After the fall of the National Government in 1931, R.H. Tawney wrote an essay titled ‘The Choice before the Labour Party’ in which he claimed that the party was fundamentally unclear about its purpose and priorities, allowing socialism’s ‘radiant ambiguity’ to obscure its muddle of contradictory views. The result, in power, had been paralysis. In its reorientation since the 2019 election – the jettisoned pledges, the tightly controlled candidate selections, the torrent of anathemas on the ancien régime of Jeremy Corbyn – Labour has taken Tawney’s advice on the ruthless honing of strategy, but in service of what end? Socialism has departed, but radiant ambiguity still reigns.
Keir Starmer will be the next British prime minister. Journalists usually add a caveat here because elections are unpredictable, and the assertion still causes cold sweats in strategists who remember 1992 or 2015. But Labour is regularly polling twenty points ahead of the Conservatives; one recent poll even gave Starmer an absolute majority – 51 per cent – of the vote share. It is a remarkable trajectory, though not entirely of Starmer’s own making. Johnson’s venality led him to disaster; Sunak flounders, unable to get a grip on the inflationary crisis and presiding over a fractious party dominated by its lunatic fringe. Save for a clutch of showily cruel laws – against protest and migration – the government has ground to a legislative halt. The resuscitated Liberal Democrats will provide safe refuge for swing voters in the South disgusted by culture war sadism; if the SNP’s finance scandal festers Labour might even regain some of its former Scottish bastions. The nation is miserable and conditions are favourable, but this hardly diminishes Starmer’s achievement: he has isolated the left within his party, splashed the flag about, genuflected towards British business and drunk champagne at Murdoch’s birthday do.
Confrontation inside the party has been matched by caution and rightward drift outside it, something that has begun to trouble even friendly liberal commentators. Some worry over Starmer’s managerial demeanour and lack of charisma. The more pertinent anxiety is that in quelling fears of some of the risks voters typically associate with Labour – radicalism and profligacy – the party might at the same time seem to suggest it has no solution to the problems afflicting the country, from exploding mortgages to collapsing schools and a real-wage death spiral. Its fiscal rules may prove a self-imposed prison. None of this is likely to prevent Labour winning, but there are few certainties about what it will do once it takes office.
Starmer’s political statements rarely add up to much or endure for long: the ten moderately left-wing pledges made in the leadership campaign (abandoned); announcements on green spending, rent control, taxes on tech giants and universal childcare (euthanised, forgotten or diluted); a 12,000-word Fabian Society pamphlet, The Road Ahead (insubstantial, bromidic). In the past year he has outlined five ‘missions’: to achieve the highest growth in the G7; build an NHS fit for the future; make Britain a clean energy superpower; make the streets safe; and break down barriers to opportunity. Only the clean energy commitment might worry a liberal Tory. His people talk excitedly of ‘Bidenomics’, but they are yet to replicate the president’s macroeconomic ambition.
Starmer sees New Labour’s rewriting of Clause IV, which once committed the party to common ownership, as an important moment. He believes that Labour needs to do something similar, ‘on steroids’ (as so often, he makes the general point while remaining short on detail). Yet reality has a stubborn leftward pull. Few in Britain could muster much enthusiasm for the market orthodoxy and consumerism of the 1990s: we increasingly expect our governments to protect us from the determinations of the market, whether in energy, housing or privatised services. Starmer is unlikely, of course, to adopt any of the left’s maximalist ambitions: the charge of crypto-Corbynism is radioactive. He is reluctant to name those who benefited – and thus now ought to lose – from a decade spent gutting the country. He prefers the language of national missions, common projects, unity, citing Blair’s maxim that Labour is ‘the political wing of the British people’.
The degree of vituperation with which Starmer is greeted on the left tends to depend on the degree of personal attachment to Corbyn, and can lead to strange conclusions – that Starmer’s past deceits will eventually cause him to unravel, or that Corbyn should have led the righteous out of the party immediately after his defeat. It seems likely that most people will continue to greet Starmer’s changes of course with a shrug, dismissing them as the result of party wrangling, and the notion of his special dishonesty as an idée fixe held by embittered losers. ‘Politician lies’ is, in any case, the definitive dog-bites-man story.
