It is often said of Boris Johnson that his mode of doing politics is a bluff: a bumbling fool act that hides a very nasty strain of Tory politics which people don’t truly see until they have learned to love him. His opposite, Keir Starmer, seems to have the reverse image; a man who constantly and straightforwardly tells us exactly what he believes, only for people to assume that he is hiding something.
A month into the job, who is Keir Starmer? Members of the party’s left often talk of him as a Blairite Manchurian candidate, but there is very little to prove that: his Shadow Cabinet seems to have rewarded mostly experience and competence, particularly for those in the middle of the party; his rhetoric strays clear of the Third Way on welfare and spending; and while it is hard to tell in current circumstances, very little in his words indicate a return to that specific way ofto running the party. The most Blairite thing about him has been his haircut and attire, and that “concerned boss” persona is as much a strength as a flaw – the implicit capacity to be a presentable face of social democracy.
The pervasive context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic makes the overall picture much fuzzier, of course. Starmer has opted for a “collaborative” approach to the government, which seems to match the public mood. This means there is very little to see in terms of concrete policy; the Labour leader has privileged instead “quick fixes”, giving suggestions of what could be put in practice by this government without much pain.
Two recent examples illustrate this – on one occasion the mindset worked, and on the other it did not. The first is the Ed Miliband proposal regarding SMEs: it aimed for an achievable goal, with a likeable target in mind, and it was duly adopted by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Not only does this make the party seem more competent and effective, by giving it a small win, but also broadly sends a message to the intended audience: Labour is here to help.
This strategy did not work as well in the case of the party’s newly unveiled housing policy, which took the form of a five point plan to help renters. Four of these five suggestions were either good or had already been acknowledged by the government as necessary. It was the fourth pledge that created room for discord: a badly thought out proposal that at best left tenants without much security for two years, and at worst actively raised their rents. This muddled a smart message (“renters, Labour’s got your back”), distracted from the positive aspects of the proposal and threatened to re-ignite the party’s eternally smouldering internecine conflict. There are lessons to learn from this; sometimes it’s worth taking the simpler path, and being more radical.
As parties start to resemble its leaders, the new Starmer-led Labour party is a much more careful one. That is no intrinsically bad thing; it gives the party space to shape its sense of what it is for and what is supposed to do, and with the coming post-coronavirus world there will be a need for careful thinking to decide what recovery will look like. But there is a real risk of slipping into a pattern of timidity; of learning to do politics only by tweaks and consensus and failing to demonstrate a clear vision for the future.
For Starmer supporters on the soft left, it is important to pick and choose the battles to fight there is an important picking and choosing of battles against the new leader’s inbuilt civil servant-style caution. There have been, at this point, very few noticeable turns from Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform, though there is a lot of distancing from Corbynism as it exists in theory, even if not in practice. The example of the (morally wrong) statement on Kashmir comes to mind. While not representing a meaningful change to the party’s actual policy, the tone adopted by the leadership implied a willingness to overlook human rights abuses in the region that Jeremy Corbyn rightfully took issue with. This slide towards a point at which wariness tips into cowardice should be resisted on its strongest terms, and indeed Starmer has already backtracked to a more acceptable position. If the left of the party only sees the leader through Blairite goggles and the right sees him as a host body, then it is up to the soft left to organise properly, to give Starmerism both room to grow and the discipline and direction it needs.
At the outset of his political journey, Keir Starmer did take inspiration from one important Labour Tony B; his writings at the short-lived leftist magazine Socialist Alternatives (“the human face of the hard left”, claims one cover) have a Bennite strain, and hold forth passionately about uniting the trade union causes and the so called identity and green politics under one banner, fighting for self-management. If one were so malicious, it would be possible to say he has self-managed himself straight to the manager’s post. But in truth Starmer does not seem to have had the sort of Kinnockian conversion to trot-hunting that some on the right of the party expect. Rather, he seems to have mellowed into reformism, while maintaining roughly the same outlook; his desire is that the party carefully moves in a direction where this vision isn’t simply desirable, but a safe choice. Whether he can fully realise this vision remains to be seen.