by Nathaniel Tapley
A game did the rounds of social media recently, challenging people to write a sentence without using the letter “e”. It took a few seconds for the comedian Paul Litchfield to come up with “Boris Johnson is a twonk.” Except the word he used wasn’t “twonk”; it was shorter and had the same extremities as the word “carrot”.
Which led me to point out “Dominic Raab is a twonk” works equally well. Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson: twonks. At which point I decided to do the shadow cabinet, which turned out to be far harder. Not because Keir Starmer’s crack team all have “e”s in their names, but because it’s impossible to remember who any of them are.
Quick test: who is shadow chancellor? I’ll give you a hint: you couldn’t make an e-less sentence from her name. Indeed, she’s so hard to remember, it would be the ideal time for her to go on a high-profile crime spree. She could commit a string of armed robberies and the closest witnesses will get to identifying her will be to say: “Was it… maybe Lisa Nandy?” Hint: it’s not Lisa Nandy.
Why is Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet so forgettable? Does it start from the man at the centre of it all? No one expected fiery rhetoric from him and public speaking doesn’t seem to be a requirement for politicians nowadays, but it would still be difficult for him to sound more like a man whose underwear has twisted itself around one testicle before he begins to speak.
Starmer’s pitch was meant to be based on competence. But when faced with a government that has overseen 100,000 of its citizens dying of a preventable disease, that has gutted a millennia-old fishing industry in a matter of weeks, and that is currently begging the EU to ignore an agreement it came up with at Christmas, he doesn’t seem to be able to bring himself to point out its incompetence.
He can’t criticise Brexit because – despite tonnes of rotting fish sitting on the coast of the country like highly aromatic welcome bunting – those who voted for it will refuse to believe it’s a rubbish idea. He won’t attack the Government over Covid, because he doesn’t want to behave in a divisive way (on one side of the divide, people who want people to be alive; on the other, politicians). He’s publicly said, “We will support the Government”, which is more than some actual members of the Government.
He’s like a man playing chess against a gorilla and loudly pointing out that the gorilla has taken longer than its allotted time, while the gorilla tears the arms off everyone in the room, smashes the table and then tries to shove a bishop up its urethra.
When the Government put forward a bill to protect undercover policemen from prosecution should they murder, torture or rape people, the Labour Party abstained on it. Presumably, because they don’t want to alienate valuable voters who also happen to be state-sponsored rapists in Red Wall constituencies.
The English don’t like competence, they like bullies. They vote for the candidate who looks most likely to beat the other candidate up for their lunch money
The whole “competence” narrative, however, is based on a misunderstanding. That misunderstanding being that anyone in England cares about competence. The English don’t like competence, they like bullies. In every election in my lifetime, the vote in England has been won by the most patrician, the most authoritarian, the most identifiably-English figure. In short, the English vote for the candidate who looks most likely to beat the other candidate up for their lunch money. They won’t vote for someone who’s an oik, has a silly voice, is bald, or who has to wear glasses. Unless the only alternative is someone Welsh.
The English love bullying. When I was at school, one of the boys taunted a Jewish student by waving bacon at him. He had to apologise for bullying; had he only waited until he was the political editor of a tabloid newspaper he would have been hailed as a paragon of cutting-edge political commentary. That boy, however, learned his lesson. He stopped waving bacon and went on to just shouting “Salman Rushdie” at the Muslim boys, and became a prefect.
Tony Blair was only acceptable because he was more English than his opponents despite being Scottish. New Labour were also fine with appearing to be bullies. One of the first things they did in power was to strip benefits from single mothers. Every year, they announced new policies to crack down on asylum seekers or antisocial behaviour or unions.
David Blunkett said our schools were “swamped” with immigrants. Jack Straw said he was afraid to go to his constituency surgery because of people wearing the veil. ASBOs were invented specifically so we wouldn’t have to go to all the trouble of proving that young people committed crimes before punishing them.
That’s why Keir Starmer can’t cut through. Because he won’t put the boot in. He can film himself making sweet, tender love to a Union Jack all he wants, but it will ring as hollow as Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British people.” He could dress himself as a bulldog and zip-line into the House of Commons playing Vera Lynn from a boom-box in the shape of a Spitfire, while firing copies of the Magna Carta from his anus and it wouldn’t make any difference.
He can’t win until he picks a vulnerable group to victimise. He can announce whatever he wants, but the English won’t go for it unless he pushes over a refugee while he does it. Labour will never regain power while they insist on speaking up for the vulnerable rather than mis-selling them PPI, throwing their school bag in a puddle or making them work with Priti Patel.
What should he do? Well, apparently, Labour are gearing up for a “policy Blitz”, but they should know that English won’t go for it unless – like the real Blitz – it makes poor people homeless.
Nathaniel Tapley is a comedy writer and performer on the TV shows you hate