Failure to keep promises will not allow Keir Starmer to take power | Owen Jones
Dhonesty corrodes democracy like acid. If politicians make promises they break, voters conclude that no one can be trusted and disengage from the political process. Accountability – a prerequisite for any functioning democracy – becomes impossible, for if dishonesty is normalized, a background buzz of politics assessed, then objections to the stench of deception can be ignored by politicians on the grounds that all their colleagues are in the sewer too.
Over the past few years, we have heard many strong denunciations of dishonesty and broken promises from Boris Johnson in particular, and those leaving the Brexit referendum campaign more generally. These same liberals are either totally silent when it comes to Keir Starmer’s own shameless deception, or they stand up for his merits. A year and a half ago, Starmer represented the Labor leader under the banner of Corbynism without Corbyn: of radical politics synthesized with party unity and competence. He has cooed the discouraged Corbynites not to “jump” for the past four years; the 2017 election manifesto was the ‘founding document’, and Labor would remain committed to nationalization, tax hikes for the well-to-do, abolishing tuition fees and other leftist totems.
Some reading this may fundamentally disagree with such policies and think Starmer shouldn’t have committed to them, which is a perfectly legitimate prospect. But he did, and as his former adviser Simon Fletcher points out, he would not have been elected leader if he had not done so. That many liberals are repelled by Johnson’s deceptions but embrace Starmer’s deceptions because they don’t believe the left are legitimate political actors, and all it takes to defeat them is a fair game, don’t is irrelevant. Their objection is not dishonesty, but rather being its victim.
Starmer started the Labor conference by attempting to rig his party’s leadership rules to freeze the left rather than hammering the Tories over the national fuel crisis, and ended it with a speech better summarized as Blairism without Blair. But comparisons to Blair’s leadership are wrong. The architects of New Labor – from Blair himself to Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – were truly important figures. Devastatingly effective strategists, they understood how to shape the spirit of their time to their political advantage. Above all, they unapologetically monstrous John Major Tories: Campbell went to work every day with a “how many Tories can we eat for breakfast” attitude.
That Starmer never gave a lasting punch to a government that presided over disaster after disaster tells its own story. While the pact New Labor made with the party base provided that they would have to give up many of their principles in exchange for power, Starmer’s promise is this: give up your principles and all of a sudden power.
When I called the Starmer team “maniacs” because of their failed attempts to reintroduce an electoral college that gave MPs disproportionate power in the next leadership election, a shadow minister replied, “C ‘is worse than that: they are incompetent ”. Starmer, whose own allies describe him as a politician, is surrounded by crass factional figures with an obsessive grudge against the left and no vision for the country. Their leader is less popular than a prime minister presiding over a country with fuel shortages, empty supermarket shelves and an impending cut in universal credit that will push hundreds of thousands of children into poverty.
There is nothing to recommend to the leadership of Starmer. He is, as we have seen, unscrupulous. He is not being honest. Where Blair and Neil Kinnock were talented speakers, Starmer lacks charisma or warmth. He has touted “integrity” in the leadership elections, but as his dismissal of Deputy Chief Angela Rayner from her role as Labor president in May pointed out, he has none. This more Labor voters that not to want his resignation, that more than six out of 10 people don’t see him as a prime minister on hold, and that he lost Hartlepool’s by-election – a Labor seat retained even in the crushing defeat of 2019 – shows he is ineligible. Starmer is the Labor version of Theresa May – who was originally hailed as a serious and public interest-minded politician before being defeated by her own cynicism and lack of wood.
But Starmer’s supporters – who relished savage Corbynism as a delusional cult – blindly cling to leadership without redeeming features. Why? First, because they invested everything in the idea that “the grown-ups were back in the room”, and that with a leader praising competence, everything would fall into place. Instead, it all fell apart, despite the media and Labor MPs’ easiest ride for any leader since Blair. Now they want someone, anyone, to blame: and here’s a clue – it’s not them. Second, because they’re driven by the same factional nastiness to the left as Starmer’s own internal team: he’s not Corbyn, and while he lacks a cohesive vision for the country, that’s enough for them.
What next? One obvious argument is that Starmer should go back to last year’s winning leadership tenure – his supposed supply of radical ideas merged with unity. But it’s a waste of time. The ice pick-wielding hacks surrounding him would never allow it, and nothing Starmer ever says can be trusted. Instead, it must be removed.
Those who need to understand this are not the besieged political survivors of the left supporting Corbyn, but rather the ‘soft left’ which was skeptical of Corbyn but still wants a transformative Labor government. When I told a shadow minister this would end with Labor as a hostile environment for anyone to Mandelson’s left, they didn’t object. It is the soft left – and not just the staunch Corbynites – that is now threatened with extinction within the Labor Party.
The left made serious mistakes in leading Labor – despite the still hostile political environment – from which lessons must be learned. But from democratic ownership of the economy to the fight against the climate emergency, it remains the left with the ideas, the vision and the momentum of young voters. The only trick of Starmer’s direction is to kick the left. They have nothing to say, no convincing response to the crises that afflict and define Britain in 2021. They have no future; and alas, as long as it remains under their leadership, neither does the Labor Party.