Voices: Starmer Chameleon is becoming increasingly Blairite – which is a good thing
You have to admire Keir Starmer’s ambition. He wants to fight the 1945, 1964 and 1997 elections all at once. “In 2024 it will have to be all three,” he told a nonplussed Progressive Britain conference at the TUC’s Congress House today.
What he meant was that Labour will have to recover from the trauma of coronavirus, which was like a war, modernise the economy as Harold Wilson tried to do, and save the public services. Not only that, he needs to be Neil Kinnock and John Smith combined, plus he will pretend to be Tony Blair as well (if that is the sort of thing you like).
He aims to achieve in four years what it took Kinnock, Smith and Blair to do in 14, from the depths of defeat in 1983. He needs to be like Kinnock, coming from the left to drag the party back to the median voter; he needs to be like Smith, offering reassurance, one more heave and mainstream Labour values; and he needs to sound like Blair, because the party knows in its heart of hearts that that is the only way to win.
Rhetorically, he has to complete a longer journey across the political spectrum than the three of them together. He started further to the so-called left than Kinnock, as a qualified supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Kinnock was never even a qualified supporter of Tony Benn, for example. And today Starmer ended up trying to position himself as more Blairite than Blair.
He described the task facing him as “Clause Four on steroids”, which is a strange analogy as well as a terrible cliche, because he is not proposing to rewrite any clauses of the Labour Party’s constitution. But we know what he means: the depths from which the party has to recover are greater than those from which Blair lifted it.
And we know what he is trying to do: trying to claim the territory where Blair would now be – always pushing further away from the assumptions of the Labour tribe.
It was an interesting speech, and that is not something you hear often about Starmer’s output. It was indeed Blairite in that it contained an argument, which is rare enough in any politician these days. The last time I heard an argument in a politician’s speech was when John Hayes, then a transport minister, called for beauty in transport.
Starmer’s argument was equally unexpected: that the Conservatives were doing conservatism all wrong. He urged his audience to recognise “working people’s need for stability, for order, security”. It was a classic Blairite triangulation, claiming that Labour can deliver conservative values better than the government: “We must understand that there are precious things – in our way of life, in our environment, in our communities – that it is our responsibility to protect and preserve, to pass on to future generations.”
He said he didn’t care if that sounded conservative: “Somebody has got to stand up for the things that make this country great and it isn’t going to be the Tories.” Strange thing, politics, because nobody clapped, even though it was a good line and this was a gathering of the Blairite faction that used to be called Progress. That may be because you cannot surprise people twice, or it may be because they don’t believe that he really is going “further and deeper than New Labour’s rewriting of Clause Four”.
We know now more about what Starmer is not. His speech included a reference to Jeremy Corbyn, admitting that some people think he is “distancing ourselves from the previous regime”, and adding: “We are.”
But we also know that he is not a Blairite. Blair wouldn’t tax private school fees and he didn’t abolish non-dom status. Starmer has little interest in the mechanics of public service reform: in that respect he is like Blair before Blair became prime minister. It is telling that Starmer takes inspiration from Clause Four, an argument about words in opposition, rather than, say, using the private sector in the NHS, a lesson for government.
What we know, increasingly, is that Starmer is consistent in one thing: he will say whatever it takes to win. When Corbyn was leader, Starmer said what he had to say to “maintain my political viability within the system”, in Bill Clinton’s immortal words explaining why he accepted the draft while opposing the Vietnam war. When Corbyn stopped being leader, Starmer said what he had to say to win the leadership. Ever since then he has, bit by bit, said what he needs to say to win the general election, which is very different.
As I say, you have to admire the ambition. You cannot help but be struck by the ruthlessness. He is not a Blairite, but he knows he has to pretend to be to win, which is almost as good.
I say that not just as a Blairite but as a democrat: what democracy needs, ideally, is people who believe in the right things and who have the ability to make change happen.
But such people are rare, and the next best thing is people who will say what it takes to win, because that way the people will get what they vote for. And the people are usually right.