Starmer Chameleon

Michael Calderbank reviews The Starmer Project by Oliver Eagleton, published by Verso

What makes Sir Keir Starmer tick?  Where has he come from, what core commitments characterise his politics, what accounts for his ascent to the Labour leadership, and what does his leadership mean for the prospects of progressive change in Britain? 

There are plenty of laudatory accounts by the mainstream media commentariat, and fairly indiscriminate sniping from the social media margins – dubbing him “Keith”, a boring white middle class male centrist rather underserving of carrying the name of Labour’s founding father. Oliver Eagleton, however, carries out one of the first sustained, meticulous – forensic even! – accounts of what really drives the man.    

There is also a pronounced subtext to Eagleton’s narrative about the culpability of prominent figures around Corbyn whose excessively conciliatory response to conjunctural pressures, most notably around the handling of Brexit and accusations of antisemitism, is ultimately argued to have doomed the project to fail. This prepared the way not only for Starmer’s election but also for the left to be vanquished throughout the Labour Party in double-quick time. This narrative – extolled from New Left Review intellectuals through to disenchanted grassroots activists who have resigned their Party membership – itself deserves to be critically evaluated.

Starmer’s youth, passage into adulthood and days as a young lawyer are dealt with in fairly short order. The son of a nurse and owner of a small toolmaking business, Starmer’s parents were from an industrial working class background, but his own upbringing took place in an affluent commuter town in Surrey, where he attended the local Grammar School and took trips to the Junior Guildhall School of Music to take flute lessons.

Nevertheless, he joined the Labour Party, heckled Geoffrey Howe and canvassed for James Callaghan.  At a time when Labour Party Young Socialists came under suspicion as a “Trot-front” for the Militant Tendency, the East Surrey branch to which Starmer belonged was found – upon investigation – to be a “beacon of moderates”.

The story rapidly moves to postgraduate legal studies at Oxford and membership of the Oxford University Labour Club, where to his credit, Starmer is said to have clashed with David Miliband and Stephen Twigg over his support for striking print workers at Wapping. It goes on to the young Starmer’s qualification as a lawyer, and contribution to Socialist Alternatives, the journal of a tiny Trotskyist sect said to be much-influenced by Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a key document in what Ellen Meisksins Wood called “the retreat from class” which enabled the new revisionism and post-Bennite shift to the right.   

Starmer was also active in the Socialist Society and become Secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, during which time his position is said to have undergone a “gradual mutation”, in which “an emphasis on legislative fixes supplants the short-lived alliance with street level activism”.   As Secretary, Starmer is said to have been keen to ‘NGOify’ the organisation into a professional development body with progressive values, even proposing to drop the word “socialism” from the organisation’s name. 

The PR spin on Starmer’s past is a selective “greatest hits” of worthy causes – from supporting the Lawrence family following the murder of their son Stephen by racist thugs linked to organised crime, to giving pro bono legal counsel to the McLibel two in their David and Goliath battle with McDonalds, and literally writing the book(s) on human rights law.

It’s not that this is all made up, but it is a selective picture – which leaves Starmer’s overall career trajectory – from campaigning young liberal barrister to scion of the British establishment – incomplete. Even before his knighthood and appointment to the job of Director of Public Prosecutions, Starmer chose to represent Private Lee Clegg, who had become a cause célèbre of the right wing tabloids, following the British paratrooper’s prosecution for murder after shooting unarmed civilian teenage joyrider Karen Reilly in Belfast, firing into the back of the car as it was driving away from a military checkpoint. Taking on this case no doubt won him new friends in the British State, but is more suggestive of ambition and desire for the limelight than the pursuit of any great noble cause.

Similarly, Eagleton tracks Starmer’s performance as DPP where he was responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service – in which role he is cast by his admirers as the great white knight fearlessly pursuing wrongdoers in the cause of justice. But did Keir initiate a great reforming overhaul of the institution, or was he rather institutionalised by the role itself?   Eagleton acknowledges that there were some changes in culture, and a special interest in questions of process and procedure (something of a character trait).  Yet the overall picture is one of a managerial competence and a willing complicity with both Tory austerity and foreign and domestic security services.  

You needn’t grant any credence to Boris Johnson’s scurrilous accusations about the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile to believe that there are serious unanswered questions about Starmer’s time as DPP. The willingness to extradite both Julian Assange and the autistic hacker Gary MacKinnon at the request of the US (the latter being thwarted only by a last minute re-think by Theresa May), together with the failure to deliver justice to the families of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, killed by police officers, are of significant concern.     

So, too, Starmer failed to review the cases of protestors and activists whose prosecution relied on testimony from undercover police agents or “spycops” possibly acting as provocateurs, and established a very narrowly defined inquiry into their operation which many considered a whitewash.  Whether we interpret Starmer’s actions as the result of the “institutional capture” of an initially well-intentioned liberal, or, less generously, of someone only too happy to jettison previous commitments in order to climb the greasy pole, neither is very reassuring for a future Labour leader.

The rest of the Starmer story is probably more familiar to Labour Hub readers.   As a well-connected member of the London liberal establishment, Starmer was eased into the safe seat of Holborn and St. Pancras at the 2015 General Election, with London Region delaying the selection process to ensure he fulfilled the minimum length of Party membership criterion. 

Starmer’s first term was largely unremarkable, notable for an apparent willingness to go along with official policy positions of demonising welfare benefit claimants, tougher controls on immigration, and a slightly attenuated version of austerity. No doubt Starmer, like the majority of the PLP, was taken wholly off-guard by the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.    He served for a while under Corbyn but eventually joined the ‘chicken coup’, although not until a critical mass of his frontbench colleagues had already resigned rendering the situation apparently untenable. 

