SOMETIMES THE GREAT voting public has a gift for piercing to the heart of the matter. In a recent Ashcroft survey, respondents were asked to compare political leaders to animals. Alex Salmond drew unflattering comparisons with a warthog, while Boris Johnson was said to resemble a baboon, an orangutang or even (the scruffiest of birds) a pigeon.
Keir Starmer’s spirit animals were defined by their low profile: some thought of him as a mole. One participant said: “A sloth. Slow to react. Amazing opportunities to react to things but by the time he kind of raises his head and looks up, you know, the Tories have dodged another bullet.”
As this voter observes, a year of Conservative mismanagement has failed to rouse slothful Starmer to decisive action. The sleaze scandals almost seem to compound the point. Sir Keir gave the appearance of being more concerned by the details of upholstery than by what the catalogue of revelations said about the mismanagement of the lockdowns. As one viewer noted on ConterLIVE last night, it will be very British if Johnson gets hauled down by a home improvement scandal rather than for his lethal negligence over the pandemic.
It’s interesting to compare Starmer’s lethargic opposition with events across the Atlantic. Joe Biden (nicknamed “Sleepy Joe”) is Starmer’s spiritual counterpart in more ways than one. But while Britain’s centre-left has snoozed through its alarms, Sleepy Joe has jolted awake.
In the largest overhaul of US benefits since the 1960s, Biden has presented a $4 trillion package for jobs, education and social care. Speaking of his jobs plan, he called it a “blue-collar blueprint to build America”, and was careful to bridge damaging culture war divides: “When I think climate change I think jobs.” He also proposed tax rises for wealthy Americans: “It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1%…to pay their fair share.”
Sadly, this doesn’t truly demonstrates the strength of the American Left, although doubtless Sanders himself, circa 2016, exerted an electric impact on the rhetoric of mainstream American politics. But Biden’s largesse says less about incipient American socialism and more about the desperate plight of American capitalism, politically and economically. Biden has all the instincts of a right-wing Democrat: tough on crime, hawkish on foreign policy, a soft touch for corporate America. However, at times ideology must be jettisoned for pragmatic solutions to save the system.
None of the above is unheard of, since it’s often the most flawed characters who introduce the most radical policies. Lyndon B Johnson’s scheming opportunism (well captured in Robert Caro’s biography) and near-genocidal role in Vietnam didn’t stop him being surprisingly progressive on the domestic front; even Richard Nixon, the king of connivance and architect of the racially divisive “Southern strategy”, was moderate and even radical next to many a Democrat on social security and the environment. Perhaps cynicism makes them better attuned to knowing when the jig is up. Sometimes the cost of not intervening is the collapse of power structures. The Capitol Hill riot was symbolic in that respect.
Policy largesse doesn’t necessarily herald a move to the left. It simply means that nobody can pretend anymore that neoliberal solutions work in practice. Biden’s bailout package is an admission of failure, not a sign of working class empowerment.
That said, it raises a question or two for Sleepy Keir. What does the Labour Party stand for in this crisis? His one decisive move was to purge the Left; Biden, an arch right-winger in Democrat terms, took the opposite tack – he stole the Left’s policy thunder. Labour is notorious for grovelling before the intellectual authority of American liberals. Will slothful Starmer finally wake up to events across the Atlantic?