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Labour’s Leader in the Wilderness

Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Sir Keir Starmer, then his party’s Brexit spokesman, being interviewed outside the Houses of Parliament, London, January 15, 2019

On Christmas Eve, 2020—a year and two weeks after voters handed his Conservative Party a landslide election victory—Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, fulfilled his central campaign pledge and finally “got Brexit done.” Technically, Britain had left the European Union at the end of January, but the harder questions of the country’s future relationship with the bloc were kicked into a transition period. The deal Johnson announced on Christmas Eve filled in details on trade, customs, and fishing rights, and averted a cliff-edge disentanglement from EU rules; it also promised a thicket of annoying bureaucratic measures and lingering uncertainties. With the transition set to expire on New Year’s Eve, the agreement needed to be rammed through Parliament in less than a week, leaving little time for lawmakers to read its 1,200 pages, let alone improve them. In the hours after Johnson’s announcement, Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, sounded deeply unimpressed. “The deal is a thin agreement,” he said. “As ever, leaving everything to the last minute has made it even more difficult for businesses to be ready.”

Starmer then pledged that, despite his misgivings, Labour would vote for the deal; the party suggested a series of amendments, though none of them stood a chance of adoption. Starmer’s decision did not universally endear him to his colleagues, many of whom are staunchly opposed to Brexit. Lawmakers from both wings of the party—the neoliberal right and the socialist left—called the deal a “trap” for Starmer and urged him not to fall into it. In the end, thirty-seven of his colleagues refused to vote for the deal. Three of them were obliged to resign from Starmer’s leadership team in order to defy him.

If he weren’t leader, Starmer might himself have been on resignation watch. Prior to Labour’s December 2019 defeat, he served as the party’s spokesperson on Brexit and won a reputation as a consummate Europhile; against the more Euroskeptic grain of the then party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer pushed Labour to support a second referendum on EU membership, and suggested that, if one were called, he would campaign to cancel Brexit—“I don’t think there is a deal that’s going to be as good as the deal we’ve got,” he said, referring to Britain’s existing EU membership. But if his support for Johnson’s deal wasn’t very 2019 Keir Starmer, it was very 2020 Keir Starmer.

Keir Starmer with Jeremy Corbyn

Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Starmer consulting with then-party leader Jeremy Corbyn during a press conference, London, December 6, 2019

Since he became leader last April, succeeding Corbyn after the party’s electoral debacle in 2019, Starmer has worked to distance Labour from the messaging that contributed to the loss of Labour seats across the “Red Wall”—the party’s former heartland of traditionally white, working-class districts straddling northern England and parts of Wales, where Labour has been in longer-term decline and many voters strongly backed Brexit.

On Christmas Eve, Starmer couched his support for Johnson’s deal as a necessity; the alternative, he said, was no deal, which would have been a disaster. But the deal would have passed comfortably with Conservative votes alone. Starmer could have opposed it on principle. He could have allowed Labour lawmakers to vote their consciences, acknowledging the diversity of views on Brexit among his colleagues. He could have had the party abstain, arguing, with ample justification, that a single week—over Christmas, and during a surging pandemic—was insufficient time for Parliament to scrutinize the detail of Britain’s permanent new relationship with its neighbors. These options would all doubtless have exposed Labour in the short term to charges of obstructionism from the right. They would also have given Starmer much greater leeway to criticize the deal in future.

Starmer recognizes that most Brits are bored with Brexit; he has spoken repeatedly about putting the question, and its attendant culture wars, in the past, and instead looking ahead to the Britain of the 2030s. But Brexit may not slip away so easily. Since Johnson’s deal came into effect at the start of this year, it has proven a nightmare for many businesses that trade with Europe. Senior Labour politicians have recently urged a fresh Brexit offensive, but numerous others told The Observer that Starmer believes condemning a deal he just voted for would be a “political trap.” An unnamed senior lawmaker since told the same paper that Starmer’s office has ordered colleagues to maintain a “radio silence” on the issue. (Starmer has denied this.)

