Since Keir Starmer was elected party leader in April 2020, most of the Parliamentary Labour Party have been at pains to remind the wider membership that, above all else, he is a bona fide election winner. Starmer is, his supporters insist, a nailed-on certainty to reclaim 10 Downing Street for Labour after over a decade in opposition. After he was first elected leader, former Blairite luminaries immediately went public with their congratulations. Tony Blair himself tweeted his praise via his charitable foundation, saying that Starmer had taken on “the responsibility of providing a coherent and effective opposition” and looked forward to him transforming Labour into a “serious and effective candidate for government.”
Yet just over two years into his leadership, there are strong indications that the picture is not all rosy. In public, Blair and his longtime aide Peter Mandelson remain supportive of Starmer and his purge of the Left of his party. However, behind the scenes, Starmer appears to have lost the support of the Blairites. In private, doubts have been growing for some time about Starmer’s much heralded electability. Blair had already said as much out loud in May 2021, after Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election, a seat which Labour held twice under Jeremy Corbyn. Writing in the New Statesman, Blair said Starmer was “sensible but not radical.”
Blair’s New Statesman article has been, until now, the clearest sign yet that Blair et al. no longer believe that Starmer has the magic touch. That is until a few weeks ago, when the Britain Project was created. Its exact purpose remains unclear, except that it seeks a more centrist alternative to Starmer’s Labour.
Not a Party, but . . .
The Britain Project identifies on its own website as a “non-partisan political collaboration.” It aims to build what it calls “a broad coalition in the centre ground.” Established by a former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate and an ex-Times journalist, the Britain Project would seem at face value to be the purest distillation of Third Way centrism in the twenty-first century. But the Britain Project is more intriguing for what it doesn’t reveal than what it does. From the website, it’s unclear whether it is a political party, a think tank, or a charitable foundation. Hard facts about the organization are few and far between: it “launched,” as far as one can tell, on January 20, with unclear funding sources.
For an organization which seeks a top-to-bottom transformation of British politics, the Britain Project has not created great waves — indeed, thus far it has barely made a ripple. For an organization that boasts such “luminaries” as Rory Stewart, Trevor Phillips, and David Gauke, the Britain Project has made no great pronouncements and has barely made a noise since it started four months ago. And despite having Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, its internet presence is minimal.
On the surface there is little to suggest Blair’s involvement with the project. Multiple centrist politicians and hangers-on from the Blair years decorate its personnel page, though he himself is nowhere to be seen. Yet tellingly, on the same day the Britain Project launched, Blair gave a speech at the Global Center for Health Innovation that wasn’t so much a blessing as a laying on of hands. “The Britain Project is a group working across party lines,” said Blair. “It will organize a conference in May” — now in fact slated for June 30. “We want this conference to be an opportunity for people to come together and set out a broad direction for the future of Britain.” It can be no accident that the speech is reposted on the Britain Project website in full.
The Britain Project is truly remarkable; a brand new political party (if indeed it is one) can be founded, receive the blessing of Tony Blair, and receive virtually nil attention from the mainstream media. It may yet turn out to be the latest forgettable attempt to breathe new life into the moribund corpse of the Third Way, but Blair’s involvement would suggest the architects of the endeavor have more serious ambitions for it. So what are we to conclude?
First, this is the strongest indicator yet that Blair and Mandelson have lost faith in the Starmer project and his much vaunted electability. Indeed, even faced with the Tory government’s bungling response to COVID-19, which left Britain with one of Europe’s highest death rates, and the warmest media reception any Labour leader has received since Blair himself in 1994, Starmer has failed to catch a wind with the public. The public haven’t rated him as doing a good job since January 2021. For comparison, Neil Kinnock led Margaret Thatcher by 15 points midway through her third term, but still lost the subsequent election.
Second, and more intriguingly, these developments hint at the possibility that Labour’s Blairite wing hasn’t just lost hope in Starmer but is now looking beyond the role set for him; namely, to purge Labour’s left faction and remove all socialists from parliamentary politics. The project’s creation would indicate that Starmer’s attempts to persuade right-wing billionaires and powerful institutions that the ruling elite’s interests are safe in Labour’s hands have all been for nothing. Even having suspended Jeremy Corbyn from the parliamentary party, and kicking numerous Jewish left-wing activists out of Labour altogether, Starmer has failed to convince the Blairites that this is now a party that can be depended on to protect the interests of capital.
A Newer, Even Worse New Labour?
Perhaps the most significant conclusion we can draw from the Britain Project’s creation is the glimpse it gives us into what a Third Way centrist formation may look like in the next decade. The concept of “a broad coalition in the centre ground” exhibits the same old paternalistic qualities of New Labour, though Blair’s speech also gives this a harder, darker, meaner edge. For the former prime minister, the NHS needs to be “completely rethought” and taxpayer money needs to be saved by using AI and automation to wipe out well-paid admin jobs. Crucially, Blair does not rule out privatization of the NHS, urging against risk aversion “even in an area as politically delicate as the NHS.” Pensions must likewise be “rethought” for the next generation, says Blair, highlighting the high cost of pensions. He also calls for a system of biometric identification to combat illegal immigration.
With such reactionary policies in mind, perhaps the project’s real ambition is to push Starmer to the right, and even further away from the “progressive” rhetoric on which he won the 2020 leadership contest. Clearly, there are some in Blair’s coterie who would love the Britain Project to stand apart from Labour, providing their country’s answer to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche vehicle. The French president was reportedly even invited to the June 30 conference. Yet such candidacies don’t seem viable in Britain’s electoral system, with the harsh logic of “first past the post” already having doomed similar recent splinter efforts such as Change UK.
New Labour’s real achievement was to entrench neoliberal hegemony in the British political system by taking over an existing party while sweetening the pill with some light-touch interventionist policies such as tax credits to top up falling wages. New Labour told the ruling elite that they would pursue Thatcherite policies in government without disastrous consequences. This, in short, is why Blair is still venerated by many of the key institutions of British public life, not least the BBC and Civil Service.
However, among the British public itself, there is precious little enthusiasm for a return to the much vaunted glory days of 1990s Third Way centrism, characterized by the triple bonanza of deregulation, privatization, and marketization. Without a significant toehold in the British electorate, the Britain Project looks set to wither on the vine like Change UK. But electoral success, of course, is never the real purpose. Starmer has their support, for now, because he is achieving Blair’s life’s work: ridding the Labour Party of socialism and returning to the party that the ruling elite loves the most, a party which will achieve power and do nothing with it. The electoral left has nothing to fear from the Britain Project. What Starmer has to fear from it is another matter.