by Aaron Bastani
Monday, 26
September 2022
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16:00

I hate to admit it, but Keir Starmer is good at politics

The Labour leader is a ruthless pragmatist
by Aaron Bastani
The Machiavellian. Credit: Getty

The most mentioned word in Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince, that handbook in how to deploy power, is ‘necessity’. More than virtue or fortune it is necessity — and grasping what is necessary to achieve a particular end — that is central to his vision of political skill. While he may have the charisma of a damp cloth, Keir Starmer seemingly understands that, besides much else in Machiavelli. Increasingly it is the word that defines his two-and-a-half years as Labour leader. It is why he should be regarded as a formidable politician.  

Why did Labour’s conference kick off with a rendition of the national anthem? The simple answer is because the Queen passed away. The political one is because — to Starmer’s mind — it was necessary. It was necessary to rebut claims of being insufficiently patriotic, and it was necessary to generate optics which the media could identify as a shift with the past. Does Starmer believe any of it? Who knows. After all, the man eulogising the institution of monarchy was purportedly a republican into his 40s. But that doesn’t matter. It is necessary.

Unlike Corbyn, Miliband, Johnson and May, Starmer walks towards the fire; he finds positions of potential vulnerability — be it antisemitism, a potential pact with the SNP, or failing to appear patriotic — and doesn’t just address them, he overcompensates (i.e. by leaning heavily into them). Of course it helps that the media is relatively amenable to him (certainly more than Corbyn), but it is still a rare feature among modern politicians. The Left would do well to observe, and learn.

In order to be popular among the party’s membership during the Brexit years — when power briefly moved outside Westminster and the Left was ascendant — it was necessary for Starmer to not only oppose Brexit, but to gradually advance a position which could undermine his party’s leadership. That is not to say he didn’t believe in the cause of Remain — I’m sure he did — but, over a period of 18 months, his efforts translated to “heads I win, tails you lose” for Jeremy Corbyn. It was a fudge which contributed to the party’s landslide defeat in 2019, although there were other reasons too, but it undoubtedly helped Starmer personally. The party’s Left, meanwhile, was scuppered on the rocks of failure.  

Starmer’s opacity makes him all things to all men. Consequently much of Labour’s membership not only voted for Starmer but projected ideals on to him which rarely corresponded with reality. Keir “really” wanted to stop Brexit, only he couldn’t. Keir “really” wanted to introduce public ownership — even when he rolled back on policy commitments — but he had no choice. It was the same with media and electoral reform — his refusal to do interviews with the Sun newspaper while pursuing the leadership was the most memorable. Of course once that was no longer necessary he wrote an op-ed for the paper a year later.

Today, in a position of authority — with the party’s Left decimated, Johnson gone, and a buoyant lead in the polls, Starmer can discard any notion of being a liberal reformer, pursuing instead a more socially conservative bent. That means dismissing electoral reform, embracing punitive rhetoric on crime, trying (and failing) to prevent members of his shadow cabinet from joining picket lines, as well as having the party’s annual conference decked out in the union flag.  

None of this means Starmer will prove an effective Prime Minister, an office he may never achieve. The absence of — for want of a better word — ideology, would leave him vulnerable to a major crisis like a run on the pound. At the first demands of austerity, for instance, he might collapse like a deck of cards. Meanwhile Labour is strapped for cash because his acolytes have harangued 200,000 people out of the party. 

Yet despite all this he does understand the brutal nature of politics. Personally I find Starmer dishonourable and mendacious. But he is also utterly ruthless, analytical, and even Machiavellian with it. That, more than anything, is why he may well be Labour’s next Prime Minister.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago

Occasionally, Unherd comes up with an opinion-piece that is so egregious in its misconception as to induce laughter. This is one of the most humorous. Just two of many examples:
“…grasping what is necessary to achieve a political end.”
Starmer might well be trying to grasp something but he’s so transparently hypocritical that he’s grasping for the ball like a blind outfielder on the boundary, when the ball went in the opposite direction.
“Starmer’s opacity makes him all things to all men.”
Erm, no… Starmer’s lack of guile and conviction makes him nothing to no-one.
Machiavelli he ain’t! But it made me guffaw to see his name quoted in the same article as Starmer.
Thanks Aaron, keep ’em coming!

Last edited 2 months ago by Steve Murray
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Nonetheless, as the two men running from the grizzly bear (or the survivor) could tell you, he only has to be better than the Tory leader, and he is winning that contest hands down!

