Voices: Keir Starmer ought to have more urgent priorities than writing a book

·4 min read
Just because everybody else is doing it doesn’t make it a good idea (Getty)
Just because everybody else is doing it doesn’t make it a good idea (Getty)

He didn’t mean it, but when Alastair Campbell told a journalists’ briefing that “people shouldn’t write books”, it should have been made a law, for politicians at least. The Labour spin doctor was complaining about an unhelpful book about spin doctors, I think written by Nicholas Jones, who was then a BBC journalist.

Now it seems that Keir Starmer has been so inspired by the rapturous praise with which his 14,000-word Fabian Society essay was received last year that he has decided to give us even more of his great thoughts, which surfaced on train and car journeys while he travelled the country for socially distanced gatherings of small numbers of supporters during lockdown.

“The book is expected to set out where the country is heading, how it can be improved, plans for a ‘renewed Britain’ and what Starmer’s place is within that,” The Times reported on Saturday. This prompted some mockery. Times readers suggested possible titles, including Hindsight is a Wonderful Thing and This Beer’s on Me.

Unkind, but wholly deserved, I fear. I cannot believe that writing a book is the best use of the time of someone who wants to persuade us that he should be prime minister. Just because everybody else is doing it doesn’t make it a good idea.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, is also writing a book – about his life, and how he was brought up by a lone mother on an east London council estate. Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling-up secretary, has a book contract for her thoughts about winning back the working-class votes Labour has lost.

It feels strikingly American that politicians who aspire to high office write books. It is not just Labour leadership hopefuls and wannabe prime ministers, but Conservative ones too. Jeremy Hunt has just published a book called Zero, about eliminating needless deaths in the NHS, from his time as health secretary. Penny Mordaunt published a book last year called Greater: Britain After the Storm, with endorsements on the cover from Tony Blair and Boris Johnson among others. It is all about how people can overcome their differences if they are optimistic and proud of Britain.

This is a long-established trend in US politics among presidential candidates. The only one of any literary merit was Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, in 1995, which was published two years before he was even elected a state senator in Illinois; his actual presidential campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, in 2006, was a slicker production, although it still revealed the quality of Obama’s donnish mind.

Hillary Clinton was around for so long that she did it four times. There was It Takes a Village, 1996, towards the end of Bill’s first term, about childcare and education; Living History, 2003, a memoir of her time as senator for New York; Hard Choices, 2014, another memoir, of her time as secretary of state; and the unforgettable Stronger Together, 2016, a joint book with Tim Kaine, her vice-presidential running mate that year.

Even Joe Biden wrote two: Promises to Keep, for his vice-presidential campaign in 2008, and Promise Me, Dad, for his presidential run in 2020 (he didn’t write one for his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1988).

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For British politicians, one of the earliest book-form manifestos for future office was Harold Macmillan’s The Middle Way in 1938. Harold Wilson wrote The War on World Poverty in 1953. Gordon Brown wrote Where There is Greed, 1989, a tub-thumping wall of statistics about inequality under the Thatcher government, although his PhD thesis on James Maxton, the leader of the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s, was also published as a book in 1986. In each case, their books were published a long time before they became prime minister.

Tony Blair had a collection of his speeches published as a book in 1996, but the closest we have in Britain to a pre-election book is actually The Churchill Factor, published by Boris Johnson as mayor of London in 2014. Johnson has written several books, including Seventy-Two Virgins (2004), a novel full of embarrassingly sexist and racist passages, and The Perils of Pushy Parents (2007), a children’s picture book, illustrated by himself.

Here are two examples for ambitious British politicians to avoid: Johnson (brazen comparison of himself to Great British Hero) and American politicians (sentimental platitudes).

What is the problem that The Thoughts of Chairman Keir is intended to solve? If it is that people don’t know what he believes, then publishing a widely unread book is not going to solve it. The job of the opposition leader – and of all members of their shadow cabinet – is to spend all day, every day removing the reasons people have for not voting for their party.

People who are preparing for government should not write books.