Stupid and Dangerous

The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right, by Oliver Eagleton

Boris Johnson has been a dead man walking for months. His resignation has been more of a relief than a shock.

Different parties, same politics. Keir Starmer (R) and Boris.

A spate of cabinet-level departures prompted by Johnson’s appointment of a Tory lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct to Deputy Chief Whip, was the final straw. 

True, Boris has only resigned as head of the Conservative Party. He’s said he is staying on as premier until a successor is chosen, so he’ll remain a bad aftertaste for some time yet. 

Still, the clown prince of Downing Street will now have to go somewhere else to quaff Martinis than Britain’s highest political office. 

This should be a moment of opportunity for the Labour Party. The reason it is unlikely to benefit can be summed up in two words: Keir Starmer.

In the wake of the disastrous battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg in the US Civil War, an aide to Union General George McClellan remarked, “McClellan brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but he also brought himself.” 

Mutatis mutandis, one could hardly find a more apposite statement of Labour’s current circumstances.

Starmer took charge of Labour in April 2020, after four tumultuous years as the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. 

The former solicitor was portrayed in the UK press as a force for moderation and stability, in contrast to leftist Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn.

While Corbyn had led the party to a promising outcome in the 2017 general election, and dramatically expanded Labour’s membership rolls, the results of 2019 were catastrophic. 

The Labour Party suffered significant reverses in areas that had been safe for decades, and this was blamed on the failure of its leadership to articulate a clear policy on Brexit.

Few topics in British politics were the subject of such across-the-spectrum agreement as the proposition that Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to lead was central to Labour’s problems.

Starmer, in contrast, was touted as a firm hand on the tiller, a ‘post-ideological’ figure in the mould of Tony Blair who would lead the party out of its leftist malaise.

This hope has thus far proved vain. The reasons are laid out in stark terms in Oliver Eagleton’s recent book, The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right. 

Eagleton provides startling insight into the internal politics of the Labour Party. What is beyond clear is that the problem that Starmer was brought in to fix was largely one of his own making.

Before getting to the unseemly details of Corbyn’s demise, Eagleton provides a point-by-point dissection of Keir Starmer’s career and the propaganda that propelled him to party saviour.

Starmer’s reputation as a civil rights lawyer notwithstanding, one does not have to dig too deeply into his background to find a more sinister character. 

Indeed, throughout his years in politics, particularly during his time as Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer’s defining feature has been his willingness to countenance, accede to, and apologise for Tory positions and policies.

Starmer is the British equivalent of what would be referred to as a Blue Dog Democrat in the United States: a member of a notionally centre-left party who espouses right-wing positions, particularly on fiscal, defence, and law and order issues.

As DPP, the future Labour leader was a Tory in all but name. 

Keir Starmer’s initiatives included giving police greater discretion in choosing sexual assault cases to pursue, aggressively prosecuting women found to have made false sexual assault claims, and handing out draconian sentences to people tangentially involved in public disorder. 

His real influence in the party came once he transitioned to parliament, taking up a Labour safe seat in Holborn and St. Pancras. 

Keir Starmer was an up-and-comer with a reputation (rather ill-deserved) for leftist sympathies. This proved crucial in advancing his career. 

In office for barely five months, he was selected to join Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, first as Shadow Minister for Immigration and then as Labour’s point man for Brexit policy.

Labour was split by the Brexit vote. Many on the Labour right, including many of Labour’s sitting parliamentarians, were hardcore Remainers, while many on the left either welcomed Brexit or were content to allow the majority vote to stand.

Eagleton’s book tells two really shocking stories. One of these is the double game played by Starmer in 2018 and 2019. 

Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership group were facing the difficult task of balancing these two factions, with Corbyn himself in favour of a Brexit on leftist premises (Lexit). 

Keir Starmer, who seems to lack any sort of consistent political principles, viewed this as an opportunity for an upgrade.

The Starmer Project is replete with instances in which Starmer, tasked with articulating Labour’s acceptance of the vote and willingness to make it work, gave out exactly the opposite message. 

He forged connections on the Labour right, both with large donors and with groups (such as the People’s Vote) dedicated to having a second referendum in order to rescind the original decision.

Keir Starmer’s most challenging time came in early 2019. With Theresa May’s government in freefall and looking for any way to get a deal on Brexit done, the Tories were ready to accept practically any conditions that Labour was pleased to offer in the name of getting an agreement. 

This should have been an opportunity for Labour to achieve an exit from the EU on its own best terms, satisfying both the hardcore leavers in its ranks, as well as the left wing of the party.