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
2 months ago

There doesn’t seem to me to be much Macchiavellian about a politician who can’t define what a woman is when questioned. He would need to brush up on that one.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

Yes. If he gets rid of the gender woo woo crazies I might think of switching back to labour. But not until then.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 months ago

I appreciate that the metroplitan left loathe the Conservative party and are thus desperate to have a Labour leader they can love like Tony Blair – but Starmer really isn’t ever going to be that guy – however much they click their sparkly red pumps together and repeat “There’s no place like Sedgefield”.
Just being “better than Corbyn” is not really setting the bar very high.
Corbyn never found an anti-West, anti-Britain cause he wouldn’t support – we all know that. Motivated by adherence to long outdated and un-nuanced notions of Socialism, Corbyn famously never read books, ever. His ideas were all ingested during his student days and his 20s, while playing Marxist in South America, and he has been regurgitating those ideas (mostly undigested) ever since.
However much Starmtroopers might want to believe in their hero, Starmer cannot plead innocence through ideology, indifference or even ignorance. He supported Corbyn wholeheartedly and stood by him in the hope of his own personal advancement. Starmer cannot even use the excuse of being a fool – he has many faults, but he is by no means stupid. He is, however, a coward.
Downhill SirKeir, who spent 4 years agitating to overturn Brexit, despite describing himself as a democrat and patriot, then imagining that just cynically draping himself in the flag because a focus group told him (much to his surprise) that most people don’t actually despise Britain, or wish to see the monarchy abolished. None of that is going to win back red wall voters nor appeal outside the base.
The unfortunate love-child of Max Headroom and Gordon Brittas, he is an uninspiring, charisma-free technocrat, with no instinct for leadership. The Tories will never need any campaign poster against him, other than showing the Leader and his gobby deputy kneeling to BLM.
The sole reason for Conservatives to kneel should be in thanks for only having had to face Miliband, then Corbyn and now Starmer, and praying their good fortune holds.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Love child of Max Headroom and Gordon Brittas. Worth 100 upticks.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
2 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Brexit cancel culture at work:
“spent 4 years agitating to overturn Brexit, despite describing himself as a democrat and patriot”
2 questions for ya:

  1. Define “overturning Brexit”. Post referendum, nobody had a clue what Brexit was even supposed to be – hard, soft or something in between? Nobody knew. This vagueness created space for constitutionally-illiterate rhetoricians to claim that anyone calling for a type of Brexit that did not accord with their preferred type of Brexit (and seeking to scrutinise such alternatives) was “agitating to overturn democracy”.  
  2. Is disagreeing with Brexit now incompatible with patriotism? It’s just as feasible to assert that the hissy-fit Brexit escapade, which so far has failed to produce a single material benefit, was at best a mis-step which has had the effect of weakening Britain and creating the conditions which ensure it thereafter will be a rule-taker from the Chinese and the Americans. The hard right – like Putin  talk a great patriot game, but when you look at the effects of their actual policies, you see a very different story. The Tories currently are running Britain into the ground. And the more they do this, the more they wrap themselves in flags. In the last couple of years, no Tory minister can speak to the TV without interposing himself between a pair of Union flags. Scoundrels, last refuges etc.
Rob Mcneill-wilson
Rob Mcneill-wilson
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker
  1. Trying to prevent it being executed and prepare the ground for a return to the EU’s clutches.
  2. Yes. The stated aim of the EU was ever-closer union” i.e. the aboliion of national sopvereignty and independence and subjugation to an alien. illegitimate, corrupt, imperialist, anti-democratic, flawed and failing, 1950’s eu-experiment.
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I don’t fully agree with you on Brexit Frank, although Nigel Farage, who only seems to appear on right-wing news outlets who agree with him, is never asked about his previous support for the ‘Norway option’. Very soon after this, a bunch of Conservatives were very effective, if disingenuous, in pushing the view that the only true Brexit was a ‘hard’ one as opposed to ‘Brino’. Norway is not in the European Union!

Last edited 1 month ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I rather think that no Labour leader would ever be approved by you, in which case your assessment is hardly unbiased. Perhaps I am mistaken! Personally, I think Burnham would be significantly better, but Starmer only has to be better than the current Tory leader, whoever that might be, which appears to be getting easier and easier. Truss got next to zero ‘bounce’ from her election as Conservative leader. And why precisely have they changed their leader so many times recently? it hardly shows a party at ease with itself and secure in government. Ah, it is all because of a plot by the Remainiacs, WEF, MSM, woke, BBC, Guardian, Johnson (is he in or is he out?) etc. The endless whining is even less attractive. Margaret Thatcher it ain’t.
If you think the Tories can endlessly win on cultural issues which have little purchase amongst the general public, while having almost nothing to offer ordinary people, being all over the place on their supposed key issues such as migration and the economy, governing in an ever more chaotic and incompetent and even sleazy manner, not to mention being more and more prone to fratricide, I feel you are in for a big disappointment.
And Corbyn has gone – people have short political memories – and he can’t be used as a bogey anymore. However, given the money we’ve splurged on almost nothing useful, at least his government might have used high government spending to some tangible benefit to a greater number of people.
None of us know the future, but something has shifted, the Tories are widely felt to be awful, out of touch and incompetent. They are going down to a big defeat.

