Keir Starmer Is a Political Chameleon Whose Main Loyalty Is to His Own Advancement

Keir Starmer’s political career shows him to be an opportunist with a sycophantic attitude toward those in power. Since becoming Labour leader, his main priority has been to expunge left-wing ideas and influence, not to defeat the Conservative Party.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers at speech in Brighton, England. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

When Keir Starmer first presented himself as a candidate for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party in 2019, his pitch was perfectly calculated to appeal to a demoralized membership, traumatized by a landslide general election defeat and exhausted after four years of internal civil war.

Starmer told Labour members exactly what they wanted to hear. He promised to pour oil on troubled waters, retaining the bulk of the left-wing policies adopted under Jeremy Corbyn (while jettisoning any trace of anti-imperialism), but with slicker media presentation and, at long last, an end to Labour’s factional warfare.

Today, Starmer’s leadership campaign stands out as one of the most brazen swindles in recent British political history, which is quite an achievement in itself. His tenure as Labour leader has seen him try to end the party’s faction fights simply by driving its left wing out altogether.

His predecessor Corbyn remains shut out of Labour’s parliamentary group with minimal chance of being readmitted, while hundreds of thousands of those who Corbyn inspired to join Labour have quit. The Starmer leadership has dropped popular Corbyn-era policies like public ownership and, to add calculated, egregious insult to injury, wheeled Tony Blair once more out of his crypt to front official Labour propaganda.

How did this charlatan manage to hoodwink his way to the leadership of the Labour Party and, quite possibly, a future stint as Britain’s prime minister? This is the central question that Oliver Eagleton, an editor at New Left Review, asks in The Starmer Project, the first significant book-length examination of Starmer’s politics and his previous track record.

The book isn’t a theoretical account of Starmerism: it’s a sharp and penetrating work of muckraking journalism that paints a distinctly unflattering (but not unfair) picture of its subject. The only thing to regret, perhaps, is that it didn’t arrive sooner.

Starmer’s Back Catalogue

One reason Starmer was able to take Labour members for such a ride is that despite leaning heavily on his past record as a human rights lawyer in his campaign, he did not have to worry about that record being subjected to serious scrutiny at the time. Fittingly, then, the most devastating chapter of The Starmer Project assesses his tenure as director of public prosecutions (DPP) — Britain’s top prosecutor — from 2008 to 2013.

As DPP, Starmer presided over draconian crackdowns in the wake of student protests and the 2011 riots. He hounded suspected welfare fraudsters, who were a tabloid folk devil and political obsession in those years, even though the sums lost to benefit fraud were always dwarfed by Britain’s industrial-scale tax avoidance. Importantly, Starmer also came into close contact with his American counterparts.

For Eagleton, Starmer’s time as head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) came to mark a turning point in his personal and political trajectory. After a youthful dalliance with the softer end of British Trotskyism — he coedited Socialist Alternatives, a magazine published by the Pabloite sect of the same name which ran for five issues — he embarked on a career as a progressive young lawyer in the 1980s. He joined the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers (and eventually become its secretary), supported print workers in the brutal 1986 Wapping dispute with Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and became a barrister the following year.

Starmer also worked with Helen Steel and David Morris, defendants in the so-called “McLibel” trial. The longest libel trial in English legal history, the case — which dragged on for nine years — saw Steel and Morris sued by McDonald’s over a pamphlet criticizing its environmental practices. With Starmer’s pro bono assistance, the pair succeeded in substantiating at least some of their claims and reducing the fast-food giant’s compensation demand. By this time, however, the young Starmer’s previous sympathy for grassroots protest politics was already giving way to a pronounced “emphasis on legislative fixes,” as Eagleton notes.

Serving the State

In 2003, Starmer was appointed to monitor the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which had replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) as part of the Good Friday Agreement. The PSNI’s early years were fraught, with the Nationalist community justifiably skeptical that there had been anything more than a cosmetic rebrand of the Unionist-dominated, sectarian RUC. But Starmer was full of admiration for the PSNI, hailing its “utter commitment” to maintaining human rights standards, and rejecting an appeal from Sinn Féin for a formal ban on the use of plastic bullets and tasers against children.

Appointed as DPP in 2008, Starmer’s reputation as a principled human rights lawyer lent the CPS “a progressive veneer” and “complemented the modernizing ethos of the Blair government.” But the CPS did more to change Starmer than the other way around. After David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power in 2010, he struck up a cordial working relationship with the new government’s ministers as they pursued an agenda of swingeing cuts to Britain’s welfare state and public services.

