Longtime watchers of Keir Starmer with questions about his murky rise to leader of the Labour party will have noted with interest the investigation by Gabriel Pogrund and Harry Yorke in last weekend’s Sunday Times. Based in part on materials from investigative journalist Paul Holden, whose forthcoming book The Fraud: Keir Starmer, Labour Together, and the Crisis of British Democracy is due out early next year, the Sunday Times article reveals the slush fund of undeclared, unregulated, and unlawful dark money – more than £730,000 of it – that financed the reconquest and reclamation of the Labour party by its far-rightwing using Keir Starmer as front man.
The story centres upon the role of Labour Together – “a secretive group”, as described by Pogrund and Yorke, “which played a ‘key role’ in the Labour leader’s election” – in developing and underwriting the political restoration of the Labour right through a carefully constructed strategy aimed at supplanting and then eradicating Corbynism by duping the bulk of the party membership using a politically protean but superficially acceptable leadership candidate.
At the heart of this stealth operation was Morgan McSweeney, a hard-nosed bureaucratic hatchet man of the Labour right, who is today Starmer’s closest aide and adviser with responsibility for running the upcoming general election campaign.
The construction of the Starmer leadership, both strategically and financially, was an altogether shadowy, even shady, affair. Secret money flowed through an organisation that at the time presented itself as neutral regarding the party leadership but – as its website now openly acknowledges – was actually seeking to lever Starmer into power.
According to the Sunday Times account, between 2017 and 2020 McSweeney failed to declare £730,000 in donations from a slew of millionaire businessmen, misreported and underreported other payments, and falsely assured supportive MPs that electoral law was being followed.
A 2021 investigation by the Electoral Commission found Labour Together guilty of more than 20 separate breaches of the law, imposed a higher-end fine, and rebuked the organisation for failing to provide a “reasonable excuse”. But by then, as Pogrund and Yorke observe, “money at a scale rarely seen in Labour politics had already changed the party’s future, setting Starmer on the path to Downing Street.” McSweeney (and through him, Starmer) has since avoided being connected publicly to the scandal – until now.
The old Watergate adage of “follow the money” may at last be shedding some media light on Starmer’s political ascendancy. The Sunday Times revelations are of a piece with Starmer’s own refusal to reveal the donors to his leadership campaign until after the ballot when it was too late. Pull at the threads of this story and preferred official accounts of Labour party politics over the last five years begin to unravel, with a far more sinister picture of antidemocratic plotting and scheming emerging instead.
Lying as political strategy
It’s difficult to avoid a sneaking admiration for the clear-eyed ruthlessness with which the Labour right set about their reconquest of Labour. In this regard, it’s worth giving credit to McSweeney for an accurate insight that should have been better understood on the party’s left, representing a serious failure of political education: that the surge of support for Corbynism within Labour was strategically vulnerable to a challenge that appeared to adopt aspects of Corbyn’s critique of Blairism and New Labour – the triangulation and lack of principle and political complaisance – but was actually intent upon overthrowing it.
McSweeney likely learnt this lesson the hard way, having managed the leadership campaign of Arch Blairite candidate Liz Kendall in 2015, which crashed and burned with a seriously humiliating 4.5%, a true measure of the popularity of unapologetic centrism at the time.
Never again would the party membership be given a straight vote on Third Way Blairism versus democratic socialism: even the farcical Owen Smith leadership challenge against Corbyn following the 2016 chicken coup was compelled to dress up an obvious Blairite restorationist project as “Corbynism without Corbyn” – a dummy run for what was to become the successful second attempt under Starmer.
Indeed, despite the iron grip Starmer has since established over the party apparatus through rule changes, purges, and dictatorial party management, he is still roundly defeated in conference votes over substantive policy matters and has to resort to the age-old Labour leadership method of bureaucratically outmanoeuvring or simply ignoring any outbreaks of party democracy.
Understanding this political need to operate in secret and via catspaws and other underhand methods is key to a proper appreciation of all that has happened since Starmer became leader. It explains something that many observers seemingly still find difficult to comprehend or accept: the fundamental reliance of Starmerism upon lying as political strategy.
Politics on easy mode
A massive fraud was perpetrated in the 2020 Labour leadership election. It is now clear that Starmer was a kind of Manchurian Candidate, a sleeper agent for entirely other interests than was made to appear at the time.
There is little need to rehearse here the manner in which the infamous ten pledges that underpinned Starmer’s leadership bid have been serially and comprehensively abandoned: this is by now well understood, with social media awash in evidence so egregious that even occasional mainstream media interviews have sought to hold Starmer to account. Starmer’s own explanation for whether he has broken particular pledges or not – in some instances, whether he even made them in the first place – shifts back and forth according to expediency.
It’s the classic trap of the tangled web of the liar unable to remember exactly what lies he’s woven. What the Labour Together revelations – all those undeclared resources spent on carefully parsing ways to frame a pitch-perfect platform aimed at the party’s “soft left” centre of gravity – suggest is that this was surely the strategy all along, a species of confidence trick deliberately played out on the Labour membership.
What’s significant, though, is the extent to which Starmer’s dishonesty has been facilitated by a mainstream media actively conniving in his marginalisation of the left after the shock upsets of the Corbyn period, a form of journalistic omertà. The most dishonest leadership campaign in British political history has also been one of the least cross-examined.
It has thus been politics on easy mode. Starmer has had the easiest ride of any Labour leader since Blair, able to get away with the flimsiest of justifications for his shape-shifting positions because they are barely given a moment’s proper scrutiny. This extends beyond factional struggles in the Labour party to the most fundamental questions of policy and posture, on which Starmer and Reeves and the rest have largely been given a free pass.
The result is basic incoherence. To pick an example almost at random, Starmerism declares itself to be a break with “trickle-down economics”, but immediately contradicts that with an insistence on growth as the cure-all whilst rejecting redistribution or structural changes in the economy, meaning that unless by magic there is no logical way that growth can benefit most people in any way other than trickling down in Starmer’s model.
Relatedly, Starmer’s insistence that “when business profits, we all do” is the polar opposite of what has actually been happening in the economy, actively and aggressively belied by the current cost of living crunch. Sellers’ inflation and corporate profiteering have been occurring at the expense of the vast majority, for whom living standards have been declining as profits have soared, prices risen, and interest rates shot up. Only a political party that has hitherto been allowed to play on easy mode could get away with such glaringly self-evident contradictions.
To date, critical examinations of Starmer’s Labour have been confined to the margins, as with Al Jazeera’s The Labour Files. If the Sunday Times article marks the beginnings of a break with that, even if motivated by reasons foreign to the left, then that’s all to the good.
As the prospect of Starmer in Downing Street draws closer, the political provenance of Starmer and Starmerism becomes an urgent matter of national public interest. It’s heartening to note that more books and articles are in the pipeline.
Oliver Eagleton’s under-noticed book The Starmer Project confirms that, however bad you may think Starmer, he is far worse. There is plenty of evidence that Starmer is “an establishment servant and autocrat, utterly obsequious to state power, and a proven, brazen liar.”
It’s high time that a serious journalist attempted a proper interview with Starmer about honesty, using evidence and pressing follow up questions and getting at the heart of the matter: his constant lying and dissembling. Otherwise, there is every reason to believe that come the election another pathological liar will waltz into Downing Street practically unchallenged, to the cost of us all.
Update: This article was updated on 20 November to include a citation that was missing.