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The contradictions of Keir

Why is the Labour leader’s record such a muddle

Artillery Row

Against the backdrop of Tory tumult, you would expect the electorate to seek refuge in the Labour Party. So it appears they have. Labour is up 20 points in the polls, with leads of more than 30 points during the Truss debacle. It has enjoyed healthy leads since the Partygate scandal. If a general election were held tomorrow, it could result in a historic wipe-out for the natural party of government. The next election — which once appeared to be the Tories for the taking — is now Labour’s to lose. Most agree that the prospect of Keir Starmer as Prime Minister, whilst not a foregone conclusion, is the most likely scenario. 

Still, whilst voters are rejecting the Conservatives, doubts linger about Labour. Starmer’s popularity, whilst surpassing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s, is considerably lower than that of Blair or David Cameron — the last Leader of the Opposition to become Prime Minister — at similar stages in the Parliament. Whilst Starmer attempts to convince voters that the extremism and the absurdity of the Corbyn era was a mere aberration, it is not a distant memory. Differences in cultural attitudes between voters (especially working-class voters who the party was founded to represent) and the Labour Party remain, even if they are much less pronounced. 

There is also the issue of antisemitism. The EHRC found the party guilty of antisemitism under Corbyn’s leadership (the second party investigated after it took action against the BNP). Starmer removed the whip from Corbyn for appearing to downplay the report’s findings — and last month welcomed the EHRC’s conclusion that progress had been made in tackling Jew-hate in Labour. He said that he was sorry for what went on under the previous leadership and ruled out the possibility of Corbyn standing as a Labour candidate at the next general election. 

This is sweet manna for the Labour Party’s once-beleaguered centrist wing. Five years in the political desert, the moderates feel they are reaching the Promised Land — or at least something resembling a time before the Wrong Brother won. Luciana Berger and Mike Gapes, two MPs who courageously left the Labour Party over Corbyn’s leadership and antisemitism, have since returned. Those who remained during the Corbyn years believe it vindicates their decision to stay and fight for the party they love. Tory misrule is drawing to a close, the cranks have been vanquished and Scottish nationalism is on the ropes — the centrist Labour restoration is in sight. Yet I wonder whether they are wise to feel this way. 

Far from coming to bury Corbyn, Starmer came to praise him

It is of course laudable that Labour’s efforts to combat antisemitism appear to be bearing fruit. The problem is, however, that by conceding that the Corbyn years were mired in moral squalor, and a politics he finds anathema, it raises serious questions about the credibility — and perhaps even the character — of Keir Starmer. Whilst the Labour leader puts clear water between him and his predecessor, he is still the person who served under him as Shadow Brexit Secretary for four years. He remained on his frontbench in that period when it was clear to all what Corbyn stood for. When it was discovered that Corbyn supported an antisemitic mural depicting hook-nosed Jewish bankers, Starmer did not resign. When the Panorama documentary on antisemitism within the Labour Party came out, Starmer stayed put. The very fact that the party was even being investigated by the EHRC did not dislodge Starmer from his place.

Was Starmer unaware of Corbyn’s description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”? The fact that he had worked on Iranian state broadcaster, Press TV, as a stand-in for George Galloway? That he had invited the “honoured citizen” Raed Salah to tea in the House of Commons? His appearance at Al Quds Day rallies? None of that was sufficient for Starmer to resign from the shadow cabinet. Now Starmer says that antisemitism was a stain on the previous leadership. Yet he was a senior member of the shadow cabinet and chose to stay put. In his letter inviting Berger to re-join the Labour Party, he described her decision as “a principled and brave move”, albeit one she “should never have been forced to take”. If resigning in protest over antisemitism is a “principled and brave move”, surely one could quite reasonably argue that staying put in the shadow cabinet is an unprincipled and cowardly one? 