Eagleton’s account of Starmer’s role as Shadow Brexit Secretary in Corbyn’s frontbench team is like observing a slow-motion car accident, although perhaps in the mode of JG Ballard’s Crash where the carnage is the intentional result of the driver’s desire. The appointment of figures like Starmer in the wake of the failed chicken coup and Owen Smith’s dismal leadership bid no doubt helped to settle the nerves of the PLP, which was largely wedded if not to retaining membership of the EU itself (which was still the position of many), then at least to membership of the Customs Union and Single market.    

Starmer clearly went on a journey from attempting to steer through a ‘soft’ version of Brexit -perhaps even a ‘Brexit in Name Only – towards an acceptance of a second referendum vote on the text of any deal alongside the possibility of remaining, and ultimately a People’s Vote in which Labour would wholeheartedly back Remain. Was this always the calculation?   Either way, it played out like an extended endgame in chess, where a series of moves led, as if inexorably, to the King’s final doom.

The writing was already on the wall by Labour’s 2018 Conference when, after a marathon compositing session at which left wing delegates successfully resisted attempts to commit the Party to a second referendum and overturning the vote to Leave, Starmer defied the leadership by going rogue, departing from the agreed position and winning cheap applause by positioning Labour as a Remain party.  

This was warmly applauded by the likes of Laura Parker, Paul Mason and Manuel Cortes, who would ultimately collaborate with the People’s Vote campaign, advised by Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, to break the determination of the leadership to resist being pushed into a position of seeking to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum. 

Regrettably, a significant section of Corbyn’s support was swayed by this campaign, and many would go on to back Starmer for the leadership in the belief that his stance was motivated more by principled pro-Europeanism than damaging Corbyn.  Whether they still consider this to have been Starmer’s motive, now that he is courting the Red Wall voters himself and promising no return to freedom of movement, is another matter altogether.

Given how disastrously Starmer’s Brexit strategy played out at the polls in 2019, particularly in the Red Wall seats, it is quite remarkable that the response of the Labour membership and unions was to elect not only a denizen of the North London metropolitan liberal elite which so angered voters in Labour’s heartland seats, but the very architect of Labour’s “shifting through the gears” in ditching the 2017 position on respecting the Brexit result. So what made Starmer an attractive option in the eyes of so many?   

As a candidate, Starmer made a deliberate – and cynical – choice to downplay his differences with Corbyn when pitching to an internal audience, arguing that the 2019 manifesto would be the platform on which future policy would be developed.  Appointing the likes of Simon Fletcher and Kat Fletcher to his campaign team – once prominent figures in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office under Corbyn – reassured voters that Starmer was serious about Party unity and maintaining a broad church.  

Above all, perhaps, he seemed to embody what the media considers “electability”, combining competence, authority, gravitas and – if not exactly charisma or warmth – then at least a marketable backstory.  Having supported a strategy which sabotaged the Corbyn project and perhaps with an eye on future career options, the likes of Parker and Mason began to orbit round the most likely winner.  

So two years into his leadership, what do we know of Starmer the leader? Eagleton nails the core approach governed by the strategy and policy team led by pollster Deborah Mattinson and Claire Ainsley – both of whom aim to tailor Labour’s message to the existing attitudes and prejudices of focus group participants, rather than take any real lead in influencing the development of ideas.  

But what is Starmerism?   Frankly we don’t know – other than perhaps hoping to win office by default, should Tory incompetence and hypocrisy open the way to the only conceivable alternative.  It’s certainly different from Corbynism in its default Atlanticism and pro-NATO militarism, and in its relentless insistence on the virtues of patriotism and pride in the flag.     In a nutshell, the picture Eagleton draws is of a very ambitious guy, who comes into politics with some good intentions, but is willing to jettison an awful lot in conforming to institutional pressures.  If that’s anything like accurate, what does it suggest about Labour’s future under his leadership?

And what does it suggest about the future of the left?  One weakness in what is generally a very insightful study is the depiction of Corbynism as a movement wholly populated and driven from the beginning by forces from outside of the Labour Party.  In the Afterword, we read:

“Corbyn’s support came from disparate sections of the extra-parliamentary Left – anti-imperialists, environmentalists, alter-global activists, veterans of the student movement, anti-cuts campaigners, Trotskyists and Communists – who united in opposition to austerity.”

This risks mirroring the attitude of centrist commentators, for whom all Corbyn supporters were a bunch of Trot-entryists, blow-ins from the Socialist Workers Party or whoever – as if the British Trotskyist left has ever been numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It’s worth remembering that in the 2015 contest, Corbyn topped the poll among full members of the Party, as well as those who joined for £3 as registered supporters on the Collins Review model.  In fact, Corbynism – for good or ill – was unthinkable without the work of socialists working inside the Labour Party and endeavouring to make space possible for a turn towards a more radical policy platform.  

Eagleton suggests that the retrenchment of Labour into its traditional hostility to extra-Parliamentary struggle means the left might once again be forced to look for a new vehicle for political representation. Possibly, but the argument that with the prospects of the left now receding within the Labour Party, it can be simply abandoned in favour of the search for another flag of convenience is far too hasty. The First Past the Post system is a formidable structural barrier to the emergence of new forces on any significant scale and – in the absence of Labour’s historic connections to the major trade unions – prototype parties risk falling flat – even without the favourable media coverage given to right wing splitters from Labour.

What we need right now are new forms capable of uniting the Labour, trade union and social movement left around the issues where we agree – bracketing electoral differences for now –  in order to concentrate on organising resistance in communities and workplaces.   


Michael Calderbank is a member of Tottenham CLP and a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

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