Keir Starmer has come a long way from the anti-capitalism of his youth

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·5-min read
Keir Starmer has come a long way from the anti-capitalism of his youth
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Keir Starmer was a bit of a leftie in his youth. This much is known, and two biographies of the Labour leader published over the summer provide some detail of his anti-capitalist writing for magazines called Socialist Alternatives and Socialist Lawyer in the Eighties and Nineties. Anyone who hasn’t railed embarrassingly against the unfairness of the world in their 20s and early 30s doesn’t have a heart, but what do these two books tell us about our possible future prime minister?

To begin with, neither book looks promising, because Starmer refused to have anything to do with them. One, Red Knight, by Michael Ashcroft, proudly advertises that it is The Unauthorised Biography. It is hardly surprising that Starmer told friends he “would rather they did not participate in it”. Ashcroft, the former Conservative peer and ex-deputy chair of the party, also co-wrote a hostile biography of David Cameron, Call Me Dave, which seemed to be a continuation of a feud between himself and the prime minister, so you can see why Starmer might be wary.

The other book, by journalist Nigel Cawthorne, seems to have been written partly because he went to the same school as Starmer, Reigate Grammar, but that does not seem to have persuaded Starmer to have cooperated with it. Nevertheless, both authors have done their research, and they do tell us important things about their subject.

Ashcroft may be controversial, but he has provided a valuable service to politics by paying for a huge amount of opinion polling over the past decade, and this book appears to be the product of a genuine curiosity about Starmer. He establishes that Starmer did physics, chemistry and maths at A-level, although we don’t know what grades he got. Both books dwell rather pointlessly on Reigate Grammar becoming a private school while Starmer was there, but as Starmer and his cohort were state-funded pupils all the way through, this doesn’t seem relevant. He doesn’t agree with private schooling and didn’t choose it for his children either.

Starmer’s youthful socialism is entertaining, and these books help to locate him in the party’s long march to electability. “We were radical anti-imperialist ecosocialists,” said Ben Schoendorff, the leader of the seven-member editorial team, including Starmer, 23, that ran Socialist Alternatives. The magazine was inspired by Michalis Raptis, a Greek former Trotskyist known as Pablo, whose faction, the Pabloites, wanted to broaden socialism to include feminism and green politics. The first issue was published in July 1986, proclaiming that its vision of socialism was “the generalised self-management of society as a whole”; it claimed to be “concretely working towards a radical extension of popular control over wealth and power” by integrating the traditional labour movement with “new social movements”.

Starmer’s articles in the first issue proposed trade unions having control over “industry and community”, and criticised a policy document produced by Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader: “Unfortunately, by turning back to the market economy, it misses a third alternative, that of participatory socialism based on democratic planning.”

Well, it’s a point of view, isn’t it? Even Tony Blair, when he was aged 29, wrote about how “the resources required to reconstruct manufacturing industry call for enormous state guidance and intervention. That, in turn, will bring any Labour government into sharp conflict with the power of capital, particularly multinational capital”.

Starmer’s early politics were also evident in a Socialist Lawyer article when he was a young barrister of 32, in which he said “Karl Marx was, of course, right” about the futility of trying to bring about change through abstract declarations of fundamental rights. When I wrote about this before, I said I thought this was a dry joke, but Cawthorne kindly sent me a copy of the article and Starmer (a) wasn’t joking, and (b) was sceptical about incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law – a policy that produced the Human Rights Act in Blair’s first government.

What is important, however, is how Starmer’s thinking developed. He now strongly defends the Human Rights Act, for instance. The value of these books is in telling the story of his later career. Because he wasn’t in politics, Starmer’s evolution has to be glimpsed at between legal work – Blair, on the other hand, became an MP at the age of 30, so it was easier to trace the growing confidence of his version of social democracy.

What comes through strongly is Starmer’s earnestness. He was committed to equality and the rights of the underdog, but by the time he took the position of Director of Public Prosecutions, he was clearly a reformer within the establishment rather than an outsider wanting to tear it down.

His misfortune when he became an MP was to serve under leaders who seemed to want to move in the opposite direction. I remember Blair saying of his fellow MPs when he was leader of the opposition: “You can tell the ones who had serious jobs before they came here.” Starmer was one of those, but unfortunately, he rose to the top under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, neither of whom had “serious jobs before they came here”, and both of whom made it hard for Starmer to prove that he had indeed developed from the idealistic “participatory socialism based on democratic planning” of his youth.

Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer, by Michael Ashcroft, Biteback; Keir Starmer: The Reluctant Politician, by Nigel Cawthorne, Gibson Square Books.

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