I like to think of myself as a young, hip and culturally au fait person who understands the lingo, political and otherwise. We all like to think of ourselves in ways that may not be entirely accurate, and we all have things in our lives – drinks we can’t drink anymore, jeans that don’t fit, songs we don’t understand, celebrities and, increasingly, Conservative MPs who are younger than us – that seem to be waging active campaigns against our carefully curated self images. I’ll cut to the chase; people on the internet keep calling Keir Starmer “Keith”. I just don’t get it. As a general rule, if people on the internet are doing something you don’t understand, you should probably just leave well alone, but it’s lockdown, and I’ve been spending a lot of time on Labour twitter, where people keep calling Keir Starmer “Keith”. It being once again illegal to go outside, I set about finding out why people do this and why I do not get it.
Keir Starmer, as you may know, became leader of the Labour Party in April 2020. He won by a large majority amongst the membership and has been viewed by the left of the party with suspicion that has, in the wake of former leader Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the party, tipped into what might be politely termed dislike. I didn’t vote for Starmer, but I do not feel the need to call him Keith. And yet, as I while away evenings I will never get back sifting through political twitter, it seems an awful lot of people do – a parody account called “Keith Starmer” boasts some 54 thousand followers, and even Momentum’s at very best wildly misjudged “what CLP motion can you discuss” generator has numerous offerings about “Keith Starmer QC”.
Names are strange things. My interest in this whole Keith/ Keir debacle was initially piqued while chatting with my friend Kieran, who is concerned – like a home owner, worried that a noisy new next door neighbour may drag down the value of their own property – that Keir Starmer’s rise to power is having an adverse impact on people being able to spell his name (i before e, except after c). I understand this, feeling the same territorial impulse about Megans and possessed of an outright distrust of male Morgans. Keir Starmer, as anyone who caught his recent appearance on Desert Island Discs will know, was named after none other than Keir Hardie, turn of the century socialist icon and the first leader of the Labour Party. Spending much of my time in the Labour Party, I happen to know a few Keirs (Baby names website “Nameberry” helpfully informs me that “the name Keir is a boy’s name of Irish origin meaning “dark, black”), but in the wider world it’s less common. It was, another baby name website tells me, Scotland’s 210th most popular boy’s name in 2017. We do real investigative work here at the Social Review.
If Keir’s popularity, name wise, has always been limited to the children of people who have at some point been Labour paper candidates, “Keith” is a brand in decline. There are fewer and fewer Keiths being born each year- according to the ONS, Keith featured in the top 20 boy’s names in 1944, but didn’t trouble the top 1000 in 2018. The UK has turned its back on Keith. Keith is a dad name. It’s a boring name. Where Keir summons up the unbending radical convictions of the father of the Labour movement, Keith, says my friend Mark, “reminds me of middle-class football dads who still listen to Billy Bragg but haven’t voted anything but Lib Dem since the ‘89 Euro elections”. My friend Sally states that she feels bad for Keiths everywhere, subject to such derision is their name; it is not a world away from “Karen”, a name now surely consigned to the history books.
As I delve into the world of Keiths, asking myself what is in a name (specifically, the name Keith) I think I begin to understand why it is that people who don’t much like Keir Starmer are so wedded to the moniker. My friend Michael tells me, “I had a politics teacher at school who on non-uniform days would wear blue jeans with a slight roll up and new balance trainers with a smart shirt and would regularly begin to tell stories about things his friends did at uni and then stop himself and go ‘no I can’t tell you actually’. Or he would talk about how he knew someone called Dodgy Dave when he was younger who sold knock off CDs out the back of his van but he would always qualify this story with ‘but seriously, that’s actually a crime’. Keir Starmer gives off even less exciting vibes than him”. Keir is quite an interesting name, Michael agrees, but Keir Starmer is not an interesting man- on all levels except physical, he feels, Keir is a Keith. “You don’t second glance at Keith in the street. And you definitely don’t want to sit next to him at work drinks”. Another friend (“you can quote me as someone who framed the Keir poster and put it over their bed”) commented that they felt “Keith” to be not a punch up, but a punch down- the playground insult of choice for well to do leftists who feel that the current Labour leader might have done well for himself, but that he will always be a declasse, lower middle class kid from the suburbs who deserves to be called by a a declasse, lower middle class name. “But fuck me”, he concluded, “if “Keith” is the worst [the left] can do, then the mods are in power forever”.
My friend Ben, identifying himself as “the person least likely to know why people call Keir Starmer Keith” comments that whenever he sees someone refer to Keir as Keith, “all I can hear is ‘you’re not my real dad’ on loop”. Of course, while never getting away from what seems to be the key issue with this whole “Keith” thing (how people feel about middle England dads), the “you’re not my real dad” aspect does touch on the politics of the whole affair a little more decisively. People who call Keir Starmer Keith are signalling, to the likeminded and the not, that they feel there is something false about Keir, that he is not who he says he is. Aside from the fundamental disrespect inherent in not calling someone by their actual name (don’t call me Megan), the Labour leader, some feel, can’t be a Keir. Look at him; he must be a Keith. “Call a landlord’s leader by a landlord’s name”, concluded Mark, before adding; “I just don’t think I could politically trust someone in bootcut jeans”.
Coming to the end of my investigation, I think I understand why people call Keir Starmer “Keith”. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ll be taking it up as a habit.