Another area where Starmer is attempting to distance himself from the ghost — or ghoul — of Labour past is national security. Last year, Starmer declared that the Labour Party has an “unshakeable support for NATO”. When a group of Corbynite Labour MPs (including former shadow cabinet colleagues Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Richard Burgon) backed a letter from the so-called Stop the War Coalition, blaming NATO for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was made clear to them that they had to remove their signatures. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn, a former chair of Stop the War, refused to comply — although he did not have the whip at the time — is cited as another reason for his continued exclusion from the Parliamentary Labour Party. The problem is that whilst Starmer’s leadership has made support for NATO an “unshakable” red line, it is at odds with his service to a man whose decades-long strong opposition to NATO was apparent from the outset. What did Starmer think when Corbyn hired Seumas Milne as his Director of Strategy? His views on NATO and Islamist terrorism (for instance, that 9/11 attacks were reprisal attacks on the West) were public knowledge. What about when Corbyn appointed Andrew Murray, who had expressed solidarity with North Korea, as a senior adviser? Starmer knew exactly where Corbyn stood on national security. Yet he not only supported him to be Prime Minister; he chose to be a key member of his shadow cabinet. 

Starmer’s actions during this period raise further questions. Let us take Ian Austin, a former adviser to Gordon Brown and Labour MP for Dudley North, who resigned from the Labour Party over antisemitism and Corbynism. Now Lord Austin of Dudley, the non-affiliated peer tweeted in 2019, “I guess from this that Keir Starmer is commenting on Labour antisemitism. I wouldn’t know. He blocked me for asking him to speak about it and Corbyn’s dreadful leadership some months ago. Amazing how these people have finally found some courage.” Then let us take an interview on The Andrew Marr Show in October later that year. Starmer said in his words that he was “100 per cent behind” Jeremy Corbyn, having previously said, “I do think Jeremy Corbyn would make a great prime minister. Marr put to him a quote from Dame Louise Ellman, a senior Jewish Labour MP who also resigned over antisemitism. Ellman had described Corbyn as a threat to the Labour Party and to British Jews — a view which nine in ten British Jews concurred with. Starmer responded plainly, “No, I do not accept that. Now Starmer says that the leadership at the time allowed “hate to flourish unchallenged”. The Starmer of 2023 appears to agree with Austin and Ellman. The trouble is that the Starmer of 2019 did not. 

Then there is the manner in which he won the Labour leadership. Far from coming to bury Corbyn, he came to praise him. In the wake of the 2019 election defeat, Starmer said, “What Jeremy Corbyn brought to the Labour Party in 2015 was a change in emphasis — a radicalism that matters, and the rejection of austerity. We need to build on that, rather than oversteer and go back to some bygone age. This can only be read as an endorsement of the economic agenda that Corbyn set out. Now Starmer talks of Labour as the party of “sound money” and rejects “tax and spend”. In an interview with The Guardian in the 2020 leadership contest, Starmer said that Labour “strayed too far from its values” during the Blair years. Now he praises Blair’s record. In the 2020 Labour leadership hustings, Starmer also said, “the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn in that election were terrible, and they came back on us on the doors. They vilified him. They knew what they were doing, and they do it to every Labour leader and they know why they do it.” Now it appears as if he thinks the attacks on Corbyn were not terrible but the truth. 

At one of his own leadership events, Starmer praised Corbyn as someone who “energised our movement” and described the 2017 Labour manifesto “as our foundational document, the radicalism and hope it inspired was real”. Now even the 2017 election represented a “failed approach”. Such pronouncements won Starmer the support of some close to the Corbyn regime. Now Starmer tells Corbynites who are unhappy with his leadership that they can leave the Labour Party. When he won the leadership contest, he paid tribute to “colleague” and “friend” Jeremy Corbyn who “led us through some really difficult times in the Labour Party, saying that he “respects him and thank him for what he has done”. Now he would rather watch Arsenal with Piers Morgan.