Another friendly relationship Starmer forged in these years was with Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney general. Eagleton recounts how Starmer “made a number of transatlantic trips” to meet Holder and subsequently endeavored to extradite several suspects sought by the US Department of Justice. One was Gary McKinnon, an autistic hacker who broke into US military computer systems, seemingly in search of information about UFOs. For four years, Starmer “worked doggedly” to extradite an “increasingly depressed and suicidal” McKinnon to the United States, allegedly reacting “with fury” when the home secretary Theresa May finally blocked his extradition in October 2012.

Starmer also sought to serve up Julian Assange to the US government, only for Assange to hole himself up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. When Assange’s lawyers asked Swedish prosecutors to question him in London about the sexual assault allegations he was facing, Starmer’s CPS stepped in and advised them not to do so. Sweden later mulled dropping the case, citing the passage of time and mounting costs, only for the CPS to urge them to keep it open. Starmer appears to have been in consultation with Holder throughout, meeting him in Washington days after Assange had an extradition appeal rejected.

Providing Cover

His service to the British security state was no less unquestioning. Detainee Binyam Mohamed had his penis and chest slashed with razor blades at a CIA black site in Morocco, with MI5 playing an active role in the interrogation by supplying his torturers with “detailed questions” and “discussing the timescale of his detention.” When Mohamed, later released from Guantanamo Bay without charge, supplied evidence that British agents had been involved, Starmer decreed that this was insufficient to prosecute. His office also halted an investigation into a torture case at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on the same grounds.

Starmer’s CPS was similarly lethargic when faced with cases of police brutality. When officers from the Metropolitan Police shot dead innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, the Met concocted “a series of falsehoods” to cover its back. No charges were brought until the police narrative was exposed as a sham at a 2008 inquest, after which the de Menezes case was sent back to Starmer for reconsideration. Again, Starmer appears to have been little troubled by the new evidence brought to light at the inquest and merely reaffirmed the earlier decision not to bring any charges against de Menezes’s killers.

Newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, a bystander who died after being struck randomly by a police officer during the G20 protests in London in 2009, received similarly short shrift from the CPS on Starmer’s watch. After a year, Starmer announced that the officer who struck the fatal blow, PC Simon Harwood, would not be prosecuted, disregarding the evidence of two postmortems. A year later, Starmer had to reverse his position, bringing manslaughter charges against Harwood: Harwood was subsequently found not guilty by a jury after a quack doctor, Freddy Patel, baselessly sowed confusion about the cause of death. Patel was later struck off the medical register for his handling of the Tomlinson case.

Equally perturbing is Starmer’s response to the Spycops scandal. Undercover police infiltrated more than a thousand political groups over the course of four decades, and a number of serving officers duped women activists into sexual relationships while snooping on them. Among the victims was Helen Steel, a defendant in the McLibel case with which Starmer had been involved. As Nick Bano has pointed out, a police spy likely passed Starmer’s legal advice on to McDonald’s. After the scandal — the nearest British equivalent to COINTELPRO — broke in 2010, Starmer commissioned Sir Christopher Rose, Britain’s chief surveillance commissioner, to conduct a supposedly independent investigation into it.

However, approving the deployment of undercover police officers was part of Rose’s job, “which meant that the inquiry amounted to a self-investigation.” The investigation’s terms of reference were carefully drafted to keep it within tight limits, ensuring that questions about the CPS’s wider handling of undercover policing were placed beyond Rose’s scope. Eagleton recounts that when the report was published, Starmer toured the TV studios to emphasize that it had not uncovered any systemic failings at the CPS — yet Starmer himself had placed Rose’s inquiry under such constraints that it couldn’t possibly have made any such finding.

Starmer’s conduct as DPP, Eagleton says, foreshadowed his subsequent political career in some crucial respects. In particular, he “embraced a right-wing statist-Atlanticism,” more recently evidenced in his slavish, bootlicking devotion to NATO and his ritual humiliation of its critics. In his later efforts to add a touchy-feely, progressive gloss to a generally grim and authoritarian record, he also demonstrated the “flexible approach to facts” which would come to characterize his leadership of the Labour Party. This whitewashing enabled Starmer to enter the political arena without too many awkward questions being asked about him.

A Political Opportunist

Entering the House of Commons in 2015, Starmer played a canny game when left-wing outsider Jeremy Corbyn stormed to victory in that year’s Labour leadership contest. Corbyn had drawn hundreds of thousands of people into the party with his anti-austerity platform, promising to make a break with the political cowardice and timidity that had come to define Labour over the preceding years.

Labour’s parliamentary party was so lacking in talent that Starmer himself was urged to stand for the leadership within only a week of being elected to Parliament for the first time. He wisely demurred from throwing his hat in.

