There’s a lot of dirt on Keir Starmer in the new biography, The Starmer Project, by Oliver Eagleton. But Eagleton wants to do more than reel off Starmer’s crimes for the gratification of a defeated and desperate Labour left. He wants to discover the meaning of Starmer—what his leadership represents for the direction of the Labour Party and British politics.
Starmer is seemingly a contradiction. He’s a human rights lawyer who defended, supported or embedded himself in the British army, police and security services. The common thread is his affinity to the British state. His NGO-style human rights work meant he had both a “progressive veneer” and a commitment to working within the framework of state institutions. That made him the Labour government’s ideal choice as director of public prosecutions in 2003.
As Eagleton writes, by “charting a careful course between good‑cause legal campaigning and collaboration with the security services,” Starmer got to “the upper tiers of his profession.” The same combination carried Starmer to become Labour Party leader after Jeremy Corbyn’s failure in 2019. He appealed to Labour members as being someone who would both preserve Corbyn’s politics, while “ending factionalism” by being “competent” and “credible” enough for the right.
Yet once leader he would set about proving Labour “was no longer a band of dogmatists but a serious party of government, rejecting an ideological view of the state for a sensible, managerial one.” This combination—present throughout Starmer’s career—is exactly what makes him a good fit as Labour leader. Just like him, Labour is a party that has always claimed an affinity to progressive politics, but funnelled these into managing and preserving the British state.
Eagleton’s description of Starmer’s project can’t help but point to this connection repeatedly. For instance, Starmer’s “pro-police, pro-army, anti-protester” agenda is “not merely a sop to Red Wall conservatives, but a consistent feature of his politics, born out of longstanding service to Britain’s deep state.”
But Eagleton never quite follows through with any connection to a greater analysis of Labourism. He does, though, offer an assessment of Corbyn’s failure.
Eagleton describes how Starmer manoeuvred Corbyn’s Labour towards a position of overturning the vote to leave the European Union. But we also learn why Corbyn’s leadership failed to put up a fight.
For one thing, they thought they could use Starmer to “settle the nerves of the British establishment,” according to one “source” from Corbyn’s office. “Keir was the perfect poster boy for that.”
More importantly, they gave into him time and again. Eagleton shows how they feared any sort of confrontation, or attempt to launch an alternative “left populist” Brexit strategy would provoke splits and revolts among Labour MPs. After showing how Starmer has reversed “almost every gain made by the left during the Corbyn era,” Eagleton concludes the chances of “Corbynism 2.0” are “negligible.”
The barriers to socialists in Labour mean there’s no hope that “the Labour Party under left-wing leadership is imminently capable of enacting social democratic reform in Britain.”
Instead, he says, “a left electoral strategy” has to build a broader movement “through every available channel—most if not all of which exist outside the Labour Party.” He points to movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, and trade union organisation as examples.
Once these have coalesced into “a movement with clear demands and a popular mandate,” Eagleton tentatively suggests, “a level-headed assessment of possible electoral vehicles will be needed.”
But Starmer’s rise and Corbyn’s defeat show we need even more than that—a reckoning, and a break, from Labourism and its orientation on the state.
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