January 23, 2023

Dogged by the Covid lockdowns and hamstrung by no discernible charisma quotient, Keir Starmer has spent the best part of his nearly three years in office telling voters what was wrong with his own side, while attacking the Government without ever really explaining what the cure might be. Now, as the party that Starmer now portentously refers to as “my Labour Party” becomes accustomed to a double-digit poll lead, the question is: what does he really believe in?

Starmer and his Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, spent the past week in the somewhat unlikely setting of Davos in Switzerland. Their reason for attending the World Economic Forum — that exclusive club of business magnates and like-minded politicos — was clear: to demonstrate that Labour had moved back to what is euphemistically described as the “centre ground” (the “centre” is wherever an exclusive set of pundits and politicians decide it to be). Clearly now in better, more refined company, Starmer, in an interview with Emily Maitlis, rather let the cat out of the bag: “Westminster is too constrained,” he said. “Once you get out of Westminster, whether it’s Davos or anywhere else, you actually engage with people that you can see working with in the future. Westminster is just a tribal shouting place.”

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I have known every Labour leader since James Callaghan (who gave me my first job interview and then thought better of making an offer), worked for one (Gordon Brown in his UN capacity), and for a number of years shared an office with another (Michael Foot). In that time, I have voted for every Labour leader who attained the office bar one, Tony Blair. I thought the latter was a phoney the moment I met him for a coffee in his Islington home shortly after he became leader. That feeling about Blair never escaped me in the years I spent on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, before the disastrous Iraq war forced me to quit.

When running for the party leadership, Starmer was asked which former leader he most identified with. He settled on Harold Wilson, who still holds the record for winning four out of five General Elections for Labour. Wilson was, of course, the consummate party manager. On occasion he would do battle with the Left, but essentially took his cue from the inimitable Ian Mikardo, the Jewish Tribunite MP and the Commons’ resident unofficial “bookie”. The Mikardo maxim was that “in order to fly, Labour needed both a Left and a Right wing”. Sadly, few leaders have been able to free this old bird as Wilson once managed. But following the extraordinary toxicity that had characterised the relationship between the parliamentary Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer’s call for “unity” and his commitment to broadly social democratic policies was enough to persuade many, including me, to vote for him. Since then, however, he has picked his side and is ferociously pinioning the Left of the party.

“These are my principles,” Groucho Marx is said to have remarked. “If you don’t like them, I have others.” Starmer, after being reminded recently by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg of some of the pledges he had made when standing for leader (or which there were at least ten), looked her in the eye and said: “When I was running for leader, I made pledges reflecting my values. Since then, a lot has changed.”

Indeed it has. Each of his pledges, let alone his values, has since been discarded, along with the party’s former leader and a significant portion of its fee-paying membership. Most political leaders U-turn to an extent, but few with such lack of guile and poor dexterity as Starmer. Take Brexit: first he accepted the referendum result, before demanding a second one, and now apparently accepting it (at least for the time being). His interview in March 2020 with Andrew Neil will doubtless be mined to exhaustion by his opponents for maximum effect ahead of the next election.

Neil: “You made 10 policy pledges — including that energy, rail, water, the Royal Mail will be taken into common ownership; so, will they all be in Labour’s next manifesto?”
Starmer: “I’ve made that commitment — the pledges I have made indicate the direction of travel.”
Neil: “So, those four industries will be in the Manifesto, for nationalisation, in 2024?”
Starmer: “They will. They are baseline indicators for where we are going. I think that we’ll need to think about how we will do it.”
Neil: “What about abolishing university tuition fees then?”
Starmer: “They are all pledges, Andrew, so the answer to these questions is ‘yes’.”

On the privatisation of the NHS (firmly ruled out), Starmer now looks to the private sector to remedy the crisis. Elsewhere in recent months, the shapeshifting has moved with some abandon. Having garnered union votes for his election, Starmer subsequently criticised Shadow Ministers joining picket lines. Someone could have shown him the pictures of Labour Ministers, Shirley Williams, Denis Howell and Fred Mulley, no militants they, on the Grunwick picket line in the late Seventies, or a photo of Harriet Harman and the sadly missed Jack Dromey, in matching duffle coats, doing the same.

Can Starmer pull off his Jekyll and Hyde act? Here he is when he was questioned about his predecessor during the leadership contest: “I want to pay tribute to Jeremy Corbyn, who led our party through some really difficult times, who energised our movement, and who’s a friend as well as a colleague!” Fast forward a few years, and Corbyn has become the object of the now-obligatory “six minutes of hate”; doubtless we shall soon hear that he has been blocked from standing in his Islington constituency.

The Forde Report, commissioned under Starmer into allegations of bullying, racism and sexism during the Corbyn era, produced enough uncomfortable truths that the leader and his consiglieres want to see buried. For instance, after claims of antisemitism dogged the Labour Party, Starmer resolved to tackle the crisis. So, according to Jewish Voice for Labour, under Starmer, an entirely disproportionate number of Jewish members, some 59 in total, are currently suspended, have now resigned, been expelled or been auto-excluded. A few were “cleared” and others received a “reminder of conduct”. Most have been investigated for allegations of antisemitism, which often means that they have been critical of Israel. The party membership, as a whole, is under unprecedented surveillance.

Members seeking selection locally or nationally have always been vetted for the more obvious misdemeanours that could rebound on the party. But, as Michael Crick has observed, the process has taken a sinister turn, with a number of individuals being blocked from standing for seemingly minor infractions, such as wishing Nicola Sturgeon a swift recovery from a bout of ill-health, or for once liking a post from a proscribed organisation before it had actually become proscribed. This process of filtration has been remarkably successful. Crick recently observed that out of the more than 70 or so parliamentary selections so far, only one contender from the Left of the party has managed to get through.

Under Starmer, it is estimated that 137,000 fee-paying members have either left, been suspended or expelled. There may be more, since the party is slow to cancel direct debits and we have less of an idea of how many new members may have joined. Practically, with fewer members and unions issuing blank bank transfers, Labour is potentially being led down the Tory route of “dark money”, with all of the pitfalls. Look no further than the recent row involving Wes Streeting, Dan Jarvis and Yvette Cooper, who all denied they did anything wrong by accepting tens of thousands of pounds from a company, MPM Connect, which is part-owned by Peter Hearn, a Labour donor, but does not have any obvious line of business.Meanwhile, Starmer is insistent that all Front Benchers now contribute to fundraising efforts. He has also recently recalled the services of Blair’s former chief fundraiser, Lord Levy, who was the centre of a “cash-for-honours” investigation in 2006. What could possibly go wrong?

Starmer has wisely drawn from Gordon Brown’s work around further constitutional reforms, and he is coming under pressure from his MPs to offer a Green manifesto. But where are the meat and potatoes; the bold vision that was at least encapsulated in Wilson’s promise of the “white heat of the technological revolution”? There are still two years until a General Election, one that comes with boundary changes that do not work in Starmer’s favour, a Scotland that has stopped sending large numbers of Labour MPs to Westminster, and an economy that may be beginning to recover. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may be able to control the Labour Party, but that doesn’t mean they are certain to win an election.