Starmer kept a studied distance from Corbyn, but did not openly engage in the histrionics and petulant wrecking of many Labour right-wingers. He supported Corbyn’s rival, Owen Smith, in the 2016 leadership challenge, but even then kept his involvement fairly low-key. Afterward, Starmer had no trouble in returning to Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and was appointed to the position of shadow Brexit secretary, spearheading Labour’s response to Britain’s impending departure from the European Union. From there, he could build his own profile among the party membership while slyly nudging Corbyn in his preferred direction.

At the 2017 general election, Corbyn’s Labour had managed to avoid the pitfalls of Brexit polarization by making a class-based, left-populist appeal. The party went to the electorate on its most radical platform in decades, promising to bring public transport and utilities back into public ownership, scrap university tuition fees, extend trade union rights, and take radical action on climate change. Ultimately, it wasn’t quite enough to get the party into government, despite winning 40 percent of the vote — Labour’s best performance since 2001. But it did deprive the Tories of their House of Commons majority, and for a time Labour was riding high in the opinion polls.

Brexit would resurface with a vengeance soon afterward. Eagleton details how Starmer, as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, drew closer to the anti-Brexit People’s Vote campaign, in which New Labour grandees Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell held influential positions. He gradually began to tilt the party from its previous stance of respecting the result of the 2016 referendum toward support for a second plebiscite on Britain’s relationship with the EU. As Labour became bogged down in parliamentary maneuvering, it became more and more isolated from the movement at its base.

The pressure on Labour was intense, as Britain’s centrist press, celebrities, Labour MPs, and some trade union leaders all combined to push for a second Brexit referendum. Corbyn, a long-standing left-wing Eurosceptic, had bowed to the strength of pro-EU opinion in his party — including among his grassroots supporters and some of his closest allies in Parliament — and backed Remain in 2016. His attempts after the referendum to counterpose a Labour “workers’ Brexit” to a Tory “bankers’ Brexit” fell flat. He tried to paper over the divide by maintaining a degree of “constructive ambiguity” about Brexit, but the demands for another in-out referendum mounted.

While there were legitimate reasons to be worried about what Brexit might entail, for the most part, those driving the second referendum campaign were not doing so in the interests of internationalism, in defense of migrants’ rights, or indeed out of any real enthusiasm for the EU. Instead, they were looking for wedges to drive into Corbyn’s base, spotting that he was at odds with many of his supporters on Brexit. This worked very well for the Labour right and even succeeded in sowing division between Corbyn and John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor.

The Leadership Scam

Gradually, Labour lost its earlier insurgent, anti-systemic appeal and came to be seen as part of an out-of-touch political establishment. By 2019, it had committed itself to a second referendum, with Starmer and McDonnell lining up alongside the People’s Vote campaign. Starmer’s position on Brexit was no doubt in tune with most of the Labour Party’s MPs and rank-and-file members, but it turned out to be electorally toxic in its rust-belt constituencies: in total, fifty-two of the sixty seats Labour lost in 2019 had voted Leave three years earlier. Corbyn’s attempts to refocus the election on living standards also failed to reap rewards.

It had been apparent to all concerned for months prior to the election that a heavy defeat was coming. Senior Corbyn staff, frustrated by Starmer’s maneuvering over Brexit and wary of his obvious personal ambitions, had frozen him out of Labour’s election campaign. This merely gave him ample time to plan his bid for the party leadership. Starmer swiftly brought senior right-wing Labour MPs and Blairite strategists into the fold and soon, the main pillars of his leadership pitch were there: a public commitment to anti-austerity economic policy, some vague anti-war rhetoric and, above all, a pledge to unite the party after four years of bitter factional infighting.

A demoralized Labour membership was only too willing to hear it. Corbyn’s chosen successor candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, ran a poor campaign that only demonstrated the Labour left’s exhaustion and disorientation. Starmer, by contrast, was pitch-perfect: a slick campaign video flagged up his earlier radicalism and support for trade unionists in struggle during the 1984–85 miners’ strike and at Wapping. All this, along with endorsements from some senior Corbyn supporters and media outriders, was enough to convince many who had voted for Corbyn in 2015 and 2016 that they could trust Starmer as his successor.

It wasn’t long before they regretted their naivety. Starmer and his campaign strategists rightly calculated, as Eagleton notes, that most Corbyn supporters weren’t especially ideological, and that they’d voted for him more out of anger about austerity than any solid commitment to socialist transformation. With Labour’s structures little altered under Corbyn, Starmer more or less had free rein once installed as leader. Key policies were abandoned and, despite his warm words about party unity, Starmer began a purge of the Left; that said, many more quit Labour out of despair than were expelled by the party leadership, thus purging themselves.

