Why Can’t Starmer Just Be Like Blair?
The spirit of '97 is now long gone.
by Oliver Eagleton
26 April 2022
Comparisons between Keir Starmer’s Labour and its Blairite forerunner are common, not least because the current leader spends most of his waking hours courting them. Starmer has filled his top team with dusty ornaments from the long nineties, adapting both his rhetorical style and political priorities to their directives. As a result, Labour’s platform is now openly nostalgist: a rehashed ASBO campaign, more crackdowns on migrants, accelerated privatisation of public services, plus constant genuflection before the American empire.
Yet there is an obvious distinction between emulating one’s idol and becoming them. Starmer may recycle Blair’s soundbites, but the very act of repetition often excises their original vitality. The gulf that separates the two leaders is highlighted by the faltering attempts of one to emulate the other.
This is partly down to superficial differences. The elder statesman is a talented orator, whereas the younger bears a striking resemblance to a “wooden plank”, as a senior party figure remarked to The Times last week. But this charisma deficit isn’t the only barrier to a successful Blairite revival. In fact, such woodenness can be better understood as a symptom of the historical chasm between Starmerism and Blairism rather than its cause.
The truth is that even if Starmer borrowed all the policies and personnel from the Blair-Brown era, he would still fail to unlock the spirit of ‘97. Why? Because Blairism was a cultural mood as much as a party programme, and rerunning the latter isn’t enough to recapture the former.
If, as Mark Fisher wrote, the Thatcher period represented a form of consciousness deflation – foreclosing the emancipatory aspirations unlocked by the ferment of the seventies – then Blair was an ambiguous inheritor of this legacy. On the one hand, his was a politics for “the end of history”: against transformative projects, hostile to any concept of the future as a site of open possibility. Yet, on the other, Blairism combined its narrow ideological horizons with a cult of modernisation that preserved the discourse of ‘progress’. Efficiency, innovation, technical fixes; these stood in for the vanished dreams of socialists. The future’s not ours to shape, said Blair, but that’s because the future is already here; and modern, mature politics means catching up with it.
Within this framework, New Labour constructed various enemies of progress, displacing class antagonisms onto the struggle between a glorious present and a suffocating past. The trade union movement was one such force that supposedly wanted to drag Britain backwards, into the darkness of the Heath era; but having been successfully defanged by Thatcher, it could never mount a significant challenge to the neoliberal settlement. A more urgent threat was the Tories: attached to outdated mores, amateur in statecraft, blighted by Eurosceptic prejudices – they constituted a dangerous anachronism that would constrain Britain’s potential; hence Blair’s creation of a well-oiled PR machine to discredit them.
Of course, the promise of a presentist politics based on electoral reform and democratising Westminster didn’t last long. In the Blairite imaginary, ‘modern’ was always a metaphor for ‘marketised’, and unleashing the state’s potential meant selling off whatever parts of it were still standing. By the early noughties, every British institution was expected to absorb the lessons of enterprise philosophy and submit to the rigours of competition. It was hoped that out of this would emerge a new cosmopolitan community, based not on racial or gender hierarchies but on the free interplay of market actors, bound together by their reciprocal obligations in the sphere of exchange. Cool Britannia would be just such a collective, itself competing with other nations in a global marketplace. However, were any outsider perceived to threaten this design – ASBOs, benefits scroungers, criminals, terrorists, asylum seekers, rogue regimes – then the state would mobilise the full extent of its repressive resources against them. Blair added a new criminal offence to the statute book for every day he was in power and charged headlong into the war on terror. Markets required discipline, and discipline required force.
New Labour 2.0?
This, then, was the essence of Blairism: an heir to Thatcher’s consciousness razing, but one that offset the ennui of history’s terminus with the zeal of free market reforms. Seen in this light, how does Starmerism compare?
One major dividing line is that while Blair injected an illusory optimism into capitalist realism, Starmer can only act as its grim enforcer. The first arrived in office following 18 years of Tory rule and offered some fleeting solace, whereas the second seized the leadership in the aftermath of Corbynism, and eradicated the hope it inspired. Starmer’s mission is to extinguish his predecessor’s legacy by policing the boundaries of acceptable opinion in the party and punishing those who transgress them. As a former chief prosecutor, he is ideally suited to this role. He has no modernising ethos, no vision of progress. His function is purely regressive: to revert to the period before Corbyn shattered the political monopoly of the extreme centre.
A corollary of this function is that Starmer’s primary target is not the Tories but the Labour left. Unlike Blair, he has no interest in attacking the rival party (though he will happily appeal to the “many decent, honourable members on the benches opposite” in asking them to unseat Boris Johnson). On every headline issue – from Ukraine to energy prices to migrant crossings – he has hewed close to the government’s position while highlighting his distance from the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs. As part of this factional manoeuvring, Starmer has become reflexively averse to even the most tepid policy proposals, since they conjure the dreaded spectre of the 2019 manifesto. While Blairism affirmed its novelty by attacking the fustiness of the Tories, Starmerism is keen to demonstrate its venerability – its proximity to the time-honoured institutions of the British state – by cracking down on new ideas.
In this sense, Starmerism has reversed the Blairite relation between free markets and discipline. For Blair, the market was sacred, and a strong, disciplinary state was needed to protect it. For Starmer, however, discipline comes first. The imperative is to shackle and restrain the libertine impulses of Corbynism. Market economics may be a necessary part of this endeavour, since deviating from them would open up forbidden social-democratic prospects, but they don’t constitute Starmer’s main ideological commitment. They are a means to the end of lowering expectations, constraining the imagination, and preventing any efflorescence which could endanger the imperial state Starmer cherishes.
So, if Blair and Starmer are both disciples of Francis Fukuyama, Blair’s was an upbeat Fukuyamism that claimed to have solved the riddle of progress, whereas Starmer’s orientation is entirely negative: standing firm against the left’s attempts to restart history. The first was overconfident its market precepts would cure society; the second has no such self-belief. Its operative mode is silence, reticence, refusal to adopt a position – combined with the perpetual punishment of its internal opponents. Politics, not as narcissism, but as paranoia.
This political style explains Starmer’s failure to recompose a firm electoral constituency or intervene effectively in the news cycle. When all one has to offer is negation – a resounding no to the Green New Deal, energy price caps, wealth taxes, visa waivers for Ukrainian refugees – one inevitably ends up looking plank-like.
Dissatisfied with Starmer’s performance, Blair is reportedly investing his energy in an amorphous cross-party alliance called the Britain Project, which some see as the UK’s answer to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche. Yet even if Blair returned to the political arena, or cultivated a more polished imitator like Wes Streeting, he wouldn’t be able to relive his past successes. The conjuncture that gave Blairism its verve has evaporated, and in its absence there can only be a hollow restorationism: Blairite content without the context that gave it meaning.
Oliver Eagleton is an editor at New Left Review and a regular contributor to Novara Media. His first book, The Starmer Project, is out now with Verso Books.