Respect is earned, not given. It’s one lesson that we all learn, either through being told or, for many, through experience.
The same goes for politicians, of course, because as much as we may show dismay for them, they are people too. To quote Winston Churchill, one of the most formidable forces parliament has ever seen, “politics is not a game. It is an earnest business”. In politics, respectability and seriousness go together like salt and pepper. You couldn’t really have one without the other. The two were a good couple, and frankly, a necessary one.
But it begs the question: does that still hold true today? Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily so.
If you’re reading this right now, chances are you were born when Tony Blair, the last Labour Leader to win a general election, was Prime Minister. Despite people’s misgivings about him, he was still a much-respected Prime Minister. He is the only leader in living memory to get a standing ovation from both sides of the House of Commons in his last PMQs before his resignation. He undertook his responsibility as a leader of the nation with diplomacy, seriousness and professionalism with a genuine passion for social reform: he was no snollygoster.
Fast forward to today: we have Boris Johnson as leader, a man who resorts to cheap tomfoolery or incompetency in his speeches (how can we ever forget his recent drivel about Peppa Pig World when addressing business leaders) and recklessness in his government. At a moment when the country has no HGV drivers, fuel shortages at the pumps and people counting pennies on tables to pay their gas and electric bills, the Prime Minister is too busy talking about the hilarity of Michael “Jon-Bon Gove-y"’s dance moves.
Contrast that with our third political figure: Keir Starmer.
In the first minutes of the recent speech to Labour Party conference, Keir Starmer said “If you go outside and walk along the seafront, it won’t be long before you come to a petrol station which has no fuel. Level up? You can’t even fill up. Doesn’t that just tell you everything about this government? Ignoring the problem, blaming someone else, then coming up with a half-baked solution.”
Keir Starmer steps up to fill the gap that Boris Johnson has left open; not at the centre of politics (for that is where Johnson resides anyway), but the responsibility of politics. The magnitude of politics. The consequences of politics. He is a serious man for serious times. He is what politics needs right now.
Concluding his final PMQs as Prime Minister, Blair stated: “Some may belittle politics, but those engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall; and although I know it has its many harsh contentions (…), if it is on occasion the place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”
Out of the leaders of our two major parties here in the UK, only one understands this, and it’s not the one in power.
To hear Starmer speak of his working-class upbringing, his personal life and his philosophies and ideas was refreshing – it breathed life into a form of modern politics otherwise dominated by empty slogans, hollow words and soulless populism. To think that that is where the standard of public debate in this once-great nation has gone is deeply depressing. The saving grace of the public debate in our country may lie in the hands of the most unassuming, technocratic and forensic political leader that we have had in decades.
Concrete promises of £28 billion of capital investment/year of this decade to fight climate change; watertight and responsible fiscal rules; pledges to crack down on tax avoidance in Britain while also scrapping universal credit to replace it with a more humane and ethical benefits system show that the Labour Party is finally building its alternative. After all, if we are to save British politics from despair and avarice, then we will need it.