As tensions rose along the Ukrainian border last February, Keir Starmer traveled to NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, where he affirmed his “unshakable” commitment to the US-dominated military alliance. The trip signaled the extent of Labour’s foreign policy realignment since the Corbyn years. Following his election as leader in April 2020, Starmer touted his “pro-American” credentials, applauded the AUKUS trilateral security partnership, and strained every sinew to arrange an Oval Office photo op. The dominant mood within the party is now one of nostalgia for the unipolar era, when Britain served as chief enforcer for the US hegemon.
To revive that fading memory, Starmer envisions an imminent return to Great Power conflict, with the UK displaying maximal hostility toward America’s strategic rivals. After the Russian invasion on February 24, when Boris Johnson began to pour arms into Ukraine and roll out economic countermeasures, Starmer urged him to go further still, demanding “more sanctions,” “more military support,” “more to reassure and reinforce NATO allies in eastern Europe,” as well as a “post-9/11”-style surge in weapons spending.
These proposals demonstrated Starmer’s ingrained Atlanticist reflexes. Yet in recent weeks, his interest in the shifting geopolitical landscape has been eclipsed by more parochial questions. Given the leader’s hyperfactional mentality, Labour policymaking is often a cypher for internecine struggles. Positions are taken with a view to marginalizing internal opponents rather than solving social problems or courting swing voters. In this vein, Starmer’s response to the Ukraine crisis has exploited the prospect of a new cold war to inflame the forever war within his party.
“Having a Debate Around NATO Strategy Is One Thing, Attacking NATO Is Another”
The day after his Brussels visit, Sir Keir took to the comment pages of the Guardian to condemn Britain’s Stop the War Coalition: a campaign group with ties to the Labour Left that has steadfastly opposed both Russian aggression and NATO expansion. Starmer poured scorn on “the usual suspects” — his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, plus some MPs in Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) — for their de-escalatory stance.
“At best they are naive; at worst they actively give succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies.” He described NATO as a “defensive alliance that has never provoked conflict,” which must be “strengthened, not undermined by ill thought-out opposition,” so it can confront the world’s autocrats. After all, he concluded, slipping into the register of a father instructing his son in the art of playground combat, “bullies respect only strength.”
Having moved the spotlight off Ukraine and onto the Labour Left, the leader asserted that NATO skeptics were personae non gratae in his party. In late February, he informed eleven MPs who had signed a week-old Stop the War statement — calling for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict based on the Minsk II accords — that they would lose the Labour whip unless they removed their names. Within forty-five minutes, all had capitulated. The same day, Labour shut down the Twitter page of its anti-NATO youth wing, writing that “the account has recently become actively detrimental to the Party’s core objectives.”
The fallout of this confected controversy was instantly apparent. Zarah Sultana, the 28-year-old MP for Coventry, targeted by Starmer as a signatory of the Stop the War statement, received a death threat describing her as “Putin’s whore,” while the Rupert Murdoch press bizarrely accused unionized transport workers of “Putin apologism.” The prospect of conjuring up a new Red Scare did not deter the Labour leader. At a subsequent parliamentary meeting, he confirmed that the party would cast out any member who doubted NATO’s status as a “great achievement” of the postwar government. Asked whether he would support SCG candidates running at the next election, Starmer refused to offer his endorsement.
Rattled by these threats, the two highest-profile members of the SCG, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, pulled out of a Stop the War rally they were scheduled to attend. McDonnell explained his U-turn by declaring that “now is the time to unite” and lamenting that his presence would only distract from the plight of Ukrainians; Abbott went further still, dutifully affirming that NATO was a “defensive alliance” that every right-minded person should support. Reflecting on the limits of acceptable opinion in the party, she conceded that “having a debate around NATO strategy is one thing, attacking NATO is another.”
Their compliance gave Starmer little reason to halt his purge, which intensified on March 29 with the proscription of three left-wing grouplets: Labour Left Alliance, Socialist Labour Network, and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Members deemed to have shown support for these organizations can now be auto-expelled. The rule change followed a similar ban from last July, aimed at four other clusters of Labour dissidents, the most prominent of which was Socialist Appeal, the British branch of the International Marxist Tendency.
These reforms have enabled the leadership to summarily eject its critics. Labour councilors with no affiliation to Socialist Appeal have been expelled for liking its Facebook posts, while others have received the same treatment for speaking to its newspaper. Since Starmer launched his latest crackdown, calls have mounted for him to add Stop the War to the blacklist. While his campaign against the Left initially relied on cynical antisemitism charges, now this pretense has vanished, and Britain’s small anti-imperialist movement has become an explicit enemy.
