How Keir Starmer trapped himself

Keir Starmer may soon regret his televised pledge to resign as Labour leader if he is fined for breaching lockdown restrictions. The revelation that his takeaway dinner in April 2021, when indoor socialising was illegal, was pre-planned could either incriminate or exonerate him, depending on which barrister one asks. Whatever the outcome of the Durham police investigation, Starmer’s promise to “do the right thing” provides an important insight into his leadership. It also conveys a broader truth about our political culture, highlighting the potential for a seemingly cautious electoral strategy – based on managerial centrism – to backfire catastrophically. 

What might be called “Starmerism” rests on an iron respect for rules, laws and conventions, seen as essential to the functioning of the state. Its figurehead is a career bureaucrat who once ran the Crown Prosecution Service: interpreting legal guidelines to crack down on peaceful protesters and dispensing conveyor-belt justice during the 2011 England riots. By transplanting this punitive skill-set to the Labour Party, Starmer aims to repress the legacy of his predecessor, who channelled the libertine energies of Generation Left. In opposition to that youthful irresponsibility, he projects an image of maturity, competence, moderation: enforcing the reality principle on those who’d rather flout it.

Starmer has also used his law-abiding persona to draw a favourable contrast with the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson’s initial appeal lay in his willingness to suspend the rules of Westminster politics: proroguing parliament, removing the whip from insubordinate MPs and discarding Britain’s legal obligations in order to fulfil the Brexit mandate. On each occasion, his defiance positioned him on the side of the people against the pieties of the establishment. But partygate inverted this logic. By hosting piss-ups at the height of the pandemic, Johnson’s rule-breaking was recast as elitist, while Starmer’s restraint became attractive. Johnson was a bad apple, Starmer a consummate statesman.

Starmer thereby defined himself against Jeremy Corbyn and Johnson, presented as equally disruptive influences – the first because of his ambition to radically transform society, the second because of his personal unfitness for office. Contra to these antagonists, the Labour leader vowed to run the state as a clean and effective bureaucracy. He would uphold its rules, streamline its systems and manage them efficiently, rescuing Britain from crankish ideologues and incontinent hedonists. The approach seemed to have been vindicated by Labour’s impressive polling surge last December. A ten-point lead for the Tories turned into a ten-point lead for the opposition within a matter of weeks, as details of No 10 lockdown parties emerged.

[See also: The local elections show Keir Starmer needs to raise his game]

Yet, even then, this strategy suffered from two major drawbacks. First, it was intensely negative. Starmer could assail the Labour left and deride Johnson’s unprofessionalism, but he could not construct a popular programme. His reputation as a bland administrator only allowed him to benefit by default from Tory crises. In the recent local elections, the limits of those gains were plain to see. Labour performed worse outside the capital than in the previous local elections in 2018 and undershot expectations among wavering Red Wall voters. As Andrew Marr reflected in these pages, “there is no great evidence… of popular warmth towards Keir Starmer, nor of a widespread belief that he has an economic answer to the country’s immediate economic and social pain”.

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Second, Starmer’s ability to capitalise on political scandals was offset by his susceptibility to them. By acting as a defender of the state, whose rules he would police with righteous pedantry, he was setting himself up to be seen as a hypocrite. It’s not that he would inevitably violate the objective standards he demanded of Johnson; it’s that, in the political sphere, objective standards do not exist. Rules can always be creatively applied and goalposts shifted. Positioning oneself on the side of the law presupposes that the law will be accurately interpreted, by the authorities and the general public. But accuracy in politics is subordinate to power. Beergate has showed that, with enough media pressure, it is possible to reverse a supposedly impartial police decision and convince the majority of the electorate that an offence likely took place.

This strikes at the foundations of Starmerism. For it means that his method – juxtaposing rules to anarchy, the state to its opponents – can never be executed with sufficient caution. No matter what Starmer does, scandals that place him on the wrong side of those antinomies can be uncovered or confected. And without a set of compelling policies, he has no ballast against them.

Starmer’s decision to foreground partygate over the cost-of-living crisis – indicative of his wider emphasis on competence over ideology – has now caused issues for him. A political project that relies on scandals is liable to end up being consumed by one. Even if he is not fined for his late-night curry, the perception of duplicity will linger, and increase his vulnerability to other hostile news stories. Yet this raises the question: would a bolder leader have ignored Johnson’s lockdown fêtes to focus on bread-and-butter issues? No, because scandals crystallise the realities of class conflict. Through the lens of a left programme, they become metonyms for the behaviour of elites; not an exception to the norm, but a potent reflection of it.

For Starmer, episodes such as partygate represent a clash between the dictates of authority and the malefactors who infringe them. For socialists, however, the framing is different. Instances of rule-breaking are not deployed to reinforce establishment codes but to prove that society’s broader rules are broken, and need to be replaced.

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

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