Labour Party

Slippery Starmer?

For those of us desperate for a return to serious government, the Labour leader is instinctively impressive. But the more one examines his performance, the more one questions his character

August 07, 2023
Illustration by Prospect
Illustration by Prospect

Earlier this year, a special immigration tribunal handed down a decision in the case of Shamima Begum. The background to the case is well known: aged 15, Begum had travelled from the UK to Syria to join the Islamic State. When she later resurfaced in a Syrian refugee camp—having since married an IS fighter and lost three children—the then home secretary Sajid Javid revoked her British citizenship and banned her from entering the UK. The tribunal was hearing an appeal from Begum’s lawyers: they lost. Javid was found to have acted lawfully. 

The judgement was met with outcry from human rights groups—many campaigners were aghast. But Keir Starmer seemed unmoved. Speaking to BBC Breakfast the following day, the Labour leader explained that “national security has to come first.” He supported the court’s decision.

Of the many provocative positions Starmer has taken since becoming Labour leader, this is the one I have played over the most in my head—because of the questions it raises about the moral character of the man who would be our prime minister. The court’s decision had been taken on technical legal grounds, but Starmer was free to express an abhorrence at its consequences and the fate that had befallen Begum: stranded, stateless, and making credible claims (the court’s view) to be a victim of child trafficking. Starmer is a former trailblazing human rights lawyer. He had, moreover, previously called Javid’s intervention “the wrong decision”. Now he positioned himself on the wrong side of the issue. 

Starmer had made other accommodations with power on his way to becoming director of public prosecutions—and certainly since entering frontline politics. But this struck me as rather a stark example. His personal sympathies surely lay with Begum’s cause: ensuring just outcomes for people like Begum is, one suspects, one of the reasons Starmer went into law in the first place. Yet he swallowed those sympathies because he judged it would be to his political advantage to do so.

The question of what Starmer believes has generated much discussion on the left—and right—in recent months. Since coming to office, he has infuriated Labour’s radical wing with his slow dismantling of the pledges made in his leadership campaign, during which he stressed that he would not “oversteer” away from Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist programme. Starmer initially said “public services should be in public hands”—a policy now largely consigned to the scrapheap. He promised to “support the abolition of tuition fees”; now the party is “likely to move on from that commitment.” He pledged to support freedom of movement as Britain left the EU—and has since made the opposite policy a “red line”. The latest—and one of the most controversial—U-turns came in mid-July: Starmer explained that, in government, Labour would not, as previously promised, scrap George Osborne’s notorious two-child benefit cap. Deputy leader Angela Rayner had formerly called the policy “obscene and inhumane”. And all this is to say nothing of Labour’s plans for green investment, which are difficult to keep track of but which have also been watered down.

Starmer justifies his decisions as the tough choices necessary to win an election. It is a legitimate defence. But for people like me—horrified by Boris Johnson’s career dishonesty and the accommodation the Conservative party was willing to make with it—there is an uncomfortable question lurking beneath it. For many moderates think that Starmer could represent a welcome return to serious government and are instinctively sympathetic to much of what he is trying to do. But are we hypocrites? In condemning one man’s ideological flexibility and not another’s, are we guilty of double standards, picking and choosing whom we make our demands of?

One of the defining political features of the past decade has been the decline of standards in public office. In 2016, Boris Johnson propelled the Leave campaign to victory on the basis of a false prospectus—extra largesse for the NHS being only the most egregious example. When his side had won the dishonesty became, if anything, even worse. As prime minister, Johnson lied about the content of the deal that he had struck with Europe—particularly its provisions concerning Northern Ireland—in order to win a general election, and the current government only got on top of the ensuing difficulties when it negotiated its new “Windsor Framework”. It was Johnson’s handling of the Chris Pincher affair that saw him turfed out of Number 10, but Partygate was the true nadir: a carnival of depravity. The Privileges Committee of the House of Commons found Johnson had deliberately misled MPs over the illicit gatherings and would have subjected him to a 90-day suspension, had he still been a member of parliament. 

For those who care about the health of British democracy, Johnson’s premiership was a low point—and, for his opponents, radicalising. Many eminent people have argued that the overriding imperative now is to fortify British politics against wrongdoing by future rogues, rewiring the system to ensure leaders are bound to govern with integrity and are held accountable if they don’t. For if the public cannot believe the statements made to them by politicians, then the bond of trust between the governing and the governed will start to break down, with troubling consequences for the way the country works. 

But still I find myself tempted to grant Starmer some latitude. There are, of course, profound differences between Starmer and Johnson—they are fundamentally different characters. Starmer has an impressive record of public service on his CV; Boris Johnson was fired from a newspaper for fabricating quotes. Their dishonesty is of a different kind and on a different scale: Johnson was guilty of unequivocally lying in office, whereas Starmer is shifting his position over time—he has surely misled one group or another, but he hasn’t been caught arguing that black is white in the same way that Johnson (repeatedly) has. Starmer’s supporters will claim that he laid out his ambitious agenda in good faith; it’s simply that he’s had to park the most radical elements in response to the worsening economic gloom.

The constitutional context is also different. The decision to leave the EU was a fundamental constitutional change which could plausibly be argued to demand higher standards from the politicians who advocated for it. It was going to take years to unpick our relationship with Europe and, if we ever decided to go back in, years to renegotiate entry. It would change not just policy but the way policy was made. It required leaders to rise above party-political divides and their own self-interest to reflect honestly on the country’s role in the world. It was too important for anything else. 

The Labour leader has misrepresented his position to the party, or to the country, or both

Westminster politics, by contrast, has always been a stage for spin and exaggeration. Politicians make pledges during the campaign that they have no intention of keeping—and sometimes the voters even know they have no intention of keeping them. If politicians deliver something wildly different to what they promised, then the system is built to self-correct in five years’ time—voters will boot them out of office. The starkest recent example of this would be Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, who failed to stick to their own pledge to abolish tuition fees and lost all but eight of their 57 MPs in the subsequent general election. It is in this context that Starmer is campaigning.

But is he being held to lower standards all the same? The Labour leader misrepresented his position to the party electorate when he stood to be party leader, or he is misrepresenting his position to the country in his campaign to become prime minister, or some combination of both. As his programme drifts further and further to the right, the Labour left—and increasingly Labour moderates—reassure one another that it’s okay, because he doesn’t really mean it. He will course-correct once in power. But is it healthy for the future of our country to be built on a hope that the next prime minister is lying through his teeth? 

Another argument is that the ends justify the means—the UK is in such bad shape that a change of government is the overriding imperative. It almost doesn’t matter how Labour gets there, so long as it does. But that is definitely double standards: a Dominic Cummings-esque line of reasoning that, rather than presenting a transparent case to the people for what you believe and letting them decide—in his case, ripping up the way the sclerotic British state functions and installing a maverick, hyper-innovative cabal with him at the helm—you ought to win by any means possible and then use the mandate for your own purposes. We didn’t think that was OK when he did it. Nor would we have any time for a Leaver arguing that Brexit was so obviously the best thing for the country that it was acceptable to lie about the £350m for the NHS. We would tell them that, if their prospectus was the right one, they should have made it in good faith and trusted voters to make an informed decision. 

And what is Starmer’s prospectus? Is it the small-c conservative politics he is pushing now—with an overwhelming emphasis on security, tradition, patriotism? The question is not whether that programme would be the right for one for the country, but whether it is an honest one. In 2001, after New Labour won its second landslide victory, a party figure went up to Tony Blair and asked whether, now they’d won again, they could abandon the New Labour centrism and move to the left? “It’s worse than you think”, Blair replied: “I really do believe in it.” Does Keir Starmer?