Corbyn remains suspended from Labour’s parliamentary party after his response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism in Labour during his leadership. Corbyn expressed regret about the problem but insisted that its extent had been “dramatically overstated” for political purposes. This was unarguably true, since Corbyn’s critics had claimed that Labour was an “existential threat” to Jewish life in Britain and even that Corbyn himself wanted to “reopen Auschwitz.”

In the period that followed Corbyn’s suspension, Jewish critics of Israel inside the Labour Party have been among the prime targets of Starmer’s supposed crackdown on antisemitism. Corbyn himself attempted to dampen down the row, but Starmer reneged on promises to reinstate him, according to Eagleton. This is a version of events that former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has also supported in detail.

A Very British Robocop

Eagleton’s account of Starmer shows him, convincingly and at length, to be an unscrupulous, dishonest, and thin-skinned individual. His record as head of the CPS indicates that he should not be trusted with state power. Indeed, some of the positions Starmer has taken as Labour leader appear even more unnerving in the light of Eagleton’s book. One such controversy came in October 2020, when Starmer instructed Labour MPs to abstain on the third reading of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (rechristened the “Spycops Bill”), sparking a huge row in the party.

The legislation proposed to put undercover state operatives effectively above sanction, permitting them to commit serious crimes — even rape, torture, and murder — on grounds as nebulous and open to abuse as “preventing disorder” or ensuring “economic well-being.” Civil liberties groups vociferously opposed the bill, and several Labour front-benchers resigned in protest at Starmer’s line, while thirty-four MPs, mostly from the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group, defied the party whip to vote against it. Amendments to prevent the worst abuses were ultimately defeated, and the legislation was passed in March 2021, effectively giving a blank check to police provocateurs and infiltrators by putting them on a legal footing.

Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti, Britain’s best-known civil liberties campaigner, described the Spycops Bill as “one of the most dangerous that I’ve ever seen.” Even the right-wing Spectator magazine condemned it. Starmer’s decision to abstain, only a few months after he won the Labour leadership by touting his early record as a human rights lawyer, caused consternation in the party. There was alarm, too, in the wider labor movement, with the leaders of fourteen trade unions signing a joint statement alongside dissident MPs and civil liberties watchdogs.

At the time, it was difficult to fathom exactly what Starmer’s logic was. Given the strength of feeling in the labor movement about the Spycops scandal, there was genuine bewilderment that a Labour leader, even a right-wing one, could sit idly by while the government gave undercover agents a free hand to infiltrate left-wing organizations in the future.

Eagleton makes it clear that Starmer wasn’t motivated purely by political opportunism, a desire to pander to the law-and-order lobby, or factional malice toward the Labour left. The likely reality is more worrying: Starmer, himself molded by the state security apparatus, simply shares its jaundiced view of activists and does not object in principle to state agents having these powers.

The book has a harder time getting into Starmer’s head to work out what he might possess by way of a philosophy. Eagleton is hardly to be blamed for this, though, as the likely answer is “not very much.” The Starmer Project does make a brief detour to discuss the ideology of Labourism. Eagleton borrows here from a previous New Left Review editor, Tom Nairn, citing Nairn’s observation in the 1960s that Labour’s “socialism” is mainly “a moral crusade propelled by emotions of outrage at injustice and suffering,” rather than being underpinned by a materialist analysis. This is, Eagleton argues, “the clearest lens through which to view Starmer’s pious statements about his politics.”

However, the preceding account of Starmer’s track record makes clear that moral considerations have ranked very low on his list of priorities. Whatever the shortcomings of Labourism as an ideology (or, more accurately, as an ethos), moral outrage is at least a human response to injustice. It is extremely difficult to imagine Keir Starmer mustering any sincere indignation at poverty, homelessness, racism, or any other fundamental social wrong. He is, rather, an unimaginative securocrat, an automaton whose ingrained instinct is to bloodlessly execute the orders programmed into him by his superiors: rather like RoboCop, only without the occasional pangs of unease and the troubling flashbacks to his previous incarnation.

It is precisely this servile obedience to power and lack of moral scruple, coupled with a kind of low cunning, that makes Keir Starmer so useful to Britain’s ruling class. Will these dubious qualities be enough to earn him a tilt at the highest office in the land? With the Tories seemingly imploding, Labour has enjoyed a lead in the opinion polls for some time, but in the absence of an inspiring alternative, this is only by default. Yet in view of his disdain for participatory politics, fetish for technocratic-statist governance, and deeply authoritarian pedigree, the prospect of a Starmer-led government arouses more trepidation than optimism.