Keir Starmer, the Tortoise
A Most Unusual Politician
Hello Ruffians. I don’t write much about UK politics these days since so many of you are from overseas, but today is an exception. If you’re interested in Britain’s probable next Prime Minister, or just in the psychology of leadership, read on. Otherwise, see you next time for something completely different (oh and for paid subscribers there is a stash of good stuff after the jump…).
In 2019 Labour lost its fourth election in a row and suffered its worst defeat since 1935. The party was crushed, not just electorally but emotionally. In 2015, it had parted ways with Ed Miliband and fallen for Jeremy Corbyn, like a wounded lover rushing from one dysfunctional relationship into an even worse one. For four years it tore itself apart in a series of unseemly internecine rows over a leader despised by most of its own MPs, pilloried in the press, and held in contempt by voters, including traditionally Labour voters. Ideologues held sway in the party’s institutions and at its grassroots. The electoral map had been reshaped to the Tories’ advantage, perhaps permanently, by Brexit. Labour now needed a staggering 123 additional seats to win a majority. It was standing at the bottom of a vast and icy mountain, in its underpants.
At this point, it turned to Sir Keir Starmer. Just a year or so before, most pundits didn’t give him much of a chance - he didn’t seem like the type somehow. In 2020, the party did not fall in love with him; it chose him because he offered safety and an end to drama (friends say he seems dull but better than the weirdoes she usually goes for).
Less than four years later, Labour is between fifteen and twenty points ahead of the Conservatives, eighteen months or so before a general election. The ideologues are scattered, demoralised, heading for the exits. Starmer is favourite to be the next Prime Minister, with a parliamentary majority at his command.
We tend to underestimate how far the Labour Party has travelled under Starmer’s leadership, and forget how unlikely its current position seemed when he took over. Yes, Starmer has had the advantage of facing a self-immolating Tory Party, but in other ways, he was dealt a tougher hand than any previous Labour leader. Not only was his party broken when he took it over, but he became leader at the start of an unprecedented national crisis.
How do you oppose during a pandemic? Support the government too loyally and not only do you look weak but you become in hoc to its mistakes. Criticise it too stringently and you look like an unpatriotic, self-interested whinger. Either way you are marginal to the action, a bit player. The Prime Minister, even a poor one, can effortlessly dominate the stage.
Imagine becoming leader under these circumstances. You know that voters’ first impressions of you are crucial, but the news is crowding you out. All the internal relationship-building you urgently need to do in your first year - with MPs, with the shadow cabinet, with other party stakeholders - is much harder, since you can’t meet in person. Your first conference speech - usually an opportunity for a new leader to define themselves - is an airless video nobody watches.
There was no playbook for this. Starmer couldn’t look to previous leaders and study how they managed it. His predicament was unique. He did badly but it’s hard see how anyone could have done much better. In May 2021, as the vaccine rolled out, Labour suffered a humiliating byelection defeat in Hartlepool. At the same time, Starmer fell out with the party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner after he seemed to try and demote her. He then backed off, which looked weak. As Labour fell nearly twenty points behind the Tories in the polls, the consensus was that Starmer had already failed.
I remember this well because when I made the argument that he might not be finished it felt like sticking my neck out, and I got pummelled for it. Starmer himself now says this was the lowest point of his leadership (not my tweet, the byelection). He kept going, and, grimly, inch by inch, hauled himself and his party back into contention, getting lucky breaks on the way. And now here he is and here Labour is, with everything to play for.
In a way, the most impressive thing about this is that he has got here without establishing a strong personal connection with the electorate. In a recent focus group commissioned by Times Radio, swing voters were nearly unanimous in their dislike of him. Starmer was described as insincere, patronising, annoying, “an irritating brother who just nit-picks”. Some of this is the legacy of the pandemic - “Captain Hindsight” still comes up. But it’s also his demeanour - his high nasal voice and robotic delivery, his default tone of peeve - and his apparent uncertainty about what he stands for. Starmer has changed position, in rhetoric and substance, on a series of important issues since becoming leader (a journey forensically traced by Obadiah Mbatang). The voters have not necessarily followed all of these shifts, but they do think he’s shifty.
I agree with Helen Lewis that Starmer is “ruthless” in the sense that he is determined, focused on winning, and not sentimentally bound to factions or individuals. But to me the word implies a clarity of purpose which he does not have. Yes, he is determined to climb the mountain, but at any given moment he seems unsure of the path to the top. He kind of scrabbles around from side to side until he finds a way to get a few feet further along, and sometimes heads in the wrong direction before changing course.
His treatment of the gender issue is typical. A ruthless leader would have worked out what he thought about it by now, steamrollered internal opposition, and scraped this particular barnacle off the boat. Instead, he has shifted towards a tenable position by salami-sliced increments while allowing senior colleagues to ignore or contradict him. It is painful to watch, and typified by his latest, excruciating statement that 99.9% of women don’t have a penis. In politics, you really have to round up.
