In her Labour leadership announcement in Tribune this week, Rebecca Long-Bailey remarks that the party has been “too close to the establishment we are meant to be taking on – whether cosying up to Rupert Murdoch, joining forces with David Cameron in the Better Together campaign in 2014 or turning our focus inwards on parliamentary manoeuvring for the last year”.
The process Long-Bailey describes is ‘Pasokification’ (named for the collapse of the Greek social democratic party PASOK): the electoral decline experienced by parties of the left across Europe today, when they fail to adequately distinguish themselves from parties of the right and other establishment institutions.
In my book Other People’s Politics I described how Jeremy Corbyn managed to reverse this fate for a time, in part precisely because “establishment” figures such as the Blairite wing of the party, the liberal press and high-profile Remainers were so hostile to him. Last autumn, I admit that I watched with admiration as Corbyn and Brexit secretary Keir Starmer recast themselves as model institutional negotiators, working to contain Boris Johnson’s irresponsible no-deal brinkmanship.
Yet, as Long-Bailey admits now, this was Corbynism shedding its insurgency. Every grudging nod from a celebrity Remainer stirred memories of Tony Blair’s chumminess with elites or Ed Miliband’s pact with Scottish Tories. Corbyn was now “just another politician” – and an inept one at that – in the imaginations of the northern seats the party was about to lose.
Starmer’s initial dominance of the Labour leadership contest is concerning, then, if not surprising. Whatever their reputation, Labour members are mainly gentle, pragmatic sorts – more Lennon than Lenin. A “normal politician” (that is, a white guy in his fifties with good hair) who nonetheless speaks up Corbyn’s policies is exactly what many of them have always wanted.
Starmer’s legal work on human rights and against the death penalty internationally is indisputably impressive. But is a knight-of-the-realm QC, a former director of public prosecutions, and a pin-up in the campaign for a Final Say referendum on Brexit seriously the candidate to break Labour’s long Pasokification?
I don’t presume to critique Starmer’s time as head of the Crown Prosecution Service. Any DPP can have individual decisions raked over, but in a sense that’s the point. Anyone who thinks Starmer will be spared the character assassination performed on Corbyn forgets that if there’s one type of leftist speaker more hated than a grubby protester, it’s a well-heeled human rights lawyer.
A brief glance at some of the decisions made by the CPS during Starmer’s time show how easy it would be for the right to demoralise Starmer’s own supporters and incense swing voters. At a time when biographical fragments and isolated quotations spread like fire in Facebook memes, it wouldn’t take much for a handful of cases to turn Starmer into a textbook establishment stooge – in the eyes of both right and left.
From the left, it can look like Starmer spent his time as DPP as a kind of anti-Corbyn, on the “wrong side of history” in the CPS’s decisions on a series of iconic instances of state cruelty. In 2009 and 2010, Starmer refused to prosecute the police officers accused of killing Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson (although in the latter case, he changed his mind in 2011 when new evidence came to light). These mistaken killings of innocent people have become synechdoches of state authoritarianism during the war on terror and post-financial crash protests. In 2012, Starmer announced that MI5 and MI6 agents would not face charges of torture and extraordinary rendition during the Iraq War, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. In 2013, he mimicked the stigmatising rhetoric of George Osborne, introducing new guidelines for prosecutors of “benefit cheats”.
Many of the decisions made by the CPS during Starmer’s role as DPP, then, were perfectly consistent with the preferences of the British right. But there are parts of his record that will be seized on as part of the anti-establishment feeling characteristic of many Brexiteers.
The CPS has already had to distance Starmer from the inadequate charges and subsequent errors in handling the case of the serial rapist John Worboys, made during his tenure.
Perhaps Starmer could be an excellent Labour leader. We should assume, of course, that his DPP decisions reflect not his own idiosyncratic judgement but his honest and rigorous interpretation of the law, which unsurprisingly leans towards protecting the British state.
But members should remember that much of the public will not thank Starmer for his good-hearted pro bono work, any more than they thanked Corbyn for own ascetic career spent fighting for the most vulnerable. They should recall how Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have thrived by encouraging the perception that nobody is well motivated, and the left has as many skeletons in the wardrobe as the right does.
And they should keep in mind how dangerous it is in these populist times for a leader to seem too close to the establishment we are meant to be taking on.
UPDATE (10.01.20) This article has been amended to make clear that Sir Keir Starmer did not introduce 10 year prison sentences for ‘benefit cheats’; rather, he issued guidelines for the CPS relating to the applicability of the Fraud Act to benefit and tax credit fraud, which meant that suspected ‘benefit cheats’ could face a 10 year prison sentence. Our piece has also been updated to make clear that it was the CPS who decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge MI5 and MI6 agents accused of torture and ill treatment, rather than a decision taken by Keir Starmer. It has also been amended to remove the erroneous reference to Keir Starmer being a former 'member of the judiciary'.
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