When asked about his party’s factional splits, Britain’s leader of the opposition expressed bafflement. “I genuinely would struggle to know which side some people were on,” Sir Keir Starmer remarked. “It’s a bit like asking people whether they’re Protestant or Catholic, I don’t care.”    

Starmer, almost certain to be Britain’s next prime minister after the general election on July 4, doesn’t just lack an ideology himself: He doesn’t really understand why anybody else would have one. The notion of strong philosophical convictions is, to Starmer, a curious and inexplicable quirk of human nature. Protestant? Catholic? People care about that stuff?

This is, no doubt, part of his appeal in a country where the trains are never on time, the high streets are boarded up and the second largest city, once a byword for prosperity and industry, has declared itself bankrupt. Technocracy? Yes, that sounds rather nice—and here comes the purest of technocrats, a legal bureaucrat with a five-star CV whose metallic monotone gives the impression that you might accidentally connect to him via Bluetooth. “I’ve always been very focused on an outcome,” Starmer told a leadership podcast last year, “what am I trying to achieve, where’s the goal, how do we get to that goal, rather than having that conversation with myself about, what does this all mean?” He dislikes the word “vision,” according to his very sympathetic biographer Tom Baldwin. “What I can’t stand,” Starmer says, “is people who can describe a problem very very well… We’ve all got an idea of what the problem is, but how are we actually going to fix it?”

Which, of course, begs the question. Does Sir Keir Starmer know what the problem is?

This is not just a rhetorical complaint of the kind he dislikes: It is a daily problem for his aides. The leader is “cripplingly indecisive,” reports Oliver Eagleton: “By early 2021 he was given briefing papers by his staffers with just one option on them, so that he would not have to choose between alternative proposals.” One of the architects of Starmer’s campaign for the party leadership has despaired that the man has “let focus groups define his strategy.” In a memorable episode, Starmer had his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn expelled from the party, then decided he wanted the expulsion reversed, then reversed that decision too. On policy matters, he has made and abandoned so many “pledges” as to make the term meaningless.

Indeed, the most penetrating criticism of Starmer has not come from the hard left, who (not unfairly) accuse him of posing as a socialist and then selling them down the river. It does not come from the right-wing tabloids, who (less plausibly) try to present him as Jeremy Corbyn in a sharp suit. It doesn’t even come from Eagleton’s well-researched and enjoyably aggressive biography. It comes from the comedy band the Iain Duncan Smiths (American readers: sorry, this will take too long to explain), who in 2020 recorded a version of Culture Club’s 80s classic Karma Chameleon with a strikingly well-imitated Starmer vocal and a neatly adjusted set of lyrics. (Would you say… I’m a man you can’t believe?/ I’m a walking contradiction / Remain and Leave, Remain and Le-e-e-eave…)

And in fairness to Starmer Chameleon, it’s not the poor creature’s fault it changes color so often. When you have no real philosophy, what else are you supposed to do?

You know how it is. You go to Oxford for your law course in the mid-80s, when exotic leftism is pretty chic, so you throw your lot in with a little-read magazine called Socialist Alternatives. According to your old comrades, you were “less interested in a long ideological discussion than getting an outcome.” You become a human rights lawyer—all the rage in the 90s: just ask Bridget Jones—and by the time you enter parliament in 2015 your arguments sound like they came out of a 900-page textbook on human rights law. (To be fair, you did write one.) Trade unions must be defended against Tory restrictions, not for old-fashioned reasons, but because “the right to join a trade union” is “entrenched in international law.” Donald Trump should be allowed to visit Britain, not because your colleagues’ proposal to ban him from the country is plainly moronic, but because of a 1976 judgment from the European Court of Human Rights.

In your next big job, as shadow minister for Brexit, you try to steer a pragmatic line. But pragmatism is out of fashion. Brexit, for your social and professional milieu, is the worst disaster imaginable. Never mind that it also gained more votes than anything else in British history: it must be reversed, by calling a second referendum and ordering the people to reconsider. Bit by bit, you find yourself dragged into this position; and amid the Labour party’s internal anarchy, you manage—somewhat unscrupulously—to drag the party with you. Boris Johnson correctly identifies your policy as contemptuous of the people. Your party goes down at the election.