Some on the party’s amorphous ‘soft left’, and everyone on its right, would say that Starmer did what was necessary to rescue from oblivion the only vehicle capable of alleviating Britain’s misery. They see him as representative of the caste from which the party’s apparatchiks are drawn: urban, progressive, pro-European, Fabian and technocratic, admiring of professional success. Doubt rarely seeps in for many in this grouping, but there is some disquiet over the abandonment of a critical stance on Brexit, the reversal of climate pledges, and the expulsion of veteran centre-left activists – Neal Lawson is the latest on the chopping block – for countenancing cross-party co-operation.
Everyone agrees that Starmer puts victory ahead of any political commitment: power, he says, is the ‘object of the exercise’. His diagnosis of Labour’s failures goes beyond claiming that the party fails adequately to reflect its desired voters’ patriotism, frugality or traditional values. In the preface to The Road Ahead, he wrote that in victory Labour lays claim to the future (the New Jerusalem, white heat) and deplored the party’s habit of rerunning battles it feels it should have won, and failing to keep up with a changing world. A streak of sentimentality and resurrectionism does run through Labour politics, though in this it is at one with a country which increasingly trades in nostalgia. But Starmer seems unable to take his own advice: his programme has so far been heavily shaped by a desire to distance himself from Corbynism.
Starmer invokes his toolmaker father almost as often as Sadiq Khan does his bus-driving dad. Given his vaporous ideology, some journalists have attempted to excavate his life for insight. His father’s manual work and his mother’s long illness were obviously formative: invoking Auden’s praise of the ‘eye-on-the-object look’, his admiration of diligence and hard work is obviously sincere (as well as displaying Labourist sentimentality). His insistence that there was ‘nothing guaranteed’ about his station in life is a fundamental plank of his worldview: a grammar school boy, a legatee of postwar mobility, his preferment was made possible by an enabling state. Starmer clearly feels the contrast with the brazen entitlement, fecklessness and unearned privilege of Tory politics deeply; his animus against Johnson, who incarnates those vices, is real enough.
Admirers of Starmer’s work as a barrister cite his detailed and pioneering work on the implementation of the Human Rights Act, campaigning on the death penalty in the Caribbean and Africa, and pro bono defence of activists including the McLibel Two. Colleagues and clients alike talk of his hard work and capacity to grasp all aspects of a case. A virtue in a lawyer can be a defect in a politician: straddling both sides when talking about Black Lives Matter left him looking insincere. His default perspective became increasingly institutional over his time in Northern Ireland: he defended a British soldier who shot and killed a teenage joyrider (he argued that senior officers and the policy itself should be blamed), and later acted as a human rights adviser on the reform of its police service. He credits this work with making him realise that change comes more rapidly and effectively if you work within an institution – his rationale for taking the job, in 2008, as director of public prosecutions.
His period as DPP offers some clues to the conduct of a prospective Starmer government. His timeline for reform was meticulously planned at the start of his tenure, and included establishing a Victims’ Right to Review. The lamentable record on rape prosecution began to improve (it has regressed since his departure), and he was sincerely committed to improving the treatment of victims of domestic violence. He deferred to the American security state, most notably in the case of the vulnerable hacker Gary McKinnon, whose extradition was eventually overruled by Theresa May. Most noticeably, Starmer prosecuted climate change and anti-austerity protesters with zeal, including cases marred by scanty or contradictory police evidence. This prosecutorial vim was less evident when it came to prosecuting police; a Deaths in Custody Community Engagement Panel, announced to forestall increasing outrage, was quietly dissolved before it met. In the wake of the 2011 riots, Starmer demanded expedited hearings in 24-hour courts. His predecessor as DPP, Lord MacDonald, described the resulting sentences – including four years for incitement by Facebook post of disorder that never happened – as lacking ‘humanity or justice’. Starmer himself made a 4 a.m. morale-boosting visit to a court in Highbury.
Affinity for institutions, diligence and the capacity to form and carry out long-term plans for reform: these qualities are eminently desirable in a political system marked by degraded institutions and the need to face down climate change – the ultimate long-term problem. Diligence is rarer in Westminster than it ought to be. Starmer’s antipathy to protest and sympathy with the police augurs less well for an era likely to be defined by political volatility and increasingly militant climate action; when confronted personally with protest, as he was when a speech on education was disrupted by young climate activists, he is dismissive, ‘grown up’.