If Starmer realised that agenda was wrong — not just politically, but morally wrong — when did this happen? Why did it happen? If it occurred for no other reason than that Labour lost a general election, then we cannot seriously say that there are true red lines for him. Some might wonder whether he genuinely has convictions other than those that advance his career. In which case, voters will ask, “can we trust anything he says?” If this change occurred because Starmer has come to believe Corbyn to be genuinely wrong, not just as a matter of electability, then he should say so. He would also have to explain why he was wrong from first principles. If that is not the case, and Starmer always believed this agenda to be morally wrong, then it would be true (whatever the excuse) that he duplicitously promoted an agenda which he believed to be wrong and even reprehensible. The only remaining plausible alternative is that Starmer never saw much problem with Corbyn or his agenda — and still does not — but is saying what he says now to please the voters. All of this is interesting given the various charges of dishonesty and a lack of integrity which he has (correctly, in my view) levelled against Boris Johnson. 

Many have made attempts to defend what others may conclude is slipperiness

Starmer’s pattern of inconsistency goes even further than his approach to Corbyn. It arguably characterises his leadership. Aside from coming to praise Corbyn, rather than bury him, Starmer made ten pledges on tax, Universal Credit, private provision in the NHS, free movement, foreign policy, immigration and renationalisation of energy and water. He ditched most of them. This has been excused as a response to events, most notably COVID and the invasion of Ukraine. This fails to convince, not least because it fundamentally misunderstands what the word “pledge” means. Take his pledge to “defend free movement as we leave the EU”. He even told The Mirror in 2020 that he would bring back free movement, saying, “yes, bring back, argue for, challenge” in response to a question. Now free movement is, in Starmer’s words, a “red line” for him which “won’t come back under my government”. 

Take renationalisation. In the BBC’s leadership hustings hosted by Emily Razzall, Starmer raised his hand when she asked candidates if they were “into renationalising water and energy”. Then in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg, just over a year later, he said, “I did not make a commitment to renationalisation, I never made any commitment on renationalisation. What about tuition fees, which he pledged to abolish? When asked by Amol Rajan on the BBC’s Today programme, Starmer failed to give a guarantee. Even if one were to accept the argument that events have changed which makes delivering such pledges unviable, why promise things that you may not be able to keep? 

There is also the debate around sex and gender. As a leadership contender, Starmer signed a pledge promising to introduce self-identification for gender recognition. As leader, he even said that his view was that “transwomen are women”. When Labour MP Rosie Duffield tweeted “only women can have a cervix”, Starmer told Andrew Marr that was something which “should not be said”. Then he ducked questions as to whether a woman can have a penis. Then he said, “biology matters for the vast majority of women, that’s very, very straightforward” but that “there are a small number of people who struggle with their gender and I want to respect and support them”. Talk of self-identification has been dropped in favour of “modernisation” and “updating” gender recognition laws, without providing any specificity as to what that entails. Then when the Government issued a Section 35 order to block the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill from gaining Royal Assent, Starmer sat on the fence. 

The pattern goes on. One could also mention Starmer’s wavering positions over BLM, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Shamima Begum, immigration, Brexit, Zionism, Gary Lineker and whether shadow ministers can go on picket lines. Presumably they can all be excused because of COVID and the war in Ukraine, too. 

Many have made attempts to defend what others may conclude is slipperiness. One common refrain is that it was necessary to save the Labour Party. “The ends justify the means” is never a solid moral position. Such a view was even articulated by one of Starmer’s own special advisers, in a Twitter exchange with one of Blair’s former special advisers, who criticised the consequentialism that the Blair adviser advanced in defence. What such a position essentially means is that it is morally acceptable — desirable, even — to lie and do things one would regard to be wrong, as long as it justifies whichever end you desire. In fact doing the wrong thing would be the right thing because it is in pursuit of an end which you like. Those who embrace this line of thinking stand exposed when criticising Boris Johnson’s many lies — or indeed £350 million on the side of a bus. 