For Starmer, this constituted an undesirable outcome, since it would cement Jeremy Corbyn’s place at the head of the party. As a consequence, his strategy was not to take yes for an answer and to make it clear to the Tories, contrary to Corbyn’s impulses, that no deal was possible.

In the end, this policy won out, and Labour ended up contesting the elections in December 2019 without a consistent Brexit policy. Labour slumped to its lowest number of parliamentary seats since 1935 and Corbyn was blasted by pundits on the left for his “neither fish nor fowl” program. 

The failure of the party to take a position was due in large measure to Starmer’s machinations. The electoral debacle gave him the opportunity to rise to party leadership with the promise of less ideological, more forceful, and more pragmatic leadership.

This led to the second of Eagleton’s shocking stories, one more out in the open than the first. 

Keir Starmer came to power promising an end to “factionalism” in the Labour Party. In practice what this meant was the political cleansing of the left wing of the party. 

A key tool in this program was a campaign against Antisemitism in the party. This was a transparent excuse to get rid of anyone who had been even moderately critical of Israel (not infrequently Jewish members of the Labour left).

The release of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s October 2020 report on Antisemitism in the Labour Party provided Starmer with an opportunity to apply further pressure to the Labour left. 

Corbyn, who had actually improved the party’s procedures for identifying and excluding Antisemites, pointed out correctly that although “one anti-Semite [in the Labour Party] is one too many” the report had exaggerated the scale of the problem for political reasons.

Keir Starmer seized upon these remarks as an excuse to suspend Corbyn from the party. 

The situation was rich with irony. Jeremy Corbyn had commissioned the Chakrabarty Inquiry into Antisemitism in Labour in 2016 and was involved in making hate crimes expellable offences. His record of antiracism stretches back to the 1970s and is well-documented. 

Starmer, by contrast, has no systematic understanding of Antisemitism beyond equating it with insufficient support of Israel. His wife Victoria is Jewish and has relatives in the country. However, this doesn’t appear to have given his opinions much depth or nuance. 

What followed was an unseemly spectacle. Starmer was forced to backtrack but still demanded that Jeremy Corbyn issue an apology for noting the emperor’s lack of clothes. 

None was forthcoming, at least of a kind satisfactory to the new Labour leader and its right flank. Instead, Corbyn was reinstated a month later, to howls of outrage from the usual cynics.

Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the right wing of the Labour Party is in the ascendant and looks to remain so for some time. The Starmer Project is a depressing chronicle of how this happened.

Oliver Eagleton also illustrates the degree to which leftist pundits got the story wrong. 

Putting aside Paul Mason, who seems to have completely lost the plot, there are still those like Owen Jones and Jeremy Gilbert who, by Eagleton’s lights, put too much focus on Corbyn’s personal failings as the source of his downfall.

Gilbert, whose five-part series for openDemocracy constitutes one of the most extensive leftist postmortems on the Corbyn era, gets a lot of things right about what actually happened. 

In particular, he notes that Labour’s losses in 2019 arose as much or more from defections by younger, urban voters to the Lib Dems or the Greens than from cracks in the so-called Red Wall of traditionally Labour-voting postindustrial constituencies.

At the same time, Gilbert devotes a whole section of the series to his view that Jeremy Corbyn was not a “working-class hero”. 

This seems to reflect a very odd sort of atavism, and it contributes in an unfortunate way to the personalisation of the crisis in the form of Corbyn himself. 

It seems out of plumb with Gilbert’s broader, well-considered points about the need for building a political movement to recoup the British left.

What appears likely to follow now is an interregnum as the Tories search for someone who can carry forward their agenda without driving up to 10 Downing Street in a clown car (at least figuratively speaking). 

Given the raft of recent scandals, this could be a good time for Labour to rebuild its brand. That is unlikely to happen under Keir Starmer. 

The Labour leader’s fixation on flag, faith, and family as the foundations of a post-ideological Labour politics is a tepid rehash of things already on offer from the Tories. 

To the extent his economic policies deviate from those proposed by the Conservatives, they constitute a pale reflection of what the Lib Dems already have on offer, with a few rhetorical flourishes about the working man thrown in for good measure.

The question now is whether there is actually a constituency for Labour. Shorn of its left wing, touting policies that don’t distinguish Labour from what other parties have on offer, it is hard to imagine Starmer succeeding.

Photograph courtesy of Number 10. Published under a Creative Commons license.