Keir Starmer’s Election Pitch: Change You Can’t Believe In

The British Labour Party will probably cruise to victory in July’s election after more than a decade of social vandalism by the Conservatives. But there is little popular enthusiasm for a party determined to promise as little change as possible.

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks to the media on the first day of campaigning on May 23, 2024 in Gillingham, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Seven years ago, a Conservative prime minister called a snap general election at a time when the polls showed a persistently large double-digit gap between Britain’s two major parties. By the time the election was held, it was almost a dead heat. The party that expected to win by a landslide margin ended up without a parliamentary majority.

This time, nobody expects Rishi Sunak to emulate the surprising achievement of Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. When the Conservative leader announced yesterday that there will be an election at the start of July, several months ahead of schedule, his performance bore all the hallmarks of a man who has already given up.

Tory MPs are reported to be furious with the sudden move. A premature end to Sunak’s government will hopefully limit his opportunities for devising new ways of harassing immigrants, trans people, or other vulnerable groups.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer responded to Sunak’s announcement by presenting the election as a chance for the people of Britain to “stop the chaos” and “change our country” after fourteen disastrous years of Conservative rule. But the change Starmer is offering doesn’t extend much further than changing the personnel at the top of the British state.

Pledging Fealty

Two episodes in the past few weeks showed how little we should expect of Starmer’s party in government. The first concerned its approach to world affairs.

On May 8, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy made an appearance at an event organized by the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. The main purpose of Lammy’s intervention was to show that Labour will have no problem working with Donald Trump if he wins the election this November. Lammy, who once described Trump as a “racist Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizer,” now shrugged off his previous comments as a youthful misadventure: “You are going to struggle to find any politician in the western world who has not had things to say about Donald Trump.”

As he stooped to pay homage to Trump and the Republican Party, Lammy denounced the US student protests against Israel’s genocidal massacre in Gaza: “There is a difference between peaceful protest of the kind [Nelson] Mandela would have advocated, and violence and rioting.” These comments were morally repugnant in two different ways.

First of all, Nelson Mandela was no pacifist: in fact, he took the initiative to launch a campaign of armed struggle against the apartheid regime. He was also a strong supporter of the Palestinian people, and the South African case against Israel at the International Court of Justice carries on the best side of his political legacy. Mandela’s grandson Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela rebuked Lammy for invoking his grandfather’s name and branded the Labour politician as an “apologist for genocide.”

Secondly, there was no “rioting” at the student encampments, with the exception of the violent onslaught that a pro-Israel mob launched against the protesters at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with the complicity of the local police force. By lying about the nature of the protests, Lammy indicated his wholehearted approval of their violent suppression.

Lammy also claimed that it was

. . . one of the lowest periods of my political life standing outside of Parliament, protesting against what had happened to the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and saying, enough is enough because of the antisemitism that had grown up in that period.

The charges of antisemitism against Corbyn and his supporters had precisely the same factual content as the charges of antisemitism we have seen leveled against all those who have opposed the Gaza genocide, from politicians like Rashida Tlaib and Jamaal Bowman to the student protesters at Columbia or New York University, not to mention bodies like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the International Criminal Court.

What Lammy really means is that Labour previously had a leader who, unlike Starmer, considered Palestinians to be full-fledged human beings. Corbyn would never have given his explicit approval to war crimes, as Starmer did. He would have used his position to condemn the atrocities Israel is committing against the Palestinian people in clear, unambiguous language.

For Lammy, a man who traded his backbone for a seat on the political gravy train many years ago, the prospect of a Labour government that didn’t fall in line behind the US power elite over the Gaza massacre is too horrifying to contemplate. Along with his colleagues, he was willing to burn everything to the ground to make sure that didn’t happen. This is the ethical spirit that he will bring with him if and when he takes up residence at the Foreign Office.

Pillars of Principle

Labour’s readiness to pledge fealty to Trump is matched by its embrace of Trump-style figures on the domestic scene. While Lammy was delivering his remarks at the Hudson Institute, his leader proudly announced the defection of Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke to Labour.

The Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley, one of the most dependable Blairites in the British commentariat, accurately described Elphicke as “a woman with a reputation for being as rabidly rightwing as they come,” not to mention a record of Trumpian outbursts about immigrants and refugees. Elphicke specifically cited the question of border security to explain her break with the Tories: “Rishi Sunak’s government is failing to keep our borders safe and secure.”

Along with her political outlook, Elphicke brought some personal baggage worthy of Trump himself. She staunchly defended her sex-offender husband before and after his conviction for assaulting two women, claiming that he was “an easy target for dirty politics and false allegations.”

This blend of political and personal toxicity prompted Rawnsley to warn that Elphicke’s defection was more trouble than it was worth for Labour:

It feeds into the anxiety that there is no compromise with their party’s values that the leadership might not make in pursuit of what it sees as potential electoral advantage. It is also worth asking whether this defection is more harm than help to the advancement of the Labour cause. Voters may have a general preference for broad-church parties, but they also tend to like them to come with sturdy walls and some pillars of principle.

The Party of Order

In truth, Starmer and his team are not appealing to ordinary voters with moves like this — not even the ones who share Elphicke’s worldview. They have been making a concerted effort to win over wealthy businessmen who formerly supported the Conservative Party, and with considerable success.

Jim Ratcliffe is one of Britain’s richest men, although he relocated to Monaco to avoid paying billions in tax. He supported the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum and received a knighthood from the Conservative government in 2018. Now he reckons a Starmer government is what Britain needs: “I’m sure Keir will do a very good job at running the country — I have no questions about that.”

Ratcliffe hasn’t changed his political outlook one iota in the course of embracing Starmer. Although he criticizes the Tories for their handling of Brexit, he does so on the grounds that they still haven’t done enough to limit immigration, even though this was the main priority for Boris Johnson in drawing up his Brexit deal. Ratcliffe blames immigrants for the breakdown of public services in Britain but says nothing about the massive public spending cuts rammed through by the party that gave him his knighthood.

To appease men like Ratcliffe, Labour has already watered down its popular commitments to strengthen workers’ rights. For example, the vast majority of Conservative voters support a ban on zero-hours contracts as well as the right to switch off (meaning that employers can’t insist on contacting workers outside of their paid hours). However, Labour has dropped those proposals from its blueprint in response to lobbying from business figures.

Labour’s determination to offer as little as possible at a time when the post-Thatcher economic model is visibly falling apart helps explain a seeming paradox. Even though the party enjoys a big polling lead, its leader and his top team are neither liked nor trusted by the majority of voters. Tony Blair cruised to victory in 1997 with a cheesy pop tune called “Things Can Only Get Better” as his campaign song, but there is little sense now that a Labour government will result in tangible improvements.

This probably won’t stop Labour from winning by a comfortable margin on July 4. The Tories are in a dreadful state after more than a decade of relentless social vandalism, and Sunak has shown no evidence thus far that he is the man who can rescue their fortunes. Yet the main priority of a Starmer government will be to lock in the consequences of that vandalism at a time when progressive social reforms are urgently needed.