The Bluestocking: Keir Starmer is Ruthless
Quiet, slow-moving . . . but a stone-cold killer
As regular readers will know, sometimes I interrupt the weekly links email with a piping hot take that’s too niche or parochial or nebulous for the Atlantic. Here’s one I’ve been thinking about for a while: the defining characteristics of Keir Starmer as a politician.
The Silent Ruthlessness of Keir Starmer
I first met Keir Starmer in 2015, soon after he was elected to parliament at the age of 52. The New Statesman, where I worked at the time, ran a regular feature in each parliament meeting the “class of X” and picking out the potential rising stars. I can’t find the feature on the NS site—its search function is appalling, but since this probably protects me from people finding a million of my old cancellable opinions, I’m not complaining—but I do remember that as deputy editor I awarded myself several of the most interesting new MPs.
One of them was Jess Phillips, because of her previous background at a domestic violence charity. And the other was this middle-aged guy who had turned up after a long career, including being director of public prosecutions, with a knighthood already. This doesn’t happen that often. Labour MPs tend to come in three flavours: the local councillor looking for a new challenge; the trade union official looking for a new challenge, or the former Westminster adviser looking for a new challenge. So here was an unusual first-timer, who also carried another huge political advantage: a rock-solid safe Labour seat. (Unlike Jess Phillips, who won her constituency as Labour-Lib Dem marginal.)
We talked about Starmer’s previous successes—as a lawyer, he helped overturn the mandatory death penalty in Uganda, which saved the lives of more than 400 people. We didn’t talk much about his weaknesses, although I remember even then the Wise Old Sage that is Stephen Bush pointing out to me that a previous career as the DPP could be an electoral liability. By definition, such a lawyer will have been involved in controversial decisions over charging, or not. (Think of how much the case of “Willie” Horton, who committed crimes on furlough in Massachusetts, was used to attack Michael Dukakis, the governor of the state at the time, during his presidential run.) The brief, inglorious attack on Starmer over the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile proved Stephen right.
I came away with the impression of a sober, serious grown-up, with clear ideas of what he wanted to do with the opportunity of being an MP. I’ve written before that Starmer is reluctant to monologue as he goes: he’s not one of those politicians who needs to be the main character. Like most journalists, I love writing about the kind of politicians who live for the drama—they make great copy. I’m thinking of Ed Balls or Peter Mandelson, or Michael Gove on the Tory side: They understand politics as spectacle, and they deal with the caricaturing that affects any politician by playing along with it. Peter Mandelson absolutely relishes being the Craig Revel Horwood of the Labour Party; Michael Gove will do the robot if given two gins.
Starmer fritzes the brains of political commentators by doing things for a specific political motive but declining to supply the motive by narrating his actions (or letting his advisers supply the motive by briefing it out). You rarely hear Starmer saying something overtly factional—it’s all soothing blah about unity and common purpose—but meanwhile he’s slotting a bullet in the chamber.
He is ruthless, self-contained and—although slow to come to a decision—willing to play with very high stakes once he has done so.
By chance, last week I got two glimpses of Starmer’s untold life: at an Unherd event, the American Substacker Andrew Sullivan spoke about all the years they sat next to each other at Reigate Grammar School. Sullivan said that Starmer was a “decent” man despite their political differences, then and now. (Then: Reaganite and eurocommunist. Now: anti-woke liberal and . . . well, we’ll come to that.) Then he clammed up, citing the “special bond” between schoolfriends. That surprised me, pleasantly: that kind of loyalty can’t be bought.
The other reflection was more ambiguous. Hadley Freeman came on stage, and mentioned seeing Starmer at her local synagogue. And that made me remember something else.
Starmer, a man with a Jewish wife and kids, sat in Jeremy Corbyn’s Cabinet while Corbyn defended the mad mural, weathered the “English irony” storm, and was involved in a dozen other anti-semitism controversies. He didn’t resign in protest over any of those incidents. He stayed put—which allowed him to present himself as enough of a loyalist to win the race to succeed Corbyn.
As soon as Starmer had secured the leadership, though, the massacre began. His acceptance speech involved a swift pivot from thanking his “friend” Jeremy to promising to “tear out this poison by its roots.” Within two months, Starmer had sacked Corbyn’s favoured successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey, from the shadow cabinet. She hadn’t said anything anti-semitic herself, but had retweeted an interview with Maxine Peake lamenting the end of Corbynism and adding that that US police who killed George Floyd had learned their chokehold techniques from the Israeli secret service. That is a classic anti-semitic conspiracy theory—something bad happened, and so the Jews were probably involved—and Peake eventually retracted the claim, while Long-Bailey said she didn’t endorse “all aspects” of the article.