Labour’s socialists have struggled to resist this onslaught because few of them predicted it. Most were reassured by Starmer’s now-defunct campaign pledges to unify the party and preserve the bulk of Corbyn’s program. Back in early 2020, Paul Mason confidently predicted that “Starmer will not purge the left, and he won’t allow others to purge the left.” Owen Jones argued that ‘Now is the time for critical friendship’ between the two wings of the party, noting that “Unlike most Labour leaders, Starmer’s politics is rooted in extra-parliamentary politics: those instincts should be appealed to.”
But this view of Starmer, as an outsider in Westminster who could be influenced by the Momentum-aligned membership, was always a comforting illusion. An examination of his “extra-parliamentary” activities provides little grounds for optimism. In fact, the dominant features of his leadership — a return to Blairite foreign policy combined with a relentless assault on the Left — are perfectly in step with his political background.
A Record That Speaks for Itself
As I discuss in The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right (forthcoming with Verso), proximity to the Anglo-American security agencies was a key part of Starmer’s intellectual formation. As head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) from 2008 to 2013, Starmer worked closely with the Foreign Office, National Security Agency, and Specialist Operations directorate on a program to dispatch state lawyers to countries where they could advance British foreign policy objectives, including anti-drug campaigns and “counterterrorism” operations. These efforts were assisted by former NATO official Mark Sedwill and coordinated alongside the Barack Obama administration. Two of Starmer’s former colleagues told me that he struck a deal with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) that guaranteed the CPS would not contravene American interests in its overseas work.
This close relationship with the transatlantic security apparatus appears to have influenced some of Starmer’s prosecutorial decisions. Time and again, he pursued suspects wanted by the DOJ — often on exceedingly shallow pretexts — while shielding others from accountability. For instance, in 2012 Starmer worked to extradite Christopher Tappin, a sixty-five year-old retired businessman who allegedly tried to sell thirty-five batteries to the Iranian military in violation of US sanctions.
He meted out the same treatment to Gary McKinnon, the autistic IT expert whose extradition — which could have seen him spend the rest of his life in a US jail for hacking into military databases — was blocked by Theresa May on humanitarian grounds. The same year, Starmer paved the way for two Britons, Syed Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad, to be dispatched to an American supermax prison, where they were placed in indefinite solitary confinement for their tangential links to an obscure Islamist website.
Perhaps most notably, Starmer’s CPS intervened in the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, pressuring Swedish state prosecutors not to drop their charges against the journalist, in a move that streamlined plans to send him onward to the United States. While Crown lawyers hounded Assange for shedding light on US war crimes, Starmer simultaneously refused to prosecute intelligence officials who were accused of complicity in torture — despite the existence of eyewitnesses and documentary evidence.
As well as aiding the Americans, Starmer adopted a hard-line stance on domestic dissent. In the wake of the 2010 student movement, he drew up new guidelines that made it easier for the CPS to prosecute peaceful protesters, observing that the “potential for a number of protests over the coming years” had heightened the need to stamp out “trouble or disorder.” Those who caused “significant disruption” or were known to have done so at previous demonstrations could henceforth be singled out for prosecution — in an ominous foreshadowing of the authoritarian legislation emanating from the current Tory cabinet.
Concurrently, Starmer worked alongside the CPS national coordinator for domestic extremism, Nick Paul, who oversaw the activities of undercover agents — or “spycops” — tasked with infiltrating left-wing groups (many of them socialist, environmentalist, or anti-racist organizations). These undercover officers would frequently incite the most drastic and confrontational forms of direct action in order to entrap their targets.
When it came to light that scores of activists had been falsely convicted as a result of the spycops’ operation, Starmer organized an effective whitewash. He commissioned an “independent” inquiry into undercover policing that was widely considered a sham. On his orders, the scope of the report was drastically restricted, and the person nominated to write it was the UK’s chief surveillance commissioner, which meant that it amounted to a self-investigation. In the end, no officers were sanctioned, no apologies were made, and Starmer concluded that the CPS’s actions were beyond reproach.
Given these aspects of Starmer’s record, his most recent McCarthyite outbursts should come as no surprise. Servility to NATO and hostility to left-wing activists are inscribed in his political DNA. So far, the Labour left’s approach to Starmer continues to entertain the notion that he is susceptible to progressive pressure.
This may have been a reasonable assumption back in 2020, based on his disingenuous leadership campaign. Yet a closer look at his career — inside and outside Westminster — proves it to be false. As such, the SCG has little to gain from its strategy of compromise. Its climbdowns will not be rewarded with an iota of policy influence. At best, it will merely avoid expulsion from the party. But if its membership is premised on embracing American power and disowning groups like Stop the War, then how can it contribute to a viable Left strategy? Is the continued presence of socialists a virtue in itself, even if it means forsaking socialism?