If you speak to those who have worked with or around Starmer they confirm what is apparent from a distance: he doesn’t have strong political instincts. He rarely has a strong, intuitive feel for a policy issue, or for political positioning, or for the right decision in a fast-moving situation. But they also say that this weakness is mitigated by a strength which is in some ways its flipside: he listens. He wants to hear the arguments and he tries to address his own areas of ignorance. He does not assume he is the smartest person in the room and he is not stubborn. So he learns on the job, slowly.
Starmer is a slow learner who improves gradually and erratically. That is why those of us who follow politics will always be frustrated by him, at any given point, yet also surprised by how much progress he makes. When I say he’s a slow learner, I don’t mean he’s dim; of course he’s not. It’s more that he relies heavily on his analytical brain because he can’t make the short cuts offered by strong intuitions. He has to run through all the computations, the costs and the benefits, before arriving at an output.
Why doesn’t he have better political antennae? Partly it’s because he didn’t become an MP until he was 54. Intuition is really just compressed memory. The reason a chess grandmaster can be shown a board mid-game and instantly “know” the right moves is that he’s played and studied thousands of games. Starmer is new to the game of politics, having come to it unusually late. It’s not just that, though - it’s also the way he processes the world.
Starmer is a naturally methodical, step-by-step thinker, uncomfortable with mental leaps, anxious about conclusions. Law, with its reliance on rules and logic and the correct linguistic formulation, is the perfect arena for people with over-developed left-brains, metaphorically speaking. As a lawyer Starmer worked in small teams of people who all worked and thought and communicated in the same style. In the wars of attrition he fought against the legal system there was a high premium on willpower. It didn’t matter very much whether people outside his team liked or trusted him, as long as he won the argument in the end. He was an activist in his youth, and passionate about politics. He must have been driven by a fierce sense of justice but he buried his fire deep inside in order to do the job. In Northern Ireland, he learnt more about how to cajole and persuade, and as head of the CPS, to communicate at scale. He was still within the orbit of the law, however, and more of an administrator than a leader.
In fact, Starmer is almost completely unsuited to the job of a political leader. Politics rewards people who have self-discipline, but who also keep their emotions closer to the surface. Individuals who can think emotionally as well as intellectually have greater speed and fluency of expression - they have a dash about them. Successful politicians tend to have a sense of theatre (Johnson had nothing but that). In the BBC’s New Labour documentary, the former cabinet secretary Richard Wilson spoke about Blair’s sense of himself as the protagonist in the drama of history. Barack Obama once remarked, self-knowingly, that you have to be a megalomaniac to run for president. Macron - n'en dis pas plus. Politics is kinder to extroverts, too - to politicians who love charming people and get a dopamine rush from crowds.
I don’t think any of this is true of Starmer and it’s a tribute to his sheer bloody-minded determination that he has got this far. Truly great politicians have all the talents in some measure but you can get a very long way with just one if you have it in abundance, as Johnson showed. Starmer’s is his determination to keep struggling towards a goal without knowing the route. He is an archetypal tortoise. He will never be swift or graceful or compelling but he keeps going, and, without apparently making progress, he gets much further than anyone anticipates.
A couple of weeks ago, Starmer was interviewed for the High Performance podcast, in which Jake Humphrey and Damian Hughes gently probe the psyches of high-achievers, mostly from the world of sport. The interview (available on YouTube) is the most revealing Starmer has ever given. In public, he usually comes across as cramped and constrained, always searching for the right lines from the correct script. Here, he makes a genuine attempt to be as candid and spontaneous as he can be.
When asked about his greatest weakness, Starmer brings up a comment made by Angela Rayner earlier this year. Starmer has had a tricky relationship with Rayner, who is in some ways his opposite. In a pithy encapsulation of their personality differences, she said, “I overshare…Keir undershares.” Rather than getting annoyed by that, Starmer seems to have taken the idea that he is an undersharer to heart. He returns to it several times in the interview, like it’s a touchstone.
“Undersharing can lead to members of your team to think you don’t care enough - you’re not showing enough emotion, so you don’t care. I’ve reflected on that a lot,” he says. By undersharing he means emotional parsimony. He finds it difficult to be open about his true feelings, which means that people find it hard to trust him. He also finds it hard to trust others. He mentions his team here but I think we can say exactly the same about his relationship with voters. Voters can see he’s competent, a grown-up who can do the job of Prime Minister (and therefore an advance on the last two Labour leaders). But they don’t feel like that they can see his heart, and he barely knows how to show it.
When Starmer says he’s reflected on this stuff, he really has. I don’t know if he’s been in therapy or if this comes from leadership coaching or just self-examination, but he’s clearly been giving serious thought to how his upbringing shaped his personality and leadership style. He discusses it at length, tearing up at a couple of points. It’s moving; I never thought I’d say this, but Keir Starmer made me cry. There is something particularly poignant about watching somebody uncomfortable with emotion struggle to master it.
