The Challenges Facing Keir Starmer
There has been much said about Keir Starmer in recent weeks during the Labour Leadership contest and afterwards when Starmer emerged victorious. As is inevitable in politics whenever a politician does anything, they get criticised. A lot of it has been valid and fair criticism but so far the loudest critique being lobbed at him has, in my opinion, been paper-thin when held up to scrutiny – meaning often good critiques of Starmer can go unheard. This criticism often manifests itself as accusations that Starmer is a secret Blarite or centrist. The common line of thought underpinning these statements being the idea that Keir Starmer will sell out the political legacy of Jeremy Corbyn and take Labour back to a time similar to New Labour or Ed Miliband.
Although Corbyn has failed to get into government, many of his supporters are proud of the way he has transformed the Labour Party, such as making it overtly anti-austerity and bringing back ideas once thought to be on the fringes of politics (like nationalisation of industry). Swaths of his supporters are eager to see that this type of politics doesn’t die with his return to the back benches. There can be no doubt that Starmer’s main leadership rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was by far the most far left of all the leadership candidates. But to say that in comparison Starmer is some sort of centrist or Blairite in my opinion, is simply not correct and can be disproven when looking at the actions that Starmer has taken as Labour Leader so far.
During his campaign for leadership, Starmer unveiled ten policy pledges, the majority of which would’ve seen him labelled as far left during the days of New Labour, and are firmly anti-austerity in nature. These pledges include calling for key industries like, rail, mail, energy and water to once again be brought into public ownership, raising taxes on the top 5% of earners, and repealing anti-trade union legislation. All of these policies were included in both the 2017 and 2019 Labour Party manifestos.
The same is true in regards to the makeup of his shadow cabinet. Some of his critics feared the shadow cabinet would be imminently taken over by Blarites, but this has not come to pass. Instead, it contains members that would’ve been excluded during New Labour – like Rebecca Long-Bailey – due to her membership of the socialist campaign group. Those on the Blarite faction of the party, like Hilary Benn or Yvette Cooper, have not been given any positions in it. Other MPs on the right of the party have only been given low positions in the cabinet’s hierarchy – such as Jess Philips being appointed as Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding. Looking at this, it’s easy to conclude that Starmer is not quite what some of his critics have made him out to be.
But there is a danger, and one that is not being discussed as much as it should. It lies both with Starmer himself and his policies. Perhaps Starmer’s biggest weakness as a leader is his public perception as an ardent Remainer that largely came about because of his well-publicised push for a second referendum. It is not impossible for a person who was important in either side of the leave/remain debate to become a “unity” figure, as Boris Johnson’s public image with large chunks of the electorate proves. However, the difference between the two cases is that Boris Johnson went with the mood of the electorate that evolved since the original Brexit referendum into one that wanted to see Brexit over the line. In the meantime, Starmer went against the mood of the electorate and pushed for a second referendum. Whether he was right or wrong to do so, the mood of the country for that debate changed – confirmed by the 2019 election results.
Since the leadership election, Starmer has said multiple times that the argument for a second referendum or remaining in the EU has reached its end and that the Labour Party is now fully behind Brexit. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s going to be able to convince anybody he truly believes that if he keeps to some of his ten pledges during the next election. Although they aren’t explicitly harping back to his old views on a second referendum, I think many of his pledges would be perceived by Brexiteers as a “soft remain” position, and not a true embrace of Brexit. Specific pledges that come to mind that I think would be particularly damaging would be his sixth pledge to “defend migrants’ rights”, which includes ideas such as giving EU nationals the vote in all elections/referendums, and restoring freedom of movement – the latter not being possible unless the UK aligns itself incredibly closely to the EU, having membership of the customs union/single market. Labour has very much lost the argument on what would be classified as this “soft Brexit” position in the 2017 election, when this was Labour’s position in that 2017 election (bar the re-introduction of Freedom of movement which the party said would be scrapped at the time). It is difficult to see how Starmer will be able to advance into government with a Brexit policy that has essentially already been rejected at the ballot box and just feels like it’s going to open old wounds of the Brexit debate.
Starmer will also have to contend with the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifestos. His ten pledges taken in total are, for the most part, Labour’s 2019 manifesto – bar the removal of certain policies such as free broadband or the four-day working week. This manifesto was criticised heavily for being over-loaded and scattershot in its focus. Additionally, multiple organisations such as The Institute for Fiscal Studies, made the argument that there were funding blackholes within the manifesto that needed addressing. This of course raises the question of where the additional money would be coming from, something Labour, and particularly Corbyn on the question of WASPI Women, were unable to properly answer. By the next election, Starmer and his team will undoubtedly have brought many new ideas into Labour’s next manifesto. But so far if his ten policy pledges are stuck to, the core of his manifesto will still be in part what Corbyn had been offering. It would be unfair to say that every policy in Corbyn’s manifesto needs to go, as the manifesto did contain many good ideas for the future. Polling from YouGov suggests that Labour’s main economic policies are generally popular amongst the electorate, particularly tax increases for high earners. But after one of the worst defeats in Labour Party history, I think it would be foolish if every policy wasn’t up for review, and in particular the manner in which they are released when the next election comes around. It is difficult to see how a Corbyn Campaign 2.0 but with a different face can overturn the large deficit between Labour and the Conservatives.
I fear that unless Starmer strikes a new approach for Labour, and ditches many of his ideas about the UK’s relationship with the EU, he’ll never be able to build the broad coalition of voters Labour needs to regain power.