It didn’t matter. She was chucked out. Starmer had clearly made the calculation that he could afford to sack Long-Bailey without tearing apart the party. He was correct.
I remember thinking at the time—June 2020—that this was kind of a boss move for a new party leader, but that was nothing. In October, Starmer suspended Jeremy Corbyn from the party on a technicality1. Again, ruthless. This was the man who gave him a Cabinet job after mere months in parliament. This was the man he had defended a hundred times before. (In 2016, Starmer did resign in the Great Walkout—but only after basically everyone else already had, and with a very low-key resignation letter. And then he went back into the shadow Cabinet in a much bigger role, as Brexit spokesman, only four months later.)
I still don’t know how I feel about this—and I’m absolutely fascinated to know what Starmer’s local rabbi thinks. Would it have been nobler to stay on the backbenches? Or to walk out of the party entirely, as Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna and the other TIG group MPs did—straight into the political wilderness (and then public affairs jobs)? I half-deplore it and half-adore it. Ultimately, it suggests a man who has a vision, and is clear about what he will tolerate in pursuit of that vision. That’s pragmatism, something the Labour party sorely needs if it’s going to win elections. That’s ruthlessness.
The same goes for Starmer’s attitude to Europe. He used his position in the Corbyn cabinet to position himself as the champion of Remain, the standard-bearer for the lost cause of European Union membership. And then, as Labour leader, he whipped his MPs to vote for Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit deal, on the basis that it would pass anyway and voting against would give the Conservatives endless ammunition to say that “Brexit isn’t safe with Labour.” Now he’s even against free movement! Talk about a pivot.
Starmer’s two defining characteristics are his reluctance to explain his actions and his willingness to act ruthlessly. My advice to Labour Kremlinologists: Treat him like a stage magician. Don’t listen to the patter, watch his hands. His team likes to pick fights while disclaiming any knowledge that their actions are controversial.
The cumulative effect of his leadership has been to marginalise the left utterly, and draw a line between the Corbyn years and now.
Look at his initial shadow cabinet picks. Just enough nods to the left to appease them, but junior ranks stuffed with “Blairites”—ie people not from the Labour left. That early decision allowed him to promote Corbynsceptics like Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting over time, in a frog-boiling kind of way. He also pressed the button that sent Anneliese Dodds and Nick Symonds-Thomas’s chairs sliding into the scorpion pit with little apparent regret.
Look at Sam Tarry. Did Starmer lift a finger to help Sam Tarry (his deputy leader Angela Rayner’s partner) avoid deselection? He did not. And fair enough, really, given Tarry provoked him into having to sack him from the frontbench by supporting the rail strikes. Oh, and that leads me to—
Look at the strikes. No picket lines for you, kids. And they have (largely) obeyed.
Look at candidate selections. Have a look at @tomorrowsmps and see who’s being selected for winnable seats (ie most of them) in 2024? It’s not looking great for the left. For example, Corbyn-supporting Emma Dent-Coad has complained about the process in Kensington, which she lost. And here is the leader’s office phoning up Michael Crick to complain about his coverage, demonstrating how much of a close eye they’re keeping on selections. If Starmer translates his current poll lead into a landslide in 2024, getting his preferred candidates selected will translate to huge influence over the make-up of the parliamentary party.
The trans debate: In 2020, Starmer was the only one of the final leadership candidates not to sign the wildly over-the-top pledge concocted by a new pressure group called the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights. (The pledge proscribed the LGB Alliance and Women’s Place UK as “hate groups.”) He signed a far more moderate one from Labour’s official group, LGBT Labour.
Since then, to my great frustration, he has failed to speak out about the many excellent women driven out of Labour by fanatics, and has given Rosie Duffield at best lukewarm public support. But at the same time, Wes Streeting has recently been voicing all the same opinions that I have held for years, and is still in the shadow cabinet2. Earlier this autumn, Starmer dropped a tactical nuke on Mumsnet about his concerns over the medicalisation of children with gender dysphoria. Just to repeat: he did that on Mumsnet.
He knew exactly what he was doing3.