Leadership, Starmer said at the time of the Brexit vote, “is about taking the tough decisions in the national interest.” There was some irony to this statement, given that Starmer has made a habit of doing the opposite. In the fall, he forced his colleagues to abstain on readings of controversial bills concerning the criminal conduct of British soldiers and police informants, even though critics—including, in the first case, Labour’s own defense spokesperson—warned that the bills could lead to impunity for torture and other abuses. And in early December, Labour abstained from a vote on coronavirus restrictions, despite criticizing the government for offering inadequate relief to affected businesses. (Many Conservative lawmakers voted against the measures.) Leadership, it seems, sometimes means fudging tough decisions so your opponents can’t call you weak.

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Critics of Starmer describe his entire leadership as one protracted abstention. This isn’t entirely fair, but nor is it entirely unfair; either way, it’s the nub of a caricature that has seen growing currency in recent weeks. Nearly a year into his leadership, it’s still not clear what, exactly, Starmer stands for, beyond vague platitudes about rejecting business as usual.

In many ways, the challenges Starmer faces—a huge electoral deficit, a slanted media ecosystem, an attention-sapping pandemic, the need to defang rabid right-wing populism—are the same as those plaguing left-wing and social-democratic leaders the world over. If they can seem unsolvable, that is, in no small part, because politicians like Keir Starmer haven’t yet found the answers. It is Johnson’s world; mostly, Starmer just lives in it.

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As with his leadership, Keir Starmer’s background is hard to pin down. He was born in 1962, and raised in Surrey, a county close to London that is often a byword for comfortable, suburban Tory England. His parents—a nurse and a toolmaker—did not conform to that stereotype, naming their son after Keir Hardie, Labour’s first parliamentary leader, a fact that Starmer mentions often. (The online left prefers to call him “Keith,” which is perhaps best thought of as a male British counterpart to the “Karen” meme.) He went to a private high school (though it hadn’t been private when he enrolled), went on to study at Leeds and Oxford universities, and then became a prominent human rights lawyer. (There has long been speculation that Starmer was the model for the character of Mark Darcy, in the Bridget Jones books; Helen Fielding, their author, has denied this, but did recently call Starmer “really sexy.”)

Throughout his early life, Starmer was involved in socialist societies and periodicals; the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who went to school with Starmer, has described him, in those days, as being “a near-Bolshevik bruiser, with a Bay City Rollers haircut, a fat tie, an unbuttoned collar and an air of real roughness.” After the manner of plenty of good ex-Bolsheviks, Starmer later became Britain’s top public prosecutor, and was made a knight of the realm for his work. After leaving that position, he entered Parliament in 2015, representing a district in central London. He quickly rose in Labour’s ranks.

Keir Starmer, 2010

Lewis Whyld-WPA Pool/Getty Images

Starmer, then the director of public prosecutions, at a Crown Prosecution Service presentation, London, February 25, 2010

After Corbyn, who had pulled Labour’s platform much farther to the left than any recent predecessor, confirmed that he would step down as party leader, Starmer was quick to declare his candidacy for the job. During the contest—a needlessly long, convoluted process that ended with a vote of party members, who are generally more left-wing than traditional Labour voters—Starmer explicitly styled himself a “socialist.” He was not Corbyn’s favored heir and many activists viewed him as a Trojan horse for the return of so-called Third Way neoliberalism, but it quickly became clear that he had broad appeal among rank-and-file members who liked Corbyn but also hated Brexit and appreciated Starmer’s advocacy for the European cause. He won more than 55 percent of the vote, which, for a party in a much-publicized state of civil war, looked like a remarkably unifying result. Embodying the apparent consensus, first Ben Bradshaw, a lawmaker on the right of the party, tweeted, “So happy for my beloved Labour Party & country,” and compared Starmer to Tony Blair, Labour’s last elected prime minister, and then Ken Livingstone, the left-wing former London mayor who quit Labour amid an anti-Semitism scandal under Corbyn’s leadership, went on Sputnik, a Russian state media outlet, and called Starmer “genuinely Labour.”