Eagleton thinks Starmer’s Brexit maneuvers were a Machiavellian scheme; Baldwin thinks Starmer was improvising in a fluid situation. There’s some truth in both. But it’s also hard not to see the baffled and unblinking stare of the Starmer Chameleon.

So you become party leader, just in time for the storms of 2020 to break. Having no ideological umbrella to protect you, you get absolutely soaked. When the Black Lives Matter movement has its hour, you arrange that famous photo in a boringly carpeted committee room, the knight of the realm “taking the knee” on behalf of a quasi-religious political movement formed to protest against police brutality on the other side of the Atlantic. And the look on your face expresses real anger at injustice, but there’s something else in your eyes too: an unmistakable note of Am I doing this right?

Because everyone else is swept up too. The England football team—previously the leading symbol of national unity—start taking the knee before every game. Some of the fans, suspicious of the BLM movement, boo them. You are appalled, and you deliver perhaps the most Keir Starmerish line of all time: “a fan doesn’t boo his or her own team. It’s a fundamental rule of being a fan.”

“His instinct is to join a team—at least for a time—and never, ever to boo them.”

This is the point where even the greatest Starmer sycophants (who are everywhere these days) surely have to do a double-take. Football fans boo their own team all the time. Being “booed off the pitch” is the common fate of underperforming teams. It happens to Starmer’s team, Arsenal, every couple of years. Starmer genuinely is a football obsessive: It’s one of the really likable things about him. At one level, he has to know this. But at another level, he is Keir Starmer. His instinct is to join a team—at least for a time—and never, ever to boo them.

So it isn’t cynicism, necessarily, that explains why the fresh-faced graduate who once stunned a job-interview panel by asking “Isn’t all property theft?” became, as head of the Crown Prosecution Service, a super-reliable supporter of the police, the security services, and the Atlantic alliance; or why the rising lawyer who said his proudest work was for the National Union of Mineworkers has become the politician who bars his shadow cabinet colleagues from appearing on a picket line.

It’s more that, as his former colleague Helen Steel once remarked of Starmer: “The Establishment shapes you more than you shape the Establishment.” All the more so for someone who likes to play by the rules: An old friend, Jonny Cooper, recalls cycling home with Starmer and “sailing through” red lights while the “punctilious” Keir waited for them to change. During lockdown, Starmer followed the rules with a fanatical closeness: When a neighbor wandered over to say hello to Starmer’s family, already a “group of six,” the maximum amount permitted by Covid rules, he suddenly disappeared. It wasn’t the fear of publicity, his wife Vic told Baldwin: he just “didn’t want there to be any risk of breaking the rules.”

This, I think, should contextualize all Starmer’s talk of “integrity”—the word he used to distinguish himself from Boris Johnson. After all, when Labour launched a hysterical attack-ad campaign—“Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to jail? RISHI SUNAK DOESN’T”—even Starmer’s allies recognized it was gutter politics. (If anyone was responsible for judges’ sentencing, it was Starmer, who had helped to draw up the guidelines in his old job.) But this champion of integrity, rather than retracting the ads or swerving the question, was icily defiant. “I stand by every word,” he declared. A lapse of moral standards? Not by Starmer’s rule number one. You don’t boo your own team. 

All of which could be seen as a weird sort of strength. Wisdom is knowing your limits. Leadership is about listening. Starmer seems to have been an effective boss of the Crown Prosecution Service: He regularly visited the CPS’s 100 branches and would take aside the lowest-ranked staff to ask them two questions: “What’s the biggest challenge you’ve got, and what’s the workaround?” and “When’s the last time your manager said thank you?” Not bad questions.

