Since the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party a wide array of books have been published, both postmortems of the period, and attempts to forecast, or influence what comes next. Curiously though there has been a dearth of biographies of Keir Starmer. The Starmer Project by Oliver Eagleton is only the second book, other than Lord Ashcroft’s, to primarily focus on Starmer.
Amusingly advertised as a “forensic” political biography, the book takes a somewhat thematic approach to Starmer’s biography. It focuses mainly on under-reported areas of his record, such as his time as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). In particular Eagleton claims to fully elucidate Starmer’s politics, as according to him, the Labour leader is such an unknown quantity that his political views have previously been unclear.
Eagleton is an assistant editor at New Left Review, and the house style of his employer is detectable in the book’s melding of history, journalism and theory. Both Perry Anderson and Tariq Ali are thanked in the acknowledgments. However the book also combines this type of theoretical analysis with muckraking; descending to almost gossipy journalism in parts. The author frequently relates sources’ opinionated anecdotes such as Starmer’s alleged rudeness to Karie Murphy and a description of John McDonnell as having “smartest guy in the room syndrome.” These frequent, and sometimes very abrupt, pivots in tone can be quite jarring to the reader, although Eagleton has made efforts to mask them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is an extremely hostile book: Keir Starmer, the Labour Right, the media, and the British state are all duly condemned. More unexpectedly, Eagleton is also unsparing in his attacks on stalwarts of the Labour Left such as John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey.
The bulk of the book is a fairly brisk high-level summary that traces a rough arc of Starmer’s career, focusing mostly from his time as DPP to the present. The account given of his time as DPP ranges from the damning to the highly trivial. Eagleton unveils a long, but not entirely convincing, charge sheet. While Starmer is rightly criticised for the CPS’ atrocious record on rape, and the failure to charge British agents who engaged in torture, there is also a pre-occupation with condemning less consequential matters. In particular Starmer’s exercising a veto over a quixotic attempt to arrest the Israeli foreign minister for war crimes is angrily, and unconvincingly, lambasted. All of these failings are used to build a case for Starmer having become a very conservative figure, and servant of the deep state.
Eagleton is more successful in demonstrating how Starmer used the position to further his own career, including by raising his own public profile. As a result, it is argued, Starmer was able to manage his flaws as DPP, and turn the role into a springboard for a political career. Sounding out the Labour leadership, who were thrilled to have him, he had no trouble getting hold of a safe seat, and entered parliament in 2015.
It is in the following part that the book shows more of its flaws as it describes Starmer’s trajectory to leadership. Initially cautiously supportive of Corbyn, he is also shown to have tended to follow the trend, as shown by his half-hearted backing of Owen Smith’s challenge to Corbyn. Indeed, as soon as the coup attempt failed, Starmer returned to the Shadow Cabinet, allegedly refusing to serve unless given a sufficiently high profile job which came in the form of Shadow Brexit Secretary.
Eagleton argues (based mostly as far as can be told on comments from Corbyn’s former chief-of-staff Karie Murphy) that Starmer was, contrary to what has usually been claimed, in contact with the People’s Vote (PV) movement early on. In this view of the world, Starmer chose to act as a point man for Blairite individuals such as Peter Mandelson affiliated with the PV campaign, allowing them to influence policy so he could improve his image with die-hard Remainers. Once the party was pigeon-holed as a party of Remain, Starmer was able to emerge as leader of a broken Labour Party.
In the books narrative, Starmer then proceeds to further push the left out, using the publication of the EHRC report into Labour antisemitism as an excuse to suspend the whip from Corbyn. Almost absurdly in the face of the evidence, Starmer becomes the architect of both Labour’s electoral failures and the complete marginalisation of the left.
This section is extremely selective in its sourcing, in particular relying on the testimony of documents more favourable to Corbyn to support his claim that antisemitism has been overstated by his political opponents. Eagleton cites a Home Affairs Select Committee report as evidence that antisemitism was not widespread, but does not even cite the report instead relying on an article published by Jewish Voice for Labour. The Home Affairs Select Committee report itself was published in 2016, and was thus already out of date by the time the EHRC inquiry began. Eagleton’s conclusion, namely that Corbyn was suspended on exaggerated charges of antisemitism for political reasons, is somewhat hard to swallow when compared to the EHRC report finding that Corbyn’s leadership was deficient.
There are some points of interest to be found in the book’s thematic analysis of Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, and its many disappointments. Starmer is presented as dismantling the bold solutions of the Corbyn era, and largely directionless. The analysis of the meltdown after the 2021 Local Elections is strong, and does a good job of highlighting how badly the party ran adrift, and the impotence of Starmer’s response. However, the book goes on to make explicit criticisms of Starmer that date it before it has even been published, such as claiming:
In January 2022 as Russia stationed troops at the Ukrainian border in a bid to halt NATO’s eastward expansion, Starmer used a Telegraph op-ed to applaud the Tories’ tough line on the “Russian threat”, and encouraged the government to cut off Russian access to the global financial system.
Fundamentally it feels that Eagleton has produced a book aimed at a very narrow audience. Many of the arguments require a quite detailed grasp of the Corbyn era to understand, and the book is written to buttress certain Corbynite arguments rather than convince anyone of them. These are not very convincing anti-Starmer arguments to the uninitiated; neither are the abrupt claims that the Labour party should be abandoned for extra-parliamentary leftism particularly relevant after two hundred pages examining its internal politics. While it has become increasingly clear that Starmer may be a deeply flawed politician open to a critique from the left, this book does not perform this function. As is the case for the man himself, maybe the book needed less procedural forensics and more ideological examination.