While Starmer was not the candidate of “continuity Corbynism,” he tried to woo Corbyn supporters in his leadership manifesto, outlining ten pledges that paired vague but rousing slogans—“economic justice,” “social justice,” “climate justice”—with more specific promises to, among other things, bring utilities into public ownership, abolish university tuition fees, and “put the Green New Deal at the heart of everything we do.” Since he won, his leadership team has often tried to hold the government to account, challenging its actions in areas like the outsourcing of public services, and inaction in areas like the regulation of residential “cladding,” the practice of adding new siding to a building’s exterior for aesthetic or efficiency reasons. (Millions of Brits still live in unsafe apartment buildings nearly four years after a fire fueled by cladding at one of them—Grenfell Tower, in West London—killed seventy-two people.) Starmer has started to make the case for the greater devolution of political powers to the regional government in Scotland. The party insists that it stands behind its 2019 commitments to nationalize Britain’s energy sector and substantially decarbonize the country by 2030. And in the fall, Labour published a “green recovery report” advocating policies that called for 400,000 green jobs within the next eighteen months.

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Still, the Green New Deal is emphatically not at the heart of everything Starmer is doing. Many climate activists within the party fear that, despite denials to the contrary, Labour has begun to walk back, or certainly sideline, its 2019 pitch. “We need to be doing the work of pushing the government now,” Chris Saltmarsh, a cofounder of the group Labour for a Green New Deal, told me recently. “It’s worrying when those ideas don’t feel intuitive among the leadership. They don’t feel like they’re at the forefront of their priorities.” Climate action isn’t the only area in which Starmer’s Labour has sent mixed signals; it has done likewise on the economy, pairing broad-strokes messages about transformative change with reassurances about fiscal responsibility and business-friendliness. (Starmer has been taking advice from Peter Mandelson, a Blair-era grandee who famously once said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”) Starmer has dropped some of his campaign pledges entirely, including his promise to defend freedom of movement between Britain and the EU. He promised to reverse Tory cuts to the UK’s corporation tax; he now agrees with many Tories that there should be no immediate hike in the tax, to the fury of voices on the Labour left.

So far, Starmer has acted most aggressively on the last of his pledges: a promise to lead a “forensic, effective opposition,” and to “never lose sight of the votes ‘lent’” to the Conservatives in 2019. (He promised, in the same breath, to “promote pluralism” among Labour members, though critics on the left of the party say that he and his allies have done the exact opposite.) Starmer has repeatedly emphasized small-c conservative values—family, community, opportunity—over concrete policies, a strategy, Politico reported last year, driven by his policy chief, Claire Ainsley, who has herself been influenced by the “moral foundations” theory of the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Sir Keir Starmer taking part in a hustings

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Starmer taking part in a hustings event with his then-rivals for the Labour leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, Glasgow, Scotland, February 15, 2020

A month into his leadership, Starmer wrote a front-page op-ed for the Telegraph, a rabidly conservative newspaper with long-term links to Johnson, hailing veterans on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. In his speech to Labour’s (virtual) annual conference, in September, Starmer promised that Labour would regain voters’ trust on “national security, with your job, with your community, and with your money.” (The right has long tarred Labour as a party of reflexive “tax and spend,” pointing to the 2008–2009 financial crisis that occurred on its watch and, more recently, Corbyn’s spending plans.) Afterward, the Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid welcomed “a Labour regime which publicly embraces sound finances, security and flag-waving national pride.”

The combination of Starmer’s decision to make patriotism a central fault line of his break with the Corbyn era and his habit of skirting hot-button cultural controversies has caused some confusion about Labour’s core values. Last summer, as racial justice protests swept the globe following the police killing of George Floyd, Labour called on the Johnson government to implement reforms to tackle systemic racism in the immigration and criminal justice systems, and Starmer said that statues of slave traders should come down—even as he condemned the protesters who removed one such statue as “completely wrong.” He also touted his pro-police credentials, and said, in a toe-curling BBC interview, that it was a “shame” that issues raised by Floyd’s death had become “tangled up” with “the organization Black Lives Matter.” Nigel Farage, the far-right populist and a leading architect of Brexit, said he “heartily agreed.” Starmer later backtracked, but the damage was done. Nine Black Labour lawmakers have since accused the party of not doing enough under Starmer to investigate claims of “a racist culture and a hostile environment for black members within the party.”