Removing the whip does not resolve Starmer’s problem but reinforces it

A more credible defence is that moral compromise is the norm in politics. One example of this genre is a piece for the Jewish Chronicle by Nick Cohen where he attempts to draw parallels between Starmer and “compromise politicians” in dictatorships. Those who are “complicit in a regime’s crimes” can bring an end to the regime. They are the only ones with the credibility to tell the old guard that “the game is up”. Whilst many a centrist takes comfort in such analysis, the irony is that such an argument concedes that Starmer was complicit in the previous “regime’s crimes”. The parallel also falls down when one considers that a political party in a parliamentary democracy is not analogous to a dictatorial regime facing revolt. Nonetheless, there is obvious truth in the broader point about the necessity of some compromise in politics. Politicians are not priests. Dogged consistency in the face of changing events is a mug’s game. But given the severity of the moral condemnation that Starmer has given the Corbyn leadership — a condemnation he failed to offer at the time — it is very hard to take this excuse seriously. If Corbyn is bad as he says he is, and if his leadership was bad as he says it was, then what on earth was he doing on the frontbench? 

Others claim that Starmer’s removal of the Labour whip from Corbyn shows Starmer’s real mettle. It is simply not credible for Starmer to argue both that Corbyn should have been installed as a Labour Prime Minister (a claim that he has made) and also that he should not be a Labour MP, however. Given his position at the time, if Starmer were to say that Corbyn should not have become Prime Minister (which is the only coherent position given his moral condemnation), he not only condemns his predecessor, he condemns himself. Removing the whip does not resolve Starmer’s problem but reinforces it. 

Another option is the Kinnock defence. Defenders argue that Starmer is the new Kinnock to vanquish the hard left and put the party on the path to sanity. In truth, there is very little comparison with Kinnock to be made. Kinnock was a strong supporter and ally of Michael Foot, but Foot was no Corbyn — he was an intellectual, genuine patriot and supporter of the Falklands War who was not associated with anti-semitism. His co-authorship of Guilty Men, attacking the appeasement of Hitler during the 1930s, underlines this. Moreover, as Labour MP Margaret Hodge notes, Kinnock was “completely honest about the kind of reform that had to be undertaken” when he became leader, even though he was clearly of the Tribunite left. Even before challenging Militant, Kinnock’s bravery had been displayed earlier in his refusal to support Tony Benn over Denis Healey in the 1981 deputy leadership contest, much to the chagrin of fellow left-wingers including Margaret Beckett and Dennis Skinner. It is worth bearing in mind this act of courage — which alienated some of his fellow travellers — took place when Kinnock was still a young rising star with ambitions to succeed Foot. This is not comparable to the behaviour of Keir Starmer in his career. 

Then there is the least credible defence: “oh, this is a Tory and Trot talking point”. That might be true. It is also true that some things are true even if the enemy says them. It is worth noting Starmer’s penchant for doublethink received criticism from some who now support him. In a mini-documentary for the Financial Times during the Labour leadership contest, Margaret Hodge expressed her disappointment with the then leadership candidate, claiming he was “triangulating” and “lying to get the top job”. She also interviewed New Labour spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, who attacked Starmer for “playing into the Corbynista agenda”. Even this January, Mike Gapes (who returned to Labour praising Starmer’s leadership) tweeted, “Trot Twitter is going into meltdown again over ‘Keith’ Starmer ‘betrayal’ of the ten pledges he made to get elected in 2020. They have a point — the honest answer is that Starmer would never have won a members ballot without genuflecting to the Corbynite left. I wonder if Starmer realised this when he welcomed Gapes to the party with arms wide open. 

Starmer might become Prime Minister in 2024. It might well turn out to be a good thing for the country if he does, even a very good thing. Nonetheless, he cannot avoid the questions that remain on his road to Number 10. These questions go to the heart of his claim that he is a “man of integrity” — a claim upon which he has staked his reputation. Already voters are raising similar questions in focus groups. Detractors and Tory opponents are seizing on it with relish. During a general election campaign, these questions will be asked. If he fails to find a credible answer soon, it may bring him down later. The problem for Keir Starmer is that it is not at all clear that he has a credible answer to give.

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