Last edited 1 month ago by Andrew Fisher
Ruud van Man
Ruud van Man
2 months ago

Is this some sort of spoof piece Mr Bastani?

N Forster
N Forster
2 months ago

“Unlike Corbyn, Miliband, Johnson and May, Starmer walks towards the fire”
Unless you ask him what a woman is? Go on Aaron. Ask him.

Glyn R
Glyn R
2 months ago

Well I guess if he succeeds, then the country must deserve another ‘dishonourable and mendacious…..utterly ruthless….even Machiavellian’ PM.
I can only hope that he doesn’t succeed because he sure doesn’t deserve to and, as lost and confused as the British people appear to be right now, I don’t want to believe that he will.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 months ago

Notwithstanding the dire polls for the Tories right now, and the outrage at Trussonomics in left leaning circles, I think the Tories will comfortably win the next election.

I’m sorry to disappoint AB, but I’ve seen this movie before.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
2 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

It depends on whether Trussonomics works. And it won’t. To be honest the red wall is gone probably anyway, the last conservative victory was based on Brexit but also the promise of levelling up the north. However much that was just lip service at least it was lip service. Truss has increased immigration targets. This isn’t why people voted Brexit, love.

Those northern voters are gone, young voters are even more gone and whomever fares worse in the economic disaster of the next few years probably won’t vote Tory.

Unfortunately that means gender wo wo but the conservatives weren’t reliable on fighting that anyway.

Farage needs a new party.

Last edited 2 months ago by Franz Von Peppercorn
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

I’m not a ‘love’.

Mark Gilmour
Mark Gilmour
1 month ago

Labour might win the next election by default but the ‘Red Wall’ voters are not switching back to Labour. Labour will bring nothing except more of the same but probably worse. There is a political vacuum to be filled but what will fill it?

Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago

I do hope that Aaron Bastani has not been paid for this pitiful nonsense.
The man’s judgement is even worse than Keir Starmer’s !
“In a position of authority” ? Seriously ? Couldn’t even fire Angela Rayner.

j watson
j watson
2 months ago

‘A sheep in sheep’s clothing’ perhaps, or maybe a ‘very modest man with much to be modest about’?
Hmm strange what happened.

N Forster
N Forster
2 months ago

“Meanwhile Labour is strapped for cash because his acolytes have harangued 200,000 people out of the party.”
So have 200,000 far left idiots gone, or is it 200,000 women who left because Starmer prefers trans rights over womens’?

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 months ago
Reply to  N Forster

Both, but the far left idiots were always a minority. Women are half the population.
I rejoined to vote for Starmer (because the Corbyn project had to be destroyed) but left again because of the gender woo woo. I shan’t vote Labour until that has been abandoned.

N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago

Me neither.

Philip Benjamin
Philip Benjamin
2 months ago

No matter who is leading Labour, the unholy rabble in the Tories are unelectable. The Trusster will be their total demise… Sorry, but your appalling attempt to demonise Starmer is all wasted

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
2 months ago

I know quite a few people who thought Jeremy Corbyn was a saint so I wonder how they feel about voting for Kier Starmer who treated Corbyn so ruthlessly.

Andy White
Andy White
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Bad, probably. But that’s how the First Past The Post party system works. The Corbyn-haters in Labour who now control the party presumably felt something similar when he was leader. And no doubt the bitter feelings that are engendered by having to support a leader you have no trust in or respect for are not completely unknown in the Tory party either.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
2 months ago
Reply to  Andy White

I’m sure you’re right about the Tories but I don’t think there’s been anything like the way Corbyn was treated. He’s been a labour member since he was 16 and a prominent and very popular member with many in the country and his party even before he became leader. Then to be utterly humiliated the way he was by Starmer must have been a major kick in the teeth to all of Corbyn’s supporters.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Apparently one of Starmers key tax initiatives is on match purchases, so it will be cheaper to buy matches to prop ones eyes open when Starmer K ing C rimplene’s oxometer is in maximum mesemerising dreone meode…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

The fact that Starmer is now showing himself to be more in tune with the British public than with nice Mr Bastani, yet another Marxist preaching a fashionable if fantastically unlikely social and economic transformation (if popular with the never-learning Left), is much in his favour. Yes, some of it is no doubt dissimulation – that is politics for you. Are we best characterised as what we say, or what we do?
What the ideologues of both Left and Right don’t often get is that we don’t turn some knobs to make society in a certain way, we can no more than influence its general direction. Society evolves and political leaders very often end up a long way from where they started. Just look at Johnson for evidence. Of course, we could alternatively have Revolution – and just look at the disasters they have always proved.