Tony Benn abhorred personal attacks, though in practice he was not above using them. He passed on this unfortunate lesson to Jeremy Corbyn. During the grim years after the 2017 general election, as Corbyn’s promise wilted under bogus smears of antisemitism, he resembled a punchbag, stoically soldiering on despite myriad attacks. One great frustration for Labour members during these years was observing this. However gross the lie, however false the falsehood, he just took it. After 32 months of this, the December 2019 rout was the result.
A curious feature of 21st century British politics is that Labour’s new leader Keir Starmer, so wont as a rule to advertise his differences with Corbyn, has inherited this undesirable trait. Once more we have punchbag syndrome. Starmer may suspect metaphor, dislike rhetoric. Not a man with a way with words, he is, unfortunately, pitched against the supreme wordsmith of the age, a man whose taste for vivid metaphor is unanchored in truth.
It is not as if British politics has been free from rhetoric, Bevin’s cruel jibe that George Lansbury was ‘hawking his conscience about’ expressed a widely felt truth; Denis Healey captured Geoffrey Howe’s comatose way of delivering reactionary politics by suggesting his attacks were akin to being savaged by a dead sheep; Disraeli, another wordsmith frequently outwitted by Gladstone, used metaphor to disguise his political weakness.
From 2017 to 2019 Corbyn’s opponent was the wooden Theresa May, a linguistically constipated woman incapable of projecting warmth. Conservatives MPs woke up to the danger six months ahead of their rendezvous with the polls and resolved not to chance their arm again. Their Brexit message was clear but Boris Johnson, their vehicle newly-chosen to articulate it was also ideal.
Starmer, like Corbyn, is a plodder, one whose language never matches the needs of the hour. There will be no political change in Britain until Labour finds a leader who can make the case for it.