‘If I see something wrong in society, I can’t turn my head and walk on the other side of the road,’ Starmer says. ‘I’ve got to do something about it.’ Strongly moralistic statements like this are a venerable feature of Labour politics and place him clearly on one side of an equally long-standing philosophical divide in the party. Those on his side, believing themselves pragmatic, seek to replace those who hold power and to exercise it more equitably. They are optimistic about the scope of state power, ingenuous about its neutrality and pessimistic about the ultimate scope of politics. They tend to believe protest achieves nothing. If mass politics ever really existed in Britain, they think its time is long past; they are meritocratic, and at peace with privilege, unless it is unearned. Those on the other side want greater popular participation in both party and government and favour more aggressive moves to redistribute power and wealth. They are much more suspicious of the seductive comforts to be had on the long march through the institutions and are frequently caricatured as naive, sinister, romantic, hopelessly impractical or dangerously unpredictable. The party has always been an unstable compound of both elements, with the former predominating; even the shibboleths of the Labour left – ‘to secure for the workers …’ – bear its mandarin imprint.
The virtue of Starmer’s politics is its impatience for power, ruthlessness in its pursuit and desire for concrete achievement. Its vices include conformism and a loathing of dissent. As Starmer put it to Time in between praising Davos and Nato, ‘I’m not that interested in circling around and around a problem, eloquently describing the problem. I’m much more interested in rolling up my sleeves and fixing it.’ But fixing things might involve some thinking, and bluff anti-intellectualism of this kind often disguises sharp ideological commitments. We are more likely to hear public opinion cited in defence of an aggressive border policy than the equally popular nationalisation of water, energy or rail (or indeed anything involving the spending of money).
Many of the politicians in Starmer’s core team – Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson – are instinctively hostile to public ownership. Streeting claims that Anthony Crosland ‘challenged lazy orthodoxy’ in the party. Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956) was the product of a brief period in which it was possible to conclude that the major economic problems had all been solved. Still, he argued that class inequality remained ‘an exceptionally marked phenomenon’ in Britain, which should be tackled by a ‘concerted attack on the maldistribution of wealth’ – a claim that would see him bumped from a candidate shortlist today. The point isn’t just that those around Starmer are more cautious and less ambitious than they make themselves out to be, but that their supposedly revisionist energy calcifies all too easily into dogmatic assertion and a dreary repetition of past approaches. Promising to stick to Conservative spending plans for two years – a carbon copy of Blair and Brown’s commitment in 1997 – is an example of this. Blair inherited the best economic situation a Labour government had ever seen; a Starmer government will inherit a smoking ruin. Cloning New Labour’s policies is not a route to replicating Blair’s deft reading of his political moment.
It seems likely that the next general election will take place in May 2024. Starmer’s speech at Labour Party Conference in October will set the tone for the party’s campaign. Its electorally maximalist goal seems to have produced a minimalist programme. Starmer will emphasise the party’s transformation; he will stress security, both economic and military; he will chastise the Tories for a decade and a half of misrule, and stress that a Labour government must unite the virtues of 1945, 1964 and 1997; there will be few spending commitments, and he will deliver that news to a gratified hall which loves nasty medicine; he will deplore a ‘class ceiling’ that holds back talent and rewards iniquity; he will mention the climate crisis and wish he could do more; he will scatter a few surprises, probably on childcare and perhaps on education. He will say that he means to reform the planning system in order to solve the housing crisis. He will gesture to smart reform over expenditure, but detail will be scant, especially on social care. He will say that he can’t do everything he wants, but that what he can do will unlock growth. He will conclude with hope, however precarious.
One criticism levelled at Tawney’s polemic in 1932 was that it overvalued the power of ideas, as intellectuals tend to do. But its virtue lay in its repudiation of fatalism. Even its title – ‘The Choice before the Labour Party’ – makes clear that the party has options. Fatalism is widespread across the progressive spectrum in Britain, from a left primed for betrayal and resigned to irrelevance to a centre shackled to an unalterable political-economic dispensation. A Starmer government will face the absence not only of the economic conditions Blair was granted, but also of the world he inherited: unipolar, globalising, post-ideological and optimistic. We get climate change, global retreat and system collapse. Tawney counselled that cold reason can help us identify meaningful choices and give us the will to carry through our decisions. However ardent Starmer’s message of national unity, cold reason ought to suggest that the beneficiaries of the current order will fight hard to retain their wealth and power. As Tawney put it: ‘You cannot skin a live tiger paw by paw; vivisection is its trade, and it does the skinning first.’ Something to remember next time Starmer shares a glass with Murdoch.
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