I hate Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the UK Labour Party. I hate him in a way that's hard to describe, because there are so many aspects to my hatred of him: I hate all of him, but I hate each aspect of him individually, in its own precise way.
I hate him aesthetically. I hate his fussy little too-perfect just-shy-of-Nazi-officer haircut; hate his “Prime Minister from central casting” face, which initially seemed designed by committee, but increasingly suffers from having an expression slapped on it like he's desperately trying to explain away his role in a sex scandal at the dog pound he runs; hate his pedantic voice, which makes everything he says sound like an HR meeting you don't really need to be at. Starmer is a small man — physically short, yes, but that’s not really notable, except as a symbol of the immense spiritual shortness that it signifies. He is aesthetically petty and dull, a piece of hotel art made man. The journalist Moya Lothian McLean once described him as a “wet wipe,” and that seems pretty much right: Keir Starmer is a piece of damp, semi-plastic disposable cloth, that might clog up your drain after getting covered in shit.
I hate him ethically. I hate the way that Starmer poses as an honest man, spending the last few years posturing as the grown-up against the much more openly clownish Boris Johnson, constantly putting Johnson’s handling of the pandemic “on notice” before voting for whatever plans his government brought to the Commons anyway, making noises about “restoring the public's faith in politicians,” before casually breaking every pledge he made to the Labour membership before they elected him leader. I hate that he's a liar, and that he's not even good at it. Normally when politicians lie these days, it is to spin a fantasy their supporters feel inspired to embrace, whereas Starmer simply promises the bare minimum, before flaking out on it: nominally centre-left politics’s very own absentee dad. I hate the fact that he seems to have no interest in making political choices just because they're right, regardless of how they might play in the press: whipping his party to abstain on the government's bill to effectively make undercover policing legal, for instance, are the mark of someone who is, plainly, a coward.
And I hate him politically. Not only do I disagree with his basic policy platform, a zombie Blairism that somehow manages to be as unambitious as it is completely incoherent — pledging to fix the economy by “promoting growth” in a way that is “distinctively British” (which presumably means selling large chunks of land or the state off to whatever oligarch or Gulf state investment fund will take them, at low low prices, on the promise that they'll also slap a union jack on it) — I take issue with the fact that it isn't even electorally pragmatic. This is a man who, as head of the Labour party, still largely bankrolled by trade unions, has borne witness to a summer in which everyone from railway workers to hospital porters to barristers are balloting to strike, and decided to aggressively ban his cabinet from supporting them. In their heads, Starmer's faction of the Labour party represent the interests of “the general public,” who for some reason exist as a circle in a Venn diagram that has no overlap with “workers.” What they really mean is that “the public,” as a legitimate political actor, consists almost exclusively of people who would never have voted for Jeremy Corbyn — Starmer's predecessor as Labour leader, a socialist who inspired a generation of people like me into thinking, it turns out wrongly, that the UK's sclerotic political system might somehow produce something transformative and beautiful that would mean a better life for all of us. Corbyn’s aggressive ejection from public life remains the subject of ongoing controversy which Starmer, despite having initially courted votes from Corbyn's wing of the party (and served under him as ‘Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit’), is very much on the “Corbyn was a racist anti-Semite who has rightly been unpersoned” side of.
And this gets to the heart of why, I think, I hate Sir Keir Starmer most of all. I hate him because my hatred of him feels so futile; I hate him because I can't do anything about him at all. Sir Keir Starmer is here: he is a fact. He has been imposed on me, whether I like it or not. And he will not go away, until he loses the next general election against whichever of the two colossally unqualified candidates win the leadership election the Tories, who are wise enough to change their leader whenever the voters seem to tire of them, are currently staging. That would be either Rishi Sunak, son-in-law of one of India's richest men, who is such a dunderheaded transatlantic high finance guy that he was effectively registered as a permanent resident of the United States while literally serving as the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Liz Truss, a blustering idiot who seems to have gotten lost on the way to filming a series of The Apprentice and accidentally ended up being appointed Foreign Secretary (earlier this year, certain comments of Truss's prompted Russia to put their nuclear deterrent on high alert). Even if Starmer was replaced, one suspects his wing of the Labour party would conspire to put shadow health secretary Wes Streeting in charge instead, who looks like Starmer's son and is somehow even worse.
Living in Britain right now can be terrifying, because everything is very obviously broken (just try accessing medical care, being a working parent and trying to afford childcare, making enough money to pay your energy bills...), but basically nothing can be done about it, because the political and media classes opted to erase pretty much all the norms that allow our democracy to function rather than give Jeremy Corbyn the chance to lead it. Sometimes it really does feel a bit like, without noticing, we lost a war. We desperately need a different government, one with ideas other than “scrap clean energy targets” or “blame trans people” or “start a trade war with China we would lose,” but we can't have one — because where the opposition should by rights be offering an alternative to the current, ongoing disaster, Starmer instead stands in place as a symbol of the system's refusal to allow us one. The fact of Keir Starmer is felt as a blank void where a better future should be.
In his classic 1960 paper “Freedom and Resentment,” the philosopher P.F. Strawson effectively argued that, regardless of what other philosophers might tell us about how the universe is causally determined, we can tell that other people are free because we are capable of resenting them: if someone else does something we object to, we typically treat them as if they could have done otherwise, which usually amounts to the thought that they deserve to be punished (they should have known they ought to have done otherwise, and we believe they were able to take the sort of steps that would have allowed them to). By contrast, we treat someone as unfree if we consider them targets for correction — as if they have behaved wrongly because of social or biological forces beyond their control. Thus we do not typically punish children as we do adults, as we do not consider them similarly free (Strawson's paper was not, incidentally, written as a response to the contemporary realities of the American judicial system). When we resent someone, then, when we take umbrage at their actions in this way, this feeling is grounded in a sense that they might do otherwise.
I don't resent Keir Starmer like this — it would be utterly fanciful, I think, to suppose that he might behave in any way other than he is presently doing. I really do not posit him as free. Instead, I hate him — as I would hate a malfunctioning printer that I have to use, or a social commitment towards my extended family that I feel unable to break. I hate him like a malfunctioning bus stop sign that keeps telling me my bus is about to show up, but it never does. Keir Starmer exists, less as a person than as an institution: he is a decision that has been decreed from on high. And so there is nothing that I can do about him, except fume and moan and shitpost about him online. If I met him, I sometimes think, what would I say to him? I'm not sure I would say anything, to be honest. I'm not sure there would be any point.
This stoical turn inward that my hatred for Starmer represents is a dangerous thing. What I need, really, what we all need, is the possibility of actually doing something: a pathway to the sort of concrete action that might actually make the world a better place. Keir Starmer, a wet-wipe, a fatberg, blocks this possibility (in fairness to him: is one of the many things blocking this possibility), and so my hate for him becomes a sort of substitute: I hate him, because I don't feel able to do anything else. Hate like this ends up becoming its own joy. And this joy is stupid. Unlike certain other, more dangerous and indeed when directed towards certain targets morally impermissible forms of hate, it turns no gears in the world. It is even conceivable that, in the next general election, my hate for Starmer won't even stop me voting for his party (my local MP is, at least nominally, a member of the party's socialist faction).
I don’t want to hate Keir Starmer. What I want, what we need, is a world in which nobody does, because nobody has to think about him at all.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the North East of England. His first book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster was published earlier this year.