Let’s hope for driverless cars, if these are our choices
A critique of Keir Starmer’s vision of where Labour is headed under his leadership.
I love a good essay. Once the most eloquent way to present an account. A reasoned version of a truth. Some of the most captivating narratives of the English speaking world took the form of the essay.
Today however, I am going to join the evening traffic report. Reflecting upon the road works and pot holed carriageways holding the narratives of the day. Boris Johnson offered us an essay of sorts a while back on his vision of Brexit. I was surprised and disappointed at its flippant account of what had been, and a flaccid and uncommitted account of what was hoped to come. For a man of words, with journalistic training, this was very much not worth the 18 month gestation it took him to write. I was therefore curious to see how Keir Starmer would fair, with his legal training, and similar time to prepare. His own essay offering, was this week made accessible ahead of conference season. I spent a few hours of Thursday evening in similar despair. It prompted a change of direction of my own, by way of this evening blog.
I will confess to being somewhat torn between these two essays by two head boys. Star pupils that are Boris and Keir. Not by the politics, although neither camp convinces me enough. I am torn between the lasting impression I suspect I will now hold long of both political figureheads. Torn as to which one presented the least convincing case. The least accomplished representation of the essay form, each has claimed to write.
These were two opportunities to present a version of truth. A perspective of intended change. In my project language, each reflects a project of political means to direct us all with clarity of purpose and outcomes of intended change. As projects I will therefore attempt to use my metrics of visibility | behaviour | trust to consider the truth this latest outline of a project represents. This essay entitled “The Road Ahead”, by Keir Starmer MP. Originally accessed via BBC website.
Regardless of political leanings therefore, lets take a look at 11,500 words of missed chances to present a plan of time-bound intended change. Using v | b | t to guide another critique.
I conclude a draw. This offering to be on par, and to be as accomplished a vacuum packed political vernacular of fluff, as Boris could have ever have hoped to hide behind.
Visibility | b | t
This was an opportunity to present a vision of what could be. In the being mode of reflecting upon what is here now, and what is intended to be changed at project end. The being and the becoming. The clarity of how all project actors involved are to be accounted for, and the priorities of stakeholder interests, and metrics of success. A positive to start with therefore, it is quite clear which actors are most of interest. I am just not sure which families are to be categorised as not being the hard-working ones addressed here.
As a project, my question is what is intended by this proposed change? If we press deeper into the questions of why. Beyond the first why of the politics, the second of why and where the balance of distribution of wealth for future engagement of the labour force should sit. Thereafter I struggled to find any answers of note. This essay offers no vision of what we can as a country become. Our place and our role in the global village. It is an outline of the ambitions of process, of the priority of what we have (as potential, opportunity, and what is owned), and a vague inference of readdressing the owned by whom.
It is not until page 21 that the future focus is introduced. The Future. The visibility of what we can become. “A future in which we ensure everyone who wants to contribute can fulfil their potential” Starmer argues is only feasible if Labour have ownership of the reins.
A new deal for business and working people. A government backing both business and the working conditions of all. Long-term planning to the benefit of both (page 22), setting high standards and favouring British firms for contracts with public sector (page 23); increasing the minimum wage, sick pay, parental leave and flexible working and removing fire and rehire practices; replacing universal credit; making low paid better off with better work-life balance. Investing heavily in green recovery, with more homegrown electric car production, wind turbine, clean steel for schools, hospitals, and railways (page 23 and 24).
It then outlines how more resource is to be moved towards physical and mental health (page 25); better starts to life for all with better access to modern schools, soft-skill development, and with it a greater sense of self-worth. Safer streets with more Police and stricter laws against antisocial behaviour (page 28-29). All admirable sentiments, but toward what end? What national self-worth?
The road ahead from page 30, begins with Tory, Liberal Democrats and SNP failings of the past. Starmer stands us at the cross-roads again, presenting the better path by further pointing to the vulnerability and failings of others who have sat in the driving seat. The better path of government is outlined as a focus on security of, and opportunity for, the people. A government able to face up to tough decisions, prioritising the hard-working family, we are told. The final page then presents the ten principles of a contributing society, finally outlined as a coherent whole (page 31). My best attempt at a more pithy summary is this:-
- Hard working families first
- Fair reward for the fair minded
- Contribution based society
- Equal opportunity
- Community before individual
- Interventionist economics
- Partnering with private enterprise
- Responsible spending
- Return to honesty, decency, transparency
- Patriotism without nationalism
In terms of visibility therefore, I found nothing but disappointment at the sheer lack of detail. There are some significant socio-political concepts summarised here, but what does our country look like on this path?
I was left with a reasonable idea of what it would be like if Keir Starmer were our King-Pin. This is how I would rule you. This is how I would waft my wand. This is what power would be to me. But little real vision of what that would all be for. Accordingly, let me now consider what behaviour this leadership message reflects, at least to me.
v | behaviour | t
“People in this country are crying out for change” says Starmer in the front facing part of his Foreword. This is an encouraging sentence given my project theory is suggesting that all we are is vehicles of intended change. But the paragraph then evades what destination is in mind. Offering instead the change of principles and redistribution of power and decisions to localised autonomy and the labour force. We are thereafter presented a detail of sorts to this vision, but framed as the how he would have power assigned. This is the behaviour of the having mode. How power would be held in leadership. Little to offer in terms of what this would all transform us into being. How we would be served.
The psychological tone of the whole essay is one of focus upon what is being owned. Mostly, it is allocation of blame. Pointing out others failings, as a reflection of their selfish overtones. I estimate this is 75% of the entire account. Imagine putting a tender together or applying for a job, and filling all the spaces availed to allow you to shine, and just presenting the case for how bad the other candidates may be. Who is not able to make these judgements themselves? I understand the sentiment but to me this takes up far too much of the word count, and denies the opportunity to show a better behaviour, one capable and willing to mend broken bridges with the electorate. A surprisingly shallow argument is presented as a result.
