After a crushing general election defeat, the Labour Party faces a difficult path back to power under its new leader. In this special section, six writers examine the career and character of Sir Keir Starmer, outline the massive challenges he faces in making his party electable again, and advise him how to set about his formidable task
Who is Keir Starmer, anyway? Ask any of Rebecca Long Bailey’s fans in the shadow cabinet and they will waste no time in telling you that he is Tony Blair: in hock to corporate interests and destined irreversibly for an arid centre ground. His devout disciples in the Parliamentary Labour Party agree with that assessment, if the only Blairite value one prioritises is winning elections.
To his less excitable supporters, meanwhile, he is Neil Kinnock: destined not to reach Downing Street, but to set his successor on the road there after cleaning the party’s stables. To cocksure Conservative MPs, meanwhile, he is Ed Miliband: an ungainly, ideological metropolitan without the warmth or wit to bridge Hampstead and Hull. Or, put even less sympathetically, Jeremy Corbyn in a suit.
Starmer himself has leant on two alternative comparisons over the course of the interminable contest to succeed Corbyn. Asked at the first televised hustings to name his favourite Labour prime minister, Starmer — rather unusually — chose Harold Wilson. While Blair at least enjoys notoriety in the Labour mythos, Wilson’s reward for four election victories has latterly been near-total obscurity. If his memory is invoked at all, it is for wiliness and low cunning rather than the achievements of his governments — as criticism of Corbyn’s studied neutrality on Brexit grew last year, his outriders invoked Wilson’s skill in managing his own fractured cabinet on Europe — or as a stick with which to bash Blairite compromise.
In keeping with his pitch for unity above all else, Starmer has sought to cast Wilson in a revisionist mould, as a man uniquely above faction. Sir Keir admires him because “he got the party to unite behind him”. He believes he can convince the electorate to do so too, particularly in constituencies beneath the Severn-Wash Line — terrain even less hospitable to Labour than the coalfield towns and faded seaside resorts daytripping hacks and television producers more often alight on as evidence of its existential malaise. That ambition partly explains why, in a distant, pre-Super Tuesday past, Starmer said that Labour had much to learn from Bernie Sanders, whose 2020 coalition is a good deal broader and more diverse than it was in 2016.
What, then, will Starmerism be? His professed inspirations tell us that, in practice, Starmer hopes it will be attractive where Corbynism was repellent — without veering to the centre. Yet that does not quite answer the question preoccupying Labour’s constituent parts, and, indeed, many of Starmer’s supporters: just what is it that he believes?
The answer lies not in Westminster, but on Doughty Street, where Starmer was among 30 barristers who set up a new kind of chambers in 1990. He and other progressive advocates set to work on a lofty mission. Their modus operandi was to use the law as a rearguard against Thatcherism, and win concrete, binding victories for the sorts of causes they felt government neglected, such as human and trade union rights. With the left unable to do so via parliament, the courts had to do.
One QC who knew Starmer in those days describes him as less a politician from any recognisable Labour tradition but one more at home on the continent — not a man of the left, but of the green left. He was not a conventional party politician. Conversely, his mission then was to unite the strands of British leftism in one movement: the traditional working class, the liberal intelligentsia, and the fissiparous liberation movements that had sprung up and found organised life in the preceding decade.
Starmer is seen as a politician more at home on the continent, not of the left but of the green left
Other bold leftist initiatives, such as the short-lived News on Sunday, had singularly failed to do so. But Starmer believed, and indeed still believes, that the parliamentary left cannot succeed without a similarly broad progressive movement arrayed behind it. That notion might sound a little Bennite — the left deriving legitimacy from without parliament, rather than within it. Quite the contrary: Starmer believes that without that movement, Labour has little chance of building an enduring parliamentary base. It is not an alternative to securing power at Westminster but a prerequisite for doing so.
It is also an internationalist politics. Much of Starmer’s career at the bar was spent agitating for progressive causes abroad — particularly on behalf of those awaiting death sentences in the Caribbean. He believes in rules-based international organisations as guarantors of his values: he fought McDonald’s in the European courts and opposed the Iraq war at home, citing the lack of a UN resolution. That tells us something important.
Though they may yet be constrained by the strictures of electoral politics, commitments Starmer has made over the course of the leadership election — the continuation of the free movement of people, the refusal to rule out rejoining the EU — are not poses for the sake of expediency. Rather, they define his political sense of self.
Is there a market for such a politics in the Britain of 2020, or, more pertinently, 2024? We’ll see, but one thing we can already be sure of is that it will make its case with rather more competence, coordination and conviction than Corbynism. Out will go the Burgons, and in will come altogether brighter things. That itself poses its own challenge: the PLP is a fickle thing. Competence may well come at the cost of ideological coherence. Expect Starmerism to make much more sense in practice than in theory.
Keeping Labour united behind this platform really will require dexterity of Wilsonian guile.
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