And maybe we need a prime minister who will simply assemble a skilful team, defer to them, and get on with implementing their technocratic solutions. Some of the people who Starmer has turned to are really quite impressive: Vidhya Alakeson, his director of external affairs, was previously a pioneer of community-led businesses. Clare Ainsley, his former policy supremo, at least tried to do the post-liberal thing of combining social justice with cultural conservatism. In Starmer’s early days, he courted Blue Labour folks like Maurice Glasman, the sanest people on the British left.

The hope is that, as with all forms of AI, the issue isn’t with the Starmer algorithm itself. The issue is just with the inputs. The union leader Mick Lynch, the most eloquent spokesman for Old Labour, keeps telling his allies to stop carping and get on with pressurising the man. “We’ve got to make Starmer as bold as Attlee, even if he doesn’t realize it’s happening to him.”

But even Lynch, a born negotiator, sometimes sounds worried. “Labour must not bend the knee to corporate greed,” he said in reference to Starmer’s recent u-turn. No, not the one where he said he’d nationalize water and energy, then realized he was opposed to it. Or the one where he vowed to “end outsourcing” in the NHS, then realized he was in favor of it. Or when he supported taxes on high earners and tech companies; or wanted to remove the punitive “two-child” cap on welfare; or set aside £28bn for green investment. The other one: where, to fend off criticism of Labour’s timidity, Starmer would point to a series of labor-rights reforms. Now he is backtracking on those too. As the Financial Times reported, corporate lobbyists had been pushing hard against the proposals, but “One business leader said that after several meetings with the party, they were now “pretty relaxed” about its plans.”

If so, they have earned a little relaxation. Under Starmer's leadership, Labour has thrown open every door and window to the lobbying industry. Lobbying firms place workers in shadow ministers’ officers and employ Starmer’s old staff; Deliveroo and HSBC sponsor Labour events; Starmer raises millions from business leaders and enthuses to them that “it is possible to mold, have your fingerprints on, what we’re doing.”

The official euphemism for this is a “partnership with business”; the official logic is that you cannot run a welfare state, let alone flourish as a nation, without a strong private sector, helpfully nudged along by a strong state. So far so good; so unoriginal too, since industrial policy is the new normal everywhere in the West.

Yet it isn’t clear that Starmer’s progressive aspirations can be achieved without confronting the massive financial and corporate powers which gleam over the London skyline. It seems impossible to solve the housing crisis without annoying the housebuilding oligopoly and the mortgage lenders. It’s not obvious how you can raise working conditions without confronting exploitative firms. It will be hard to protect everyday institutions like nurseries, veterinary practices and care providers without crossing the private equity people. Hard to raise standards in public services without undermining the outsourcing behemoths. And hard, ultimately, to flourish without diverting investment and talent away from the financial sector, where fortunes and careers are made.

To rebalance Britain’s rentier economy without causing an economic crisis would, needless to say, require considerable political imagination. It would require “vision”—that word that Starmer loathes. So instead he has joined team business. And you never, ever boo your own team.

“As hopes of material radicalism fade, Labour will devote itself more and more to … social radicalism.”

Here is a prediction for the Labour government which, barring any major upset, will begin in six weeks: As hopes of material radicalism fade, Labour will devote itself more and more to the destructive social radicalism with which Starmer has already begun to associate himself. Assisted suicide for the vulnerable, crackdowns on “conversion therapy,” childcare expansion to “help parents back into the workplace” as fast as possible, constitutional tinkering (perhaps in the form of citizens’ assemblies or an “Ethics Commission”), racialized equality legislation.

In a way, Starmer symbolizes the steady transformation of the left, its collective loss of nerve in the face of economic injustice. Back in his student days, he wanted to combine traditional left politics with the new identitarian movements. “Is it possible,” he asked Tony Benn in an interview for Socialist Alternatives, “to create this emancipatory alliance as it could be called without, on the one hand, subordinating the demands of the new social movements to the class struggle and without, on the other hand, undermining the importance of the class struggle?” Starmer’s subsequent career is the depressing answer to that question.

Dan Hitchens is a senior editor of First Things.


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