- Interview by
- Caitlín Doherty
Since taking the reins of the Labour Party over two years ago, Keir Starmer has worked tirelessly to exorcise the memory of Jeremy Corbyn. In an effort to refashion the party as a moderate and respectable opposition to the Tories, he has purged many socialists from its ranks, including his predecessor, who now risks standing as an independent in the next general election. Even those who were distrusting of his claim to be a peacemaker at the time of his election have been taken aback by the scale of his assaults on the Left.
Looking back on his career, from his time as a socialist lawyer to his tenure as a prosecutor collaborating with the most reactionary forces of the British and American security states, a clear pattern can be discerned. Starmer, a natural technocrat, has always been committed to legalistic authoritarianism: relying on rules and procedure to attack opponents and advance his own career under the guise of efficiency.
It is uncertain whether Labour’s leader is going anywhere anytime soon. What is certain is that he will continue to marginalize the Left, demanding fealty in exchange for membership. What is the motivation behind the ruthless approach to the internal management of party politics? And how much of it can or should the few socialists still present in the party be willing to take?
Ahead of the publication of his new book, The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right, Oliver Eagleton spoke with Caitlín Doherty about the prospects for the Left and the ideology behind the current leader of the Labour Party.
Your book is a fantastic example of the merits of the genre of political biography. You trace out the development of a set of ideological positions through Starmer’s professional life, which you use to shed light on his behavior as a leader. There was allegedly once another side to Keir Starmer: the socialist lawyer, former Haldane Society secretary. Could you outline his ideological trajectory, as you understand it? Is there any continuity of commitment throughout his career?
I think in one way, there definitely has been some kind of political shift that’s taken place since the days when Starmer was loosely associated with Trotskyist grouplets on the London left. But it’s also possible to trace certain continuities of instinct or disposition throughout his career.
Starmer is, by training and by disposition, a bureaucrat: someone who prides himself on his ability to streamline administrative systems. This was the approach that he brought to groups like the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Even when he was a self-described socialist doing a lot of very admirable pro bono work for environmentalists and trade unionists, he was, according to his peers, always attempting to “modernize” the organization, which in practice meant shedding its associations with communist groups and other sections of the British left. The way some of his colleagues at the time described it was that he wanted to “NGO-ify” the Haldane and turn it into a kind of liberal, rather than socialist, campaigning organization.
Then, when he was working on the death penalty — advocating a moratorium on it in various Caribbean islands — he insisted that he was not launching a political campaign against capital punishment, which, at the time, he said he supported in principle. He was rather attempting to ensure that the state machinery was functioning as fairly and effectively as possible. It was on that basis that he opposed the mandatory imposition of capital punishment in situations where it would cause miscarriages of justice or impede the operation of the carceral state.
When he became head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in 2008, this apolitical commitment to modernization and efficiency allowed him to quickly adapt to its ideological climate. There he worked closely with the [Conservative and Liberal Democrat] coalition government and also with the British security services on what he saw as a project to bring that institution into the twenty-first century; and forging these ties clearly contributed to his rightward turn.
The NGO-ification which you describe seems to be something which he brought with him and defined his politics, at least in his first year as leader of the opposition. During this period, he was advised by people like Claire Ainsley, former director of the liberal Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and was in the grips of a kind of third-sector ideology which favored technocratic rather than political responses to social problems. But then he seemed to take an about-turn and brought in a new round of advisors. Can you talk a little bit about that?
From the beginning there were two elements of Starmerism. One was a disciplinary impulse to constrain the ideological possibilities within the Labour Party after the Corbyn experiment. It’s easy to see where this aspect of Starmer’s politics comes from if we put it in the context of the biographical story we were just discussing. Trained in administering justice within the British state, he was able to draw on this experience to crack down on dissent within the Labour Party.
This problem was that this style of leadership — because it is primarily concerned with the internal management of organizations — translates badly into national politics. Starmer has really only been successful at marginalizing or expelling the Labour left, which is not the same as having a popular program, or even any kind of political direction, that can be used to effectively intervene in the news cycle.
Starmer and his team attempted to overcome this shortcoming by relying increasingly on focus groups. Rightly, they saw that if the orientation of Starmerism is essentially just negative, mounting a perpetual crackdown on its enemies, it won’t cut through. It also needs something positive to say. Starmer and his team have tried to source this missing ingredient from “consultations” with ex-Labour voters they want to win back. But after the disastrous local elections last year, it became clear that using focus groups to craft the party’s talking points just yielded a very vague, often self-contradictory set of buzzwords rather than a coherent political platform.
In response to this crisis, Starmer and his team increasingly came to rely on the Blairite old guard: a cadre of aides and advisers, including Peter Mandelson and Matthew Doyle. Of course, their interpretation of why Labour’s message wasn’t cutting through was that the legacy of Corbynism hadn’t been fully expunged. From that point on, we started to see Starmerism take on its current form: the rejection of any positive project and, instead, an unremitting campaign against the Labour left — one that has no end point, because the Left can never be marginalized enough.
You’ve written that it would be a misconception to see Starmer as the new Tony Blair, not just because he is devoid of his predecessor’s brand of charisma but because the political and economic context in which Blairism took place, characterized by cheap credit and rapid globalization, is just not possible to replicate. Starmer, in contrast, seems to have no fiscal policy of his own. Could you say something about the differences in outlook between the two leaders?