Starmer has persisted with his effort to win back ex-Labour voters by appealing to national pride. Recently, a Labour staffer handed reporters from The Guardian an internal strategy document that suggested the party rebrand itself around “the flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly.” Starmer’s office described these as the conclusions of external consultants, but Labour has visibly adopted the British flag as a symbol, to the consternation of many activists who view it as a dangerous sop to an ugly form of nationalism. Starmer did not himself seek to place the flag at the center of a national controversy. But Labour’s use of it, in recent months, has hardly been subtle. Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at the University of Bristol, told me that, in her view, it might work better if it looked less instrumental—for instance, if Labour celebrated Britain’s landscapes and natural heritage as a way of winning broader support for its environmental agenda.

Many pundits see the flag controversy as a nonissue—the voters who are annoyed by it, they argue, are young progressives who will probably vote Labour anyway and typically live in safe Labour districts. This logic, however, overlooks various warning signs that point to broader flaws in Starmer’s approach. Taking different parts of its base for granted—first in Scotland, then across the Red Wall—helped dig the party into its present electoral hole. The parts of the country Labour need to win back certainly are home to higher concentrations of older, more socially conservative voters, but not monolithically so: progressives live in northern towns, too, and in many of them, the electoral margins are so fine that Starmer can hardly afford to alienate existing Labour voters.

Nadia Whittome, a young lawmaker on the left of the party who was elected in 2019 to represent Nottingham, a city in England’s Midlands that borders a lost Red Wall district, pointed out to me that while the districts Labour lost in 2019 mostly skewed pro-Brexit, the party lost a lot of voters to third parties with clear anti-Brexit stances—a seepage that Starmer, as Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, had tried to stanch. “Over the long term, Labour has lost a lot of support because of taking voters for granted,” she told me. “It could be people of color, migrants, and young people that we lose in the future.”

It’s also clear that Starmer won’t win back the Red Wall solely with the simplistic politics of the flag. Brexit alone did not drive people away from Labour, but rather accelerated a longer-term tectonic shift: many voters there abandoned Labour as the party became more progressive on social and cultural issues, and Labour abandoned them as it adjusted to a post-Thatcher neoliberal economic consensus. Under the remorseless logic of Britain’s electoral system, Labour must win back the Red Wall to have any chance of forming even a minority government. In those districts, Starmer simply may never be a plausible standard-bearer for Labour, whatever he may say to distance himself from his cosmopolitan biography and record of Europhilia.

“It’s never going to work,” Maria Sobolewska, a political scientist at the University of Manchester and author of a recent book about the reshaping of the British electorate, told me, of Labour’s flag-waving. “Because it lacks authenticity, because it’s manipulative. People will see that a mile off.”

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Starmer’s job, following the party’s worst electoral defeat in more than eight decades, was never going to be easy. He inherited a party in disarray and under investigation by Britain’s civil rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, over its handling of the anti-Semitism crisis, which came to define Corbyn’s tenure. In one of his first acts as leader, Starmer apologized to Britain’s Jewish community, and when the watchdog concluded, in October, that Labour had breached equalities laws in its handling of anti-Semitism complaints against party members, he pledged to implement its recommendations in full. He also excluded Corbyn from Labour’s parliamentary caucus after Corbyn disputed the watchdog’s findings.

Starmer has also had to navigate the tricky politics of the pandemic. The day after he became leader, the prime minister he was elected to oppose was hospitalized with Covid-19. Starmer’s allies frequently argue that if he has failed to impress voters so far with a distinctive vision, it’s not through any fault of his own, but because the public has expected politicians to bury their differences and work together at a time of national crisis. Early on, Starmer adopted a stance of “constructive opposition,” and he has followed it largely to the letter. His team has taken numerous jabs at the government—over jobs, pandemic relief, cronyism in coronavirus contracts, and the timing of lockdown measures—but these have mostly been criticisms of competence and execution, and not of fundamental philosophical difference. Starmer has chosen not to argue for a radically generous system of financial support, mostly proposing more modest improvements to existing government programs. When he agrees with the government’s approach, he has been quick to point that out.

