.
Sir Keir is the polar opposite of the charismatic populists who bestride much of the world. People who know him agree on two basic facts. The first is that he is a thoroughly decent human being—a family man with none of the hauteur that can afflict prominent politicians. The second is that he’s very serious. The most common words used to describe him are competent, credible, diligent, cautious and even boring.
His position as front-runner suggests that it is possible to recover from even a serious dose of populism. Pessimists have worried that populism is self-reinforcing, that converts respond to defeat not by moderating their position but by demanding madder music and stronger wine. But the party is clearly sobering up after its catastrophic defeat in December. More than 100,000 people have joined or re-joined since the election, in part to have a say over the next leader, and many long-standing members, including prominent Corbynistas such as Paul Mason, have concluded that winning elections matters more than ideological purity.Sir Keir is only one of a new wave of moderates. On February 6th Liam Byrne, a one-time Blairite, defeated two left-wing candidates, backed by Momentum and big unions, to win the party’s nomination for mayor of the West Midlands.
Sir Keir’s lead also suggests that British politics will be configured differently from American politics. While America, if Mr Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, will see a competition between two forms of populism, in Britain a populist prime minister will square up against a technocrat. If politics is best when it is a study in contrasts, then Britain is in for a feast.
Boris Johnson and Sir Keir could hardly be more different. Mr Johnson was born into the heart of the British establishment. Sir Keir is the embodiment of the meritocracy. His father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse who gave up work because she contracted a rare disease that eventually paralysed her. Sir Keir was the only one of four siblings to pass the 11-plus and was the first member of his family to go to university. Mr Johnson is a charismatic politician who can light up a room with his presence. Sir Keir has cultivated an air of high seriousness which verges on dullness. Mr Johnson is a big-picture man who can capture the mood of the times with a single phrase (“Get Brexit done”) but who is often weak on detail, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Sir Keir is a forensic lawyer who masters his briefs.
Sir Keir’s approach to winning the nomination has been a study in careful triangulation. He has gone out of his way to praise both Tony Blair and Mr Corbyn. “Don’t trash the last Labour government and don’t trash the last four years,” is a mantra. He has surrounded himself with people from all sides of the party, including Simon Fletcher, a former chief of staff to Mr Corbyn, and Jenny Chapman, a former vice-chair of the Blairite pressure group, Progress. By couching his politics in vague terms—he wants to be both “radical” and “relevant”, for example—he has given himself maximum freedom of manoeuvre.
While it is hard to define what Sir Keir stands for politically, it is clear what he isn’t: a populist. He personifies the “blob” that populists accuse of frustrating the will of the people. He is a leading human-rights lawyer who has not been afraid to take on even the most unpopular cases. In 2008 he won one on behalf of two terrorist suspects that led to control orders—restrictions on the liberty of unconvicted people—being declared unlawful.
Being dull will not by itself turn Sir Keir into a winner. Competence is compelling only in pursuit of a goal. He needs to articulate a vision of the future and to acquire—or reveal—a killer instinct. His first test will be whether he has the courage to deny Ms Long-Bailey the shadow chancellorship and give it to somebody from the right of the party, such as Yvette Cooper.
But his seriousness may prove an asset. The world may lose patience with the larger-than-life personalities of populist leaders. A Trump-Sanders match-up for the American presidency will exhaust normal people’s appetites for bellowing and finger-jabbing. A hard Brexit next January, accompanied by queues of lorries at ports and empty shelves, may confront voters with the consequences of Mr Johnson’s “do or die” rhetoric. A coronavirus pandemic would put a premium on diligence and expertise.
The last time Labour elected a leader who personified cautious competence was in 1935. Winston Churchill, Mr Johnson’s great hero, and his superior in flamboyance among other traits, dismissed Clement Attlee as a modest man with much to be modest about. Aneurin Bevan, the leader of the left, said that “things happened to him. He never did anything.” But during his 20 years as leader Attlee brought the party from the socialist wilderness into the mainstream, beat Churchill in 1945 and led one of the 20th century’s great reforming governments. History is made by colourless men just as much as colourful ones. ■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “The man who dares to be dull”