As you say, Blairism was defined by a fundamental faith in free markets, enabled by the era of cheap credit and rapid globalization. Alloyed to this economic logic was an authoritarian disposition, which anxiously sought to guard the neoliberal settlement against its perceived opponents, both foreign and domestic. Understood in this way, Blairism was, first, a kind of optimistic heir to Thatcherite fiscal policy, and second, an authoritarianism that smuggled back in the most violent and racist politics of Thatcherism in the chic garb of Cool Britannia.
In contrast, Starmerism is characterized by an inverted relation between the free market and discipline. It is primarily a disciplinary project, responding to the excesses of Corbynism. I don’t think there’s anything in his background to suggest that Starmer is a neoliberal ideologue. He is, however, very reluctant to adopt even the mildest social democratic policies, since that would evoke the memory of his predecessor — which must be repressed at all costs
Abroad, Blair’s authoritarianism took the form of an unwavering commitment to Atlanticism, another element of the New Labour program currently being revivified by Starmer. Could you talk a little bit more about what his foreign policy looks like and, more specifically, where he understands Britain’s position to be in the global order and how his program as Labour leader ties into that?
Part of what I tried to pinpoint about Starmer’s politics in the book is his long-standing Atlanticist commitments. This is something that I think also goes back to his time as director of public prosecutions, when he worked with the US Department of Justice and the State Department on overseas work for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). What he was essentially trying to do was export a network of CPS lawyers to support both UK and US foreign-policy interests.
Through that work at the CPS, he seems to have developed a genuine faith in the virtue of the American empire that we can now see vividly on display in his constant reaffirmation of Labour’s commitment to NATO, and his refusal to share the party with anyone who criticizes it.
A slight distinction between Labour and the Tories is that Starmer has said he wants Britain to be a gateway between Europe and the States. He would probably be less aggressive than the current government in trying to cut Britain off from the European security agencies. In part, this is a holdover from his “remain” position during and after the Brexit referendum.
On the whole, though, Starmer has attacked the Tories from the right on overseas issues, insisting that a Labour government under his leadership would be more vigilant and aggressive in defending “the West” from its civilizational opponents. He would pursue Russian oligarchs more doggedly and implement broader and deeper sanctions than Boris Johnson’s government is willing to contemplate. On the other front of the new cold war, Starmer has pushed the Tories to take a more antagonistic stance toward China. In this respect, he has updated the Blairite liberal-interventionist framework for a new era of great power politics.
What is Starmer’s standing with the right wing of the Labour Party? It seems pretty clear the scales have fallen from the eyes of anyone on the Left, but a few months ago, there was talk of dissatisfaction in the party with Starmer from the right. His former supporters were now comparing him to Neil Kinnock [the Labour leader who lost two successive elections before stepping down] rather than Blair. Is he still their guy?
There was an article in the Times last week about how Blair has been frustrated with Starmer’s performance. Rather than continuing to advise him behind the scenes, he’s reportedly been pouring a lot of energy into a new organization that he hopes will be a British answer to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche. Clearly, there is a real dissatisfaction with Starmer among this cohort, but this is always expressed in relation to his media performance: he is seen as not nimble enough, too robotic.
Nevertheless, Starmer remains useful to the Right primarily as a battering ram against the Left. He is undoubtedly a much better manager than he is a politician, having already succeeded in clearing out many socialist staffers from the internal party apparatus, removing the whip from Corbyn, and consigning the Socialist Campaign Group to the fringes of British politics. The Blairite grandees are willing to let Starmer continue his purge and then ultimately replace him with someone who is shinier and more polished in front of the news cameras.
What this approach ignores is precisely the historical difference that I was referring to earlier between the Blairite moment and our own. If they think that simply having someone who’s a better orator is going to solve the basic problem — that it’s impossible to revive the faith in free markets on which Blairism traded — then the right wing of the party is setting itself up for disappointment. We are living in a post-crash, rather than a post-Thatcher, era.
And on the other side of this there is also issue of what Starmer’s leadership has meant for the Left. He led a series of purges, not just of the party’s membership but of its bureaucracy as well as the Parliamentary Labour Party itself. This has been done so quickly, and at points with such ease, that it raises the question of whether there are limitations for the Left built into the very structure of the Labour Party. Corbynism was clearly an exception. Would the Left within the party still be struggling today even if Labour was led by a less hostile leader?
Definitely. In recent weeks, Starmer has threatened to remove the whip from MPs who signed a Stop the War Coalition letter critical of NATO and the Russian invasion. Starmer was able to put them on the back foot and force an immediate capitulation. In the coming months, he will continually draw such political dividing lines and threaten anyone that attempts to cross them with expulsion.
This raises questions about how many of their principles left-wing MPs are happy to compromise in exchange for continued membership in the parliamentary party. Ultimately, many people think that that the whip will be withdrawn from socialist MPs in the run-up to the next election anyway; so the result of these capitulations may just be to further discredit any post-Corbynite program. That’s a situation that the electoral left desperately needs to avoid.
At present, the Labour Party cannot provide much institutional support for its prominent left-wing figures. Even at the local level, many Momentum activists are too busy trying to keep their membership cards and avoid expulsion to effectively coordinate with their national representatives in the Socialist Campaign Group. So I think that, at the very least, there needs to be more formalized collaboration between the trade unions, campaign groups, social movements, and Socialist Campaign Group members to create a left bloc that is simultaneously inside and outside of Parliament. This would provide socialist MPs with an institutional structure which they could use to fight back against the leadership and maintain their place in the party.
But failing that, there is, of course, another alternative. They could also take the braver step of resigning the whip and standing in solidarity with Corbyn. In this scenario, they would be unconstrained to articulate a genuine socialist program, which would show up the differences between a real opposition and the reactionary politics that Starmer embodies.