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Keir Starmer is an unconvincing Blairite with an authenticity problem

The Labour leader has travelled a long journey since his election 16 months ago on a platform of ‘no more illegal wars’

John Rentoul
Saturday 07 August 2021 15:15
<p>Keir Starmer, coming out of a revolving door</p>

Keir Starmer, coming out of a revolving door

Keir Starmer is tiptoeing a little more boldly towards the forbidden ground of the Labour tribe, the part marked “Tony Blair woz ere”. He told the Financial Times yesterday that the party should be “very proud” of Blair’s record in government, and should not be “arm’s length or distant” about it.

In case anyone missed the message, he used a Blairite phrase about the need to offer the voters something different from what they rejected in 2019: “We have to turn the Labour Party inside out.”

This all seems obvious and true, but there is one huge and glaring problem with it. The problem is not that the party won’t like it. By a narrow margin, a majority of Labour members now have a favourable opinion of Blair, according to the most recent survey by YouGov. There is a large and vocal minority that takes a different view, but they have no purchase on any of the centres of power in the Labour Party, apart from Unite, the largest trade union affiliate, and they seem likely to lose that later this month if Gerard Coyne is elected to succeed Len McCluskey.

The problem with Starmer embracing Blairism is that he is not a Blairite. He is in the uncomfortable position of Neil Kinnock, a firebrand of the radical wing of the party who found himself crabbed and confined by the demands of leadership. Much of that transition Kinnock did brilliantly, at a rhetorical level. He made the proto-Blairite argument that the compromises needed to win elections in a conservative country were a realisation of the socialist ideal rather than a betrayal of it.

But there was a price to be paid with the wider electorate, which was exemplified at Kinnock’s second election, in 1992, by his ditching of the policy of one-sided nuclear disarmament. He tried to make the argument that the world had changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but his problem was that the voters thought that he had not changed on what was then a visceral question of national security.

That question of authenticity is what ails Starmer. One of the electrified fences around the Blairite forbidden ground is marked “the royal family”. Jeremy Corbyn was happy to trample it down in his insulated shoes, because not singing the national anthem or doing up his tie was who he really was. When Starmer touched the fence, he got a shock. When Meghan Markle accused some of the royal family of being racist, Starmer commented in an interview, “We’ll have to see how the institution reacts.” One anonymous Labour MP quoted by Huffington Post was aghast, because this was Starmer the prosecutor in effect putting the Queen in the dock. “The whole incident just proved how inexperienced he is,” the MP said. “If you want to be prime minister, you never, ever comment on the royal family.”

But the trouble is that it wasn’t just inexperience; it was who Starmer really is. He is the radical lawyer who has no respect for the monarchy. The authentic Starmer is the one who in 2005 commented on the irony of his having been made a Queen’s Counsel when “I often used to propose the abolition of the monarchy”.

The authentic younger Starmer can be glimpsed in the pages of a biography of the Labour leader published last month, for which Nigel Cawthorne, the author, has trawled through back issues of Socialist Lawyer. At one point the 34-year-old Starmer wrote that any attempt to bring about change by abstract declarations such as the European Convention on Human Rights was “obsolete verbal rubbish” according to Karl Marx, who “was, of course, right”.

Not that Starmer was a Marxist; I assume it was a joke. Starmer was generally an earnest legal socialist, railing against a body of “laws which pay much more attention to individual property rights than they do to the collective rights of ordinary people”.

Of course, Tony Blair was a leftie lawyer in his day, and even briefly a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but by the time he became Labour leader he had an established political identity that fitted the needs of the post-Thatcher era. Starmer, on the other hand, served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and was elected leader on a platform that included: “No more illegal wars. Introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act.” By describing Iraq, presumably, as an illegal war he certainly seemed rather at “arm’s length or distant” from the Blair government’s record.

From the 10 pledges of his leadership campaign to his FT interview yesterday is quite a journey in just 16 months. It can be done, but it requires a great deal of explaining. Kinnock and Blair were both teacher-politicians, who argued and cajoled and explained to their party what had to be done and why. So far, Starmer has not done that. The voters do not know why he appeared to be one thing and now appears to be another.

Starmer told the FT his speech to the Labour conference next month would be “a big moment”. It will need to be very good indeed.

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