Starmer’s childhood and young adulthood were dominated by his mother’s illness. Jo Starmer was a nurse and a loving and warm mother. She also suffered from a rare and disabling type of inflammatory arthritis called Still’s disease. When she was twenty she was told she wouldn’t be able to walk or have kids, but she determined to try anyway. She took steroids, and they helped - they enabled her to walk, and to have four children. But later on they contributed to a deterioration of her condition. She couldn’t use her hands, she had to have her leg amputated, and she was often close to death. Starmer says he was with her in intensive care many, many times, not knowing if she would make it or not. Imagine the fortress you need to build just to stop that from breaking you.
Starmer says his mother never moaned or complained about her condition. If you asked her how she was, on her hospital bed, she’d say she was fine and enquire after your health. (Jo Starmer died in 2015). His father, Rodney, was passionately devoted to his wife’s welfare. He knew every detail of her condition. He was always by her side when she needed him, spending many nights on hospital floors. But that meant he didn’t have much left over for his children, to whom he was loving but distant.
The legacy of this upbringing for Starmer’s leadership is both good and bad. On the one hand, “It’s given me a determination like nothing else on earth. Nothing will get in the way of what we’re trying to achieve.” Whenever he feels down or defeated, he thinks to himself, If mum could get up, I can get up. And he gets up. He is also imbued with his dad’s sense of duty and selflessness. “The vow he took when he got married was seared through him.”
On the other hand, it habituated him to the suppression of his own emotions, and gave him a certain wariness of others. He had to deal with intense stress and still get through the week, and that meant there was little time for play, for dreaming, for tantrums, or for crying. His father, a man of iron self-discipline, provided the model. Rodney, in Starmer’s description of him, was socially reserved, distrustful of strangers, and vigilant for slights. A toolmaker who worked in a factory, he felt looked down on by middle-class people. This was not a family in which emotional display or interchange was valued or practiced. It couldn’t be afforded.
“I’m piecing this together,” says Starmer at one point, to Humphrey and Hughes. “That thing Angela said about undersharing - the intensity of mum’s illness meant there wasn’t much emotional space in our household for much else…So I hold things in, that if I was Angela I’d probably share.” His biggest regret is visiting his dad in hospital, sensing that it was for the last time, and not telling him that he loved him, and he was proud of him. He cries when he talks about this. (Rodney Starmer died in 2018).
Starmer never mentions enjoyment or pleasure or satisfaction in the interview, just duty and responsibility and privilege. He talks a lot about how tough the job is on him and his family. He talks about how resilient he needs to be to recover from moments like Hartlepool (“like being punched in the stomach”), and how hard he works at shutting out criticism and abuse; he says that after a setback he “goes in on himself”, adopting a protective crouch, absorbing the blow, searching for the will to go on. “They are the low moments in politics,” he muses, and just when you think he is going to mention the highs, says, “There are many other times when it’s certainly not that bad.”
Starmer moves slowly and cautiously because he is, as psychoanalysts like to say, strongly defended, having formed a thick carapace of tortoiseshell to hide his vulnerabilities. A strong defence tends to slow you down. Starmer is like Arsenal in the heyday of Tony Adams under George Graham - solid, hard to beat, rather dull. The analogy is not totally gratuitous; Starmer is a committed Arsenal fan. He will know that the Arsenal of that era did not reach its full potential until Arsène Wenger built flair and creativity on top of the team’s defensive foundation.
(A friend of mine, not into politics, has an Arsenal season ticket and often sees Starmer at matches. He told me that Starmer seems so much more human than on TV, shouting, cheering, laughing with abandon. Perhaps it’s a space in which he gets to be the kid he couldn’t be when he was young, and can’t be now in a job that weighs so heavily upon him.)
I don’t want to reduce all politics to psychology (or football) but I do believe that much of what Starmer needs to do now comes down to how he feels about himself as a leader. The lack of clarity about what his government will focus on, the fudging and avoidance of difficult questions, the stiffness in presentation - these will all improve if he can become more relaxed in public and more confident in his instincts, which have developed and strengthened over the course of his leadership. He is like a budding concert pianist who has spent years learning technique and must now learn to forget it.
I suspect Starmer has realised that his personality has become a barrier to winning and he has gone to work on it, in his methodical fashion. He will never be a Clinton or Blair (or Bergkamp) but he has already loosened up considerably, without losing that inexhaustible determination to progress. He might even learn to enjoy the job one day - the more he does, the better he will be at it. Will he improve enough to be the truly consequential politician he desperately wants to be? I don’t know for sure, but I think he is getting there - slowly, which is how he gets everywhere.
This post is free to read so if you enjoyed it, do overshare. Oh and buy my book on productive disagreement, which is called CONFLICTED in most places and HOW TO DISAGREE in the UK. Plenty on the interplay between rationality and emotion in there.
Oh, Elon Musk has made it harder to post Substack links on Twitter. You can post them but people can’t retweet or like them (plus you get a stupid ‘unsafe’ warning). So go ahead and do it to piss him off - using a URL shortener seems to help get round the problem.
After the jump, more thoughts on leadership, inspired by recent news in football (sorry), plus a feast of very juicy links to the interesting and beautiful.