In late January, a caller to a talk radio station show on which Starmer appears as a guest every month shared a story about his partner, who had traveled abroad to attend to a dying relative and would be forced to pay to quarantine in a hotel on returning to Britain after the government imposed new border rules without offering financial support. Starmer was sympathetic but noncommittal. “A thousand pounds, fifteen-hundred pounds—whichever it is—is a lot of money,” he said. “But the cost of not doing it [imposing the new rules] is massive.” He was then asked what he would have done differently on financial support for quarantine, and said he didn’t know. Thanks to perceptions of Starmer’s “leading from behind” on the pandemic, the Conservatives have a nickname for him: Captain Hindsight.

Johnson’s coronavirus response, as a whole, has been shambolic. More than 100,000 Britons have died of Covid-19, the highest national toll in Europe. But he is now overseeing a quick and effective vaccine rollout, which Labour has had little option but to praise. A recent poll rated the TV anchor Piers Morgan higher than Starmer for holding the government’s response to account. According to YouGov, Starmer’s approval ratings, which at one point topped Johnson’s, have tailed off, and Labour trails the Conservatives overall. Tom Kibasi, a former think-tank leader who was an architect of Starmer’s leadership campaign, wrote that if Starmer quit tomorrow, “he would not leave a trace of a meaningful political project in his wake.”

There are signs of a deeper malaise for Starmer. Insiders say he is taking a staged approach to his leadership: establish competence and credibility first, then establish a narrative, then lay out policies. As far as the first goal is concerned, Sienna Rodgers, who edits the news site LabourList, observed that “people have just voted in a prime minister, Boris Johnson, who is literally known for his incompetence. People don’t seem to be that bothered about competence.”

And Starmer is stumbling at the second stage—before he even gets to the detail-oriented business of explaining to voters what Labour would do in office. We live in an age of narrative politics: the centrist technocracy of the early 2010s has given way to a visceral, populist moment whose successful politicians are those who can tell a clear story—irrespective of its veracity—about the direction of their country. Recently, Starmer gave a set-piece speech that was billed as the start of his effort to tell such a story; he compared the present moment, coming out of the pandemic, to 1945, when Brits unexpectedly ditched their Conservative wartime leaders and handed Labour a parliamentary majority for the first time. But that Labour government built Britain’s modern welfare state and founded its free-to-use National Health Service. Starmer is not currently promising anything remotely as transformative. 

Last year, lawmakers, activists, and observers from across the party, including Rodgers, worked on an election postmortem on behalf of a group with close ties to Starmer’s office. They stressed the scale of the challenge that Labour will face if it is to build a winning coalition, but they also found the party’s voter base to be relatively united on the need for big economic change, an offer that will surely only grow in appeal post-pandemic.

Corbyn’s Labour may have been thrashed in the Brexit election of 2019, but it did much better in the previous election, two years earlier, which was also supposed to be about Brexit but came to be dominated by domestic issues, including health and elderly care; indeed, come 2019, Johnson encroached on Labour’s economic turf, promising an end to austerity and the revitalization of northern English towns. Individually, many of Corbyn’s radical policies remain popular. And with traditional party allegiances splintering across the board, British voters are increasingly up for grabs. After 2019, Labour was “right to be pessimistic,” Surridge, the political sociologist, says. “But I think you can be too pessimistic about what’s possible in a world where voters are very volatile.”

Britain’s next election won’t likely be held before 2024, but Whittome, the Labour lawmaker, told me that leading up to it, “people need to know what we stand for, and we need time to convince them of big policy proposals.” This will doubtless require a much greater boldness than Starmer has shown so far. Most of his interventions feel focus-grouped to the point of lifelessness; often, he justifies his stances by referencing what he imagines other people think, not what he himself believes. Recently, on the talk radio station, he argued that triangulating was working for him: “I get attacked on both sides,” he said, “which makes me think I’ve probably got it about right.” For an aspiring prime minister, uniting people in criticism is an odd measure of success.

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