One example that stood out for me was after the most extended volley of assaults was concluded. Page 21, even having acknowledged past criticism for Labour spending too long looking in the rear view mirror, almost the next sentence is revisiting the inspirational days of 1945. Then countered by “but forward focused on new settlement between government, business, and working people” (page 21). This then returns another attack on where we are, but little of what we change to, other than pithy sentiment of “a contribution society” (page 22).
Past reflections, starting at page 8, are unfettered in their focus on political team colours. The good deeds of Labour, the self-serving nature of Conservatives. Lessons held up as his team’s mistakes of old in being retrospectively focused, but still reflecting upon the good of these retrospective days. Presenting the ideology of the right as having failed in recent past, and addressed in three periods as follows (all page 10). I outline these for selfish reasons. They happen to list as a v | b | t in their own categorisations:
- The era of the Global Financial Crisis, depicted as a period of poor visibility “a smokescreen for rolling back the state”;
- The era of patriotic nationalism, depicted as complacent behaviour “a lazy, complacent veer from patriotism to nationalism” which covered a period from Brexit to the current Afghanistan.
- A trend towards emboldening a division of interests. This I read as intended divided trust, “import of American-style divisions on social, cultural, and sometimes national lines”
With no intended irony, Starmer then proceeds to present the divide across this same social landscape (pages10-13), citing David Cameron’s “We’re all in this together”, to then highlight subsequent regional disparity of wealth and health, age related stereotypes, and a country held back by a lack of ambition. Nearly five pages of these sentiments that are taken deep into page 15.
As a considered position on behaviour therefore, this seemed unnecessarily focused on the other. Just as I despaired at Boris Johnson’s lack of clear ability to stand tall, stand accountable, and stand for us all. So I find this focus by Keir Starmer as reflecting a blame ready tool box of excuses in waiting, and a weakness to commit to anything at all. I was hoping for a little more spirited and applied daring-do. There seems little to choose between Boris Johnson’s demonstrating a lack of service, and Keir Starmer offering much of what is wrong but little of how to put it right.
What then, is this offering as a better form of trust?
v | b | trust
Starmer’s reflections are empathetic. Perhaps intended to demonstrate being in touch with the reality of difficult times. The working class divide, and the hardship and unfairness. There is a reflection upon humble beginnings. Prior experience of Public Service, Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008, represented as leadership acknowledged with knighthood in 2014 (page 7). From my earlier blogs on leadership, this equates to the titles held, and the medals won. Like any CV, this would read much better as a means to reflect upon how these experiences can deliver what is intended to be. How to serve us better.
What of trust in finding a way forward? It is not going to come from demonstrating who has caused what in the here and now. The significant detail of past discretions in this essay is not reflected in the same detail of what is to come. There is a lack of meaningful data in all future examples offered. Leadership is not about spreadsheets, but the quality of case study here seemed rather lacking in the authority of equivalent board level understanding. By example, page 16 offers a glimpse of private sector collaboration. A single case study of a manufacturing opportunity for wind-turbines in Glasgow. A case study that quickly becomes a swipe at the lack of strategic planning by the other side. Page 17 “Fixing the fundamentals” presents insecurity and inequality central to a fix. A hypothetical case-study of two students and the vastly different opportunities presented due to societal difference. Security and lack of housing and employment opportunity reflected through page 18, introducing a link to liberal democracy, reintroduction of society over individualism, and landing back onto the safe labour platform of card-carrying membership before returning to what Conservatives have failed to do. This makes room for extending the criticisms towards the SNP under the shared Nationalistic intentions, albeit separate flags in mind (page 19-20). I struggle to find much encouragement or clarity towards a better way with the lack of depth here.
The detail of priorities is similarly vague. A new deal for business and working people. A government backing both business and the working conditions of all. Long term planning to the benefit of both (page 22), setting high standards and favouring British firms for contracts with public sector (page 23); increasing the minimum wage, sick pay, parental leave and flexible working and removing fire and rehire practices; replacing universal credit; making low paid better off with better work-life balance. Investing heavily in green recovery, with more homegrown electric car production, wind turbine, clean steel for schools, hospitals, and railways (page 23 and 24). The essay then moves back to pre-existing inequality and the need for more localised decision autonomy, and more transparency on freedom of government spending by department. It then outlines how more resource is to be moved towards physical and mental health (page 25); better starts to life for all with better access to modern schools, soft-skill development, and with greater sense of self-worth. Safer streets with more Police and stricter laws against antisocial behaviour (page 28-29). Notwithstanding the headline nature of each aim here, how can all these promises be priority number one? This comes back to my project analogy. What is to be prioritised, what is sacrificial, what is ambition number one? What is supporting the target of all these mandates? And why?
What truth do we learn, here?
It is perhaps self-evident that I struggled to contain my irritations here. The essay form I truly wish to become more adept at writing, is in my opinion not reflected here. In masterful hands it is a form of elegance and clarity, that can hold truth for all time. One that in days past, and I believe days to come, can and will hold timeless visions of a way to be. The great and the good of history can still be engaged by their past words. In contemporary context perhaps that is as much truth as we need. A vision, a set of behaviours, and reflection of what change could be, is almost never offered by those who wish to serve us all. What confidence, what trust, should we feel obliged to therefore afford?
I found the v | b | t and project language I am developing of some use in framing this critique. Even if it was simply to conclude that I find myself no closer to a holder of better truth.
In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.