General Election 2024

Of course Starmer is boring. That’s a good thing

We’ve got a bit too used to excitement and chaos in Westminster

June 12, 2024
A calm presence? Keir Starmer in Gillingham, Kent, back in May. Image: PA Images / Alamy
A calm presence? Keir Starmer in Gillingham, Kent, back in May. Image: PA Images / Alamy

“Politics,” the German sociologist Max Weber said, is “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” That’s boring as a verb, of course, meaning drilling. (In German: “Ein starkes langsames Bohren von harten Brettern”.) It is hard work, and it is unending.

This may not sound like an election-winning slogan, or an inspirational mission statement. Where’s the fun in that, you might ask. Bor-ing! Switch it off.

In a multimedia “attention economy”, being switched off could spell commercial ruin. Politicians need to command our attention, too, if they want a hearing. And even if politics has also been dismissed as “showbusiness for ugly people”, this still implies that an element of showbusiness is required.

Perhaps the most persistent criticism made of Keir Starmer is that he is boring. All that measured lawyerly calm, the stubborn reluctance to tell jokes or make frivolous quips for the cameras. “He’s an uncharismatic control freak,” according to one columnist. How unlike that scruffy bag of fun who used to be prime minister, you know the one I mean, blond hair all over the place, untucked shirt, mistresses and children all around town...

Starmer went to speak at Gillingham Town football club in Kent the other day, and made an observation about that lowly team’s connection to all-conquering Manchester City, a comment which was damned by one reporter as, yes, “boring”. Well, quite a lot of people do find football boring, I suppose. But the remarks were at least tactful as far as the hosts were concerned, and are likely to have gone down rather well with the people for whom they were intended.

Perhaps lobby (read, Westminster) journalists have got a bit too used to drama, excitement and chaos in recent times. Maybe the thought of months and years of Starmerism—earnest speeches, unflashy projects—is unsettling. “At some stage, he will need to offer some sense of excitement so that voters bother turning out for Labour”, wrote Isabel Hardman in the i newspaper. It’s a reasonable point, one that the manifesto may begin to address. But Starmer and his team may also feel that a steady 20-point poll lead is all the excitement they need.

Undoubtedly there will have to be more specificity, and energy, about Labour’s pitch to the voters in the last weeks of the election campaign. The party remains vulnerable to scare stories about made-up policy proposals, such as the recent Tory attack on tax, for as long as it does not offer more detail on what Labour would actually do in government. There has to be a point in voting for someone. It may not be enough to rely on Tory apathy or resignation to win seats.

But Starmer is, deliberately I think, trying to change the terms of trade in British politics. For him this is not a game. He is not faking his earnestness. If others find that boring, so be it. It could be that improving the NHS, fostering renewed economic growth and building more homes will constitute not merely a refreshing change but something quite energising. At the same time, when crises beset the new government, as they surely will, calm and steadiness could look like incompetence if prompt and decisive action is not being taken. 

For now, the Labour campaign is all about reassurance, being unscary. This is what Starmer delivers. In the 1980s, the advertising slogan for Stella Artois, the Belgian lager, was “reassuringly expensive”. Today it is almost as if Starmer is being presented to the country as “reassuringly boring”. 

Excitement is in the eye of the beholder. The Michael Palin and Terry Jones comedy series Ripping Yarns featured one episode, “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite”, in which a boring young man unexpectedly becomes a local hero. Suddenly his tedious thoughts about rain gauges and shovels became… interesting. Starmer, the commentator Philip Collins has written, is a “safe, secure, conservative Englishman… he has been underestimated all the way and he will merit his victory.”

Yes, politics is hard work, as Weber implied. But in order to keep boring on, as it were, you need two other qualities, he said: passion and perspective (Leidenschaft and Augenmass). Starmer still needs to convince voters that has both.