In Britain, boring is good; and that could help Keir Starmer become next PM

Labour looks back in history to borrow some winning tactics

These days in Britain, boring is good. After the hangover of Boris Johnson’s wild escapades, Liz Truss’s wilder financial swings, Brexit’s economic nosedives, and Rishi Sunak’s flipflops, British voters find the unexciting rather appealing. The turbulent Tory decade has been an era when entertainment trumped issues, sloganeering outgunned policy and drama beat governance. Now everyone is fed up. Labour Party’s staid leader, Keir Starmer, is likeable precisely because he is a boring lawyer who shuns Johnson-style gimmicks like sliding down a zip wire, only to get stuck midair.

Johnson is Tories’ best vote-getter, but polls predict a Labour win in the upcoming elections. Starmer is offering voters a porridge of policies—boring, but healthy for the nation. In his “pledge card” to the nation, he makes six promises: to deliver economic stability, cut national health service (NHS) waiting times for treatment, establish a state-owned energy company, tackle anti-social behaviour, recruit more teachers and launch a border security force to stop illegal migration. Denying that the pledges were a dilution of his earlier climate and economic plans, Starmer said these “ready-to-go pledges are a means to the end, a down-payment on the first steps to change Britain”. The rest to be announced after election victory, he said.

Underfunding has undermined NHS’s ability to provide adequate health care, provoking public outrage. NHS doctors saved Covid-afflicted Johnson’s life. He was effusively grateful, but was unwilling or unable to upgrade NHS, perhaps because of the Tory obsession with cutting public services. Starmer, who comes from a working-class background—father a factory toolmaker, mother an NHS nurse—is sincerely grateful for the NHS care and hospitalisation his mother received for lifelong crippling arthritis. His wife is an NHS nurse. His commitment to revive NHS is deep and personal.

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

Unlike Johnson’s life of revelry and privilege, Starmer is the first from his family to go to university. As a lawyer, he defended the rights of victims of domestic, criminal and political violence. He was knighted for his role as chief prosecutor in 2014. For the ceremony in Buckingham Palace, he invited his parents—who brought their family dog along. Starmer knows tragedy. By 2018, his mother had succumbed to disease, his father died heart-broken and the dog perished when their family home burned down.

In contrast with Johnson’s hype and hyperbole, Starmer is almost dour. But that apparently is the need of the hour. Labour presents Starmer as mature, solid, family-oriented. His seriousness promises “dull dividends” say experts. The uncertainties triggered by Brexit and the chaotic reign of Johnson and Truss instigated businesses to withhold investments, dampening growth. Now, people and businesses crave for stability, the markets yearn for fiscal policies without the fizz and fissures that marked Truss’s tenure. Uncertainty brings bad economic outcomes, but certainty usually improves employment and industrial production. A traumatised Britain appears soothed by Starmer’s ‘Boring Bonus’.

Helping Britain’s transition from populism to policy is Labour’s research group, “Labour Together”, which is growing in clout, staff and donations. They are preparing the policy groundwork for an “incoming” Labour government and road maps for its implementation. It is pulling the party to middle-ground from the leftist positions of previous Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Even as it prepares for the future, Labour looks back in history to borrow some winning tactics. Its “pledge card” is a repeat version of the card it published before its landslide victory in 1997. But the tone is different. This time the message is “Steady hands on the wheel”. The adults return. Boring is back.

Pratap is an author and journalist.