I confidently predict Labour will go into the next election with a platform you might call “Helen Lewis’s Extremely Mild, Yet Bizarrely Controversial Views”: trans acceptance should be championed, but there should be exceptions for female single-sex spaces and sports, plus let’s be very reluctant to medicalise children, hey? But there will be no acknowledgement of the pivot, and no attempt to explain the evidence which led to it.
Of course I find this frustrating: many principled feminist campaigners have immolated themselves on this bonfire, and Starmer will get to warm himself on the flames, without having to use of his own political capital as kindling4.
Still, I don’t find it as frustrating as Owen Jones finds the entire Starmer platform. He feels like he’s been had.
And much as I hate to agree with Owen Jones on anything beyond the colour of the sky and water being wet, man has a valid point. Starmer did not campaign for the leadership as an aggressive opponent of anti-semitism or an avowed opponent of free movement or as someone with concerns about the excesses of trans activism. As leader, though, that’s how he's running the party5.
As I’ve probably said before, one of my friends once referred to Starmer—after the Corbyn ejection, I think—as “the Manchurian Blairite.” In this reading, he’s been a sleeper agent all along. Hmm. I certainly think he has a clear sense of what he wants—to be Labour leader, to be prime minister, to institute a competent social democratic government that is better than whatever the Tories are offering—and a clear sense of what can be thrown under the bus in pursuit of that goal.
I want to be opposed to that—and I suppose I should be, given the tyre marks on my face—but I also respect it. This guy wants to win.
Starmer decided that Labour members didn’t want to hear disloyalty to Jeremy Corbyn, but they also want to see the Labour party in power. So as long as he carried out his predecessor’s execution in tones of pained regret, rather than vengeful glee, they would wear it. The same goes for Europe; there’s now a muted acceptance even among the most fervent EU fans that imminent rejoining is not on the cards (witness how the Remainiacs podcast renamed itself Oh God What Now, which was the sound of the final nail being hammered into that particular coffin.) Most voters, and even most normie party members, are pragmatists. They are willing to extend more grace to politicians than the critics of those politicians would like6.
So railing against Starmer’s pivots, hidden lever-pulling and intentional vagueness is railing against him doing politics—and on the evidence of the polls so far, doing it well.
Four harbingers of doom, though, before we finish.
One: Some arguments you need to have, and need to win, out in the open. Otherwise they fester.
Two: Can the Tories successfully paint Starmer as shifty and unprincipled? Can internal opponents like Owen Jones?
Three: Starmer came into the leadership knowing he had four years before the next election, and could afford to move with the stately grandeur of a cruise liner. That’s not what being prime minister is like: you have to make a swift decision and move on about a dozen times a day. In lieu of time, you need to have good instincts. Does Starmer have the ability to make decisions under pressure, and to live with them?
Four: Beergate, Long-Bailey’s sacking, Corbyn’s suspension. These are high-stakes gambles. One day, maybe years from now, the roulette wheel will land on black instead of red, and perhaps this most cautious and sober of politicians will be unexpectedly brought down by a gamble too far.
Even if you think, as I do, that Corbyn had a blind spot for anti-semitism so big it disqualified him from high office, I’d argue that his actual suspension offence was a nothingburger.
Streeting is one of the smartest and most tactical politicians in the shadow cabinet, and also did not stumble into offering up spicy opinions like “women have vaginas”. He doesn’t want to leave himself in a place where he’s unelectable in the next leadership election. But Helen, you cry, surely they will finally have a woman next time? I laugh a hollow laugh.
That worrying Starmer opinion: “I feel very strongly that children shouldn’t be making these important decisions without the consent of their parents.”
I also think it would be worth studying the one time a high-stakes gamble backfired on Starmer: his attempt to demote Angela Rayner, which ended up instead with her being made Lord High Vizier, Crypt Keeper, Holy Roman Emperor and Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work. But that’s for another time.
Although if Jones really believed Starmer’s team when they told him that John McDonnell would stay on as a shadow chancellor, then I have a bridge to sell him. Part of being a political journalist is assuming that when politicians tell you “secret stuff” it’s for their own purposes, rather than because they think you have an honest, trustworthy face. Also: Jones should be aware that “being denounced by Owen Jones” is probably #1 on the big whiteboard brainstorm of Ways To Show The Public We Aren’t Corbynite Any More.
See the widespread reaction to the Conservative handling of the coronavirus: “They did their best.” This generosity drives activists spare but is surprisingly common.