After years of presenting himself as an apolitical technocrat, Labour leader Keir Starmer appears to have discovered class politics. Beneath the clichés that riddled his speech to the party’s conference this week—“Build a new Britain, together”; “Run towards the challenges of tomorrow”—Starmer finally proposed some policies that the left might welcome. He promised a new public energy company, support for workers’ rights, greater investment in public services, and an end to low-paid jobs.
The catalyst was no doubt Liz Truss, Britain’s new Hayek-on-steroids Tory premier, who has been sinking the pound to offer tax cuts to the rich. The crisis already engulfing her weeks-old government has given Starmer and his party an opening—which is a good reason to examine his record and consider what sort of an alternative he offers.
If Oliver Eagleton’s book, The Starmer Project, is anything to go by, Starmer’s gestures toward pro-worker policies aren’t to be trusted. Eagleton methodically charts how Starmer came to power by maneuvering against Labour’s previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had steered the party away from the centrist dogmas that had dominated it for decades.
Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015, capitalizing on some of the same anti-establishment energy that would propel the Brexit vote the following year. His platform included higher taxes on corporations, the nationalization of Britain’s parasitic rail and utility companies, and an end to tuition fees for higher education. Come election time four years later, Britain’s reactionary and centrist forces united to extinguish any chance of a socialist becoming prime minister and implementing this agenda. Corbyn went down to a crushing defeat and was replaced by Starmer.
From the Marquise de Merteuil to Lord Baelish, Machiavellians are normally renowned for their charisma. Starmer proves a striking exception to the rule. To get an idea of the man, picture a duller and even-more-bootlicking Pete Buttigieg. How did this Knight of the Realm capture a party founded as the political arm of the trade-union movement?
As Eagleton explains, Starmer identified himself with left-wing causes early in his career as a defense lawyer, but this was “always secondary to his ambition and the conformist reflexes that came with it.” He began working with the security services in Northern Ireland before becoming director of public prosecutions, acting as head of the Crown Prosecution Service, the body that oversees criminal prosecutions in England and Wales.
Under his tenure, those aligned with the establishment, from Murdoch journalists involved in phone hacking to the police officers who killed Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, were handled with kid gloves. Student protesters and Julian Assange received rather different treatment, with Starmer acting as the government’s “punisher-in-chief.”
He was subsequently elected a Labour MP for a London constituency, and later made shadow Brexit secretary under Corbyn. After Britain voted to leave the European Union, many in Labour wanted to develop a transformative post-Brexit settlement. Not so Starmer. Any attempt at a left-populist Brexit was “blocked by an internal wrecking operation,” Eagleton notes, in which Starmer was the key player, pushing the party to secure a second referendum. This approach strengthened the party’s standing with educated professionals but was devastating to its prospects in its working-class strongholds, many of which had supported Leave.
Thus, Labour entered the 2019 election offering a second referendum and looking like it wanted to overturn the popular will. Boris Johnson was able to rebrand the Tories as a party that wanted to get Brexit done. He swept up votes in Labour’s old heartlands and secured a huge majority.
After Labour’s defeat, Starmer ran for leader on a platform of following Corbyn’s legacy, but soon recanted his pledges and reversed “almost every gain made by the left during the Corbyn era.” Corbyn’s punchy campaign slogan—“For the many, not the few”—was replaced by the utterly vacuous “Security, prosperity, respect.”
During the Covid-19 crisis, Eagleton remarks, Starmer’s instincts were “to act as a willing servant of the government and promote its agenda.” This meant “supporting Tory policies in principle but querying their means of implementation.” In fact, his main point of departure from the government was to advocate stricter Covid restrictions. When Johnson was facing flak for hosting parties during lockdowns, Starmer stood up in the House of Commons and told the story of a woman named Trisha, who followed the rules and so couldn’t visit her dying mother in hospital. Perhaps she was supposed to find some comfort from the idea that, under Starmer’s leadership, the ridiculous rules barring hospital visits would have been enforced by a more rigid manager.
Such episodes don’t exhaust Starmer’s devotion to neoliberal orthodoxy. As Eagleton notes, for example, Starmer has discarded Corbyn’s “attempt to develop an international program grounded in the principles of justice and solidarity, rather than subservience to the United States.” The Labour leader authored an oleaginous ode to NATO in The Guardian, declaring his commitment to the Western Alliance to be “unshakable.” Ignoring its history as a vehicle for US imperialism, he described NATO as a “vital” part of the “rules-based international system” and a greater achievement than the National Health Service that had “never provoked conflict.” Millions in the Middle East and North Africa would beg to differ. Socialist MPs who supported a statement from the Stop the War coalition calling for de-escalation over Ukraine and questioning NATO’s supposedly unblemished record were threatened with suspension unless they withdrew their signatures; shamefully, they complied.
Since then, Starmer has not only refused to support striking railway workers, but sacked members of his shadow cabinet for doing so. One also needs a strong stomach to read his servile paeans to the royal family, a constant feature of his social-media account after the death of the Queen.
The Labour party has long been an uneasy coalition of the working class and the professional-managerial class. In order to consolidate mass support, the segment of the party that needed shedding was the smug centrist element that promoted remaining part of the European Union over all else. Starmer is this wing made flesh, notwithstanding his claims to now support a “workers’ Brexit.”
For all his desperation to court former Labour voters in England’s northern towns, Starmer has little to offer them. They chose to leave the European Union in order to “take back control.” Authoritarian in his impulses, Starmer won’t give it to them. Having no problem redistributing wealth to arms manufacturers shipping weapons to Ukraine, he balks at any serious measures that would help working people, such as the nationalization of Britain’s utilities. A career spent groveling before the US security services as a prosecutor and member of the Trilateral Commission means that, for him, obsequiousness to Washington is beyond debate.
Starmer’s debased Labour has little to offer beyond, at most, slight amelioration of the status quo. Given that Starmer has proved he will deceitfully steer left to grasp power, it would be gullible in the extreme to trust the promises of his conference speech. The journey down might be smoother without Liz Truss at the wheel, but British decline wouldn’t be forestalled by handing power to Keir Starmer.