A political scandal over a bhuna and a bottle of beer. Perhaps it’s fitting that something this tedious may prove to be the end of Keir Starmer’s equally colourless leadership of the Labour party.
‘Beergate’, aka the question of whether Starmer broke lockdown laws in April 2021 by eating a succulent Indian meal, is rumbling on. Monday morning saw The Times splash that Starmer was considering a pledge to resign if he’s fined over the incident in order to “retain the moral high ground” over his rival, Boris Johnson. Hours later, he did just that at an afternoon press conference, insisting “no rules were broken” but stating that if he was issued with a fixed penalty notice he would do the “right thing” and be on his way. Meanwhile, the Tories have been airily dismissing the row as “fluff” in the hope their benevolence will prevent Starmer from stepping down and putting ever more pressure on the prime minister to follow suit.
The thing is, they’re right. The entire thing is grubby nonsense; imagine being a police officer announcing you’ve received “significant new information” and what you’re referring to is intel on whether someone opened a Google Doc before or after eating a curry. But Starmer is being hoisted by his own petard; his tenure as Labour leader has been characterised by the petty, punitive politics he honed while serving as director of public prosecutions. During the height of ‘partygate’, Starmer’s attacks on Johnson were predicated solely on whether he had, in fact, broken the law, rather than examining how the law itself was arbitrary, contradictory and harshly enforced. It was perfectly in-keeping with the “punisher-in-chief” depicted in Oliver Eagleton’s new book The Starmer Project who oversaw the deportation of a Portuguese man for taking a single scoop of ice cream during the 2011 London riots.
Even Starmer’s beginnings as a human rights lawyer are easy to square with his current trajectory. Like many institutionalised practitioners in that field, Starmer’s primary passion is the law itself. He was willing to fight for people’s ‘rights’ as already defined by legislation, but had little interest in challenging the institutions that produce flawed and unjust law in the first place. It’s a spectacular failure of imagination – an epitaph that could sum up Starmer wholesale: he deliberately eschewed previous opportunities to reframe the narrative around Covid-19 regulations in a way that would push the political dialogue around them into something constructive. And it’s one that has landed him in hot water now.
Upon receiving news of police fines being dished out to the prime minister and chancellor, Starmer could have easily joined the coalition of justice organisations and parliamentarians who called for an immediate review of all Covid-19 related fines and prosecutions, demanding financial penalties were refunded and convictions overturned. That would have been an approach that spoke to how the regulations were a failure of government, ushering in further criminalisation and punishment of ordinary people at a time of great crisis. There was ample evidence he could have held up: from reporter Tristan Kirk’s affecting work on the individuals who fell afoul of the rules showed the human cost (like one lonely pensioner, struggling with debt, who was fined £100 for meeting friends at an allotment), to statistics revealing that young men from ethnic minority groups were twice as likely to be penalised under the rules as the wider population.
Instead, Starmer hammered Johnson as having committed a moral failing for not following regulations that were discriminatory from the beginning, and unlawfully enforced. Time and time again, he casts himself as the school snitch, the Randall Weems of Westminster. It might be a position that occasionally nets a blow at the despatch box, but it hardly wins hearts and minds, as Labour’s muted showing in last week’s local elections demonstrates. Under Starmer, the party’s lurch rightward to a particular form of narrow, NIMBY-ish politics, like Labour’s renewed focus on ‘anti-social crime’, has been utterly demoralising. Not only does it betray the small-minded stagnation of the political brains deciding Labour’s direction, it also sums up the carceral bureaucracy Starmer embodies. He’s a devil for the details but completely misses the bigger picture, the things that actually matter to real, ordinary people. If he goes over beergate, it will be a fate of his own making. Live by the sword, die by the San Miguel.
Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.