The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right

By Terry Eagleton

Published by Verso Books, 2022, paperback, rrp £12.99,
available at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road

Review by Tim Barton

With our fundamentally undemocratic ‘first past the post’ system of allocating seats in Parliament, it is simplistic to suggest that the ‘principled’ way to place one’s vote is with the party you most agree with. It is a luxury many voters do not have if they wish to see ‘their’ party win, or hope to defeat the worst option party. A tactical vote may, in some circumstances, perhaps most, be the ‘principled’ choice. This does of course rankle, which is why some of us bang on about Proportional Representation, a bill of rights, citizenship training, to name but a few constitutional changes we would be the better for.

But there are limits and for many Labour voters I know, many of whom have voted Labour all their lives, ‘even under Blair’, the new Labour leader has been deemed beyond the pale. The latest council election results are interesting but nationally what do they really mean? ‘Labour has limped to success through Tory failure. It is a poor basis for hope’: this is a diagnosis of the position of Starmer’s Labour Party after the May council elections from James Butler in the London Review of Books. I think it a fair diagnosis. Frankly, Johnson lost votes rather than Starmer winning them. With the current governmental clown-show, Labour should have done even better. In Hastings, it seems the Green vote was bolstered by many former voters switching from both the Tory, and in greater numbers, the Labour party.

MORE OF A KILLER INSTINCT THAN HE IS GIVEN CREDIT FOR?

Come the next election, what may this mean? Certainly, past ‘mid-term’ council elections that have acted as a protest vote do not reliably determine the more tribalistic general election results. It seems there are many irons in the fire, including ‘the plague that shall not be named’, Brexit, the Northern Ireland border farrago and the current ‘cost-of-living crisis’. The latter is a perfect storm caused by the other issues, wildly exacerbated by rising fuel prices and the post-Thatcher culture of greed. And it is beginning to get severe criticism from across the electorate.

Can Starmer gain from these crises? A ‘senior aide’ told The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot that ‘Keir has got way more of a killer instinct than he is given credit for.’ Sadly, he has not shown this as Opposition Leader, even a little bit. Where he has shown it is in regards to internal party discipline. Many of the votes lost in May were, frankly, in protest at the shabby treatment of Corbyn as much as with Starmer’s weak record in opposition to the farcical excuse for a government he faces (so far). Witch-hunts that emulate Kinnock’s in the 1980s, and court the Blairites, have been severe and unjust: not least, with regard to the issue of whether to restore the whip to Corbyn. The whole mess around Corbynism has lost a huge amount of good will from younger voters, especially as the Party they supported launched a civil war on their symbol of hope.

CONTRADICTORY IMPULSES?

Eagleton’s book is a useful tool in beginning to understand Starmer. Starmer only became an MP in 2015. He appeared to be a safe choice for leader, supporting the Corbyn project but not passionately. To my mind he smacked of opportunistic ambition. And that hunch is being borne out every day that passes. Yet he came to prominence with a track-record of supporting left-wing and human rights causes. How do we square this with his knighthood; with his gallows hangman approach to dissent within the party; with his toe-the-line attitude to the establishment, and in the ‘we are at war’ (but we are not) culture promulgated by Johnson?

He has long shown what many might say are contradictory impulses. He worked hard to protect IRA prisoners’ rights, while at the same time supporting Police use of rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse protestors in Catholic districts who were against Loyalist marches being routed through their streets. Since this Loyalist Orange march had paramilitary regalia, and known extremists, threaded through it, one might have suggested the route be banned. But instead, Starmer did what the state chose in Cable Street, when Mosley’s fascists marched through largely Jewish parts of London’s East End in 1936. It is no wonder ‘the left’ don’t trust him.

SHOULD WE TRUST THIS MAN?

Ironically, in his youth, Starmer wrote for far-left magazines. He also, more recently, stood on a platform supporting boycott of trade with Israel, a stance he and the PLP now deem to be ‘antisemitic’ and cause for expulsion. Not to mention having been, apparently, against the Iraq War. However, as I see it, when he came to prominence as a lawyer, the path to power was harder through centrist Blairism, which had become a big pond (and lest we forget, at least until Iraq, a popular one), but rather through swimming upstream with smaller fry, as a big fish in smaller ponds.

Whilst he presumably had no Blofeld-like plan laid out in crayon at age 10, as Johnson probably did, and whether he was fully conscious of the possibilities of giving the appearance of a left-winger whilst aiming ‘higher’, this dynamic, certainly at least from the mid-90s onward, could help square the circle. At most points he also engaged in Establishment-friendly activity. In my view he played the long game to get to the top, and was not wholly the ‘man of conviction’ he appeared to be: or rather, that he held different convictions to those he publicly supported. Hilary Wainwright has said that Starmer has ‘an insatiable need to ingratiate himself with established authority’.

Should we trust this man? Eagleton will help you to make your mind up, but Starmer’s cards are held close to his chest. However, a week or so ago a story went around indicating that he intends to ‘move away’ from the promises of the last manifesto – a manifesto that did not lose the election, a billionaires’ media war on Corbyn did that – a manifesto that I and many others felt made Labour, all too briefly, both the principled and pragmatic choice.

Confused? You will be, on next week’s episode of PMQs…


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