The first question we need to ask of any leading Labour figure is this: are their politics managerial, or are they transformative? Is their goal to fundamentally change the political economy of the country? Or just to more competently manage the status quo as they find it?
A recurring theme in recent discussion of Keir Starmer’s leadership is that his politics are yet to be defined, or that he is simply non-ideological. But we don’t need to see the policy agenda Starmer takes into the next general election, or to hear the slogans he deploys to sell that agenda, before drawing some conclusions about who he is politically. His current strategy has already told us a great deal.
The strategy a politician adopts can never be a technical or non-ideological matter. Adopting and implementing a strategy forces one to make choices, and those choices in turn are an expression of one’s values and worldview. What Starmer’s approach has shown so far is that he is a manager. A bureaucrat. One whose politics are defined by their essential conformity to the status quo.
The two key motifs of Starmer’s leadership are now very familiar. First, the focus on the government’s ‘incompetence’ in its handling of the dual public health and economic crises. Second, the focus on reassuring lost Leave voters that it is safe for them to return to Labour. Both are expressions of a managerial small-c conservatism.
Let’s start with the focus on ‘competence’. A standard socialist reading of the government’s response to Covid-19 will say that it was too reluctant to impose a lockdown, and too hasty to ease it, because it prioritised the smooth running of capitalism over the dangers to public health. In other words, this is a question of values and class interests – not managerial aptitude.
After six months and tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, an opposition committed to transformative politics would have got round to pointing out that we are witnessing an historic example of the tendency to put profit before people. A conformist, managerial opposition, by contrast, is unlikely to so much as formulate such an analysis, much less articulate it.
The nature of Starmerism also reveals itself in Labour’s moves to reassure socially conservative voters in seats Labour lost in 2019. The clearest expression of this came in a BBC interview where Starmer attempted to reduce this summer’s anti-racist uprising to an act of symbolic commemoration, poured scorn on the concrete policy demands of Black Lives Matter, and delivered a full-throated endorsement of the police and judicial system. Needless to say that none of this was apolitical or non-ideological.
When shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds declines an invitation to describe the police as ‘institutionally racist’, and when both he and Starmer fail to use the term even when one of their own MPs is racially profiled, this is more than a question of political messaging. It is a choice to value the perceptions of certain ‘Red Wall’ voters over the needs of Black Britons. The politics at work here are not obscure, at least not to those Black Labour members now reportedly leaving the party in large numbers.
The pattern continued when the Conservative government and right wing press whipped up a moral panic about refugees crossing the English channel, and Labour’s initial response was to criticise the government’s competence in handling the problem – the ‘problem’ in this framing being the refugees, rather than the racism. Only later, and under considerable pressure from the grassroots, did the leadership manage some expression of humanitarian concern.
These signals to conservative voters are, according to Starmer’s aides, a sincere reflection of his own values, and there is no reason to doubt that. In his first interview after joining the shadow cabinet in 2016, Starmer contradicted the then leadership by calling for a reduction in immigration, framing this in the familiar language of ‘legitimate concerns’. We can expect that theme to return in the coming years.
Starmer’s allies will see this as a rebalancing of Labour’s appeal toward its ‘traditional’ voters and away from ‘metropolitan liberals’. More accurately, it is a calculation that the votes of retired property owners in the ‘Red Wall’ are more valuable than those of the younger, multi-ethnic working class in the big cities. In purely electoral terms, this may be true. What is revealing is that Starmer and his team clearly perceive no moral dilemma to navigate here.
A recent Politico article cites the view of Starmer’s policy chief Claire Ainsley that “Labour needs to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their heads”. This is obviously correct. A retail policy offer is not enough. But a conservative could make this argument just as easily as a progressive. Expressing and amplifying socially conservative values and politics, at the expense of refugees and minorities, does not magically become a form of progressive politics simply because the person doing it is wearing a red rosette.
On these matters, Ainsley’s formative influence is the centrist academic Jonathan Haidt and his work on the need to connect with voters at the level of their values. Again, this is presented as an expression of respect for the public, and again, the respect only goes so far.
Haidt’s key contribution to the US ‘culture war’ was a co-authored book entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, where he lent a liberal veneer to the right wing moral panic about ‘snowflake students’ and campus ‘safe spaces’. In this text, the young people campaigning for racial equality and for women’s and LGBTQ rights are treated with condescension, not respect. Haidt and his co-author cite the folk wisdom, “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”. It would be difficult to formulate a crisper expression of conservative politics, or of contempt for those who try to change society for the better.
Keir Starmer is not Tony Blair, and the left clearly needs a specific critique of the new Labour leadership rooted in the conditions of the moment. But there is no need to treat as mysterious something whose outlines are by now reasonably clear. Starmerism is a standard expression of the politics of the Labour right, which are characterised above all by their conformity and willingness to appeal to social conservatism irrespective of who that strategy hurts. No doubt the left can work effectively and constructively to challenge this. But first we have to recognise it for what it is.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.