The Labour leader is a ruthless pragmatist
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.