Christened by working class parents to commemorate the Labour founder, Keir Hardie, the young Starmer trod an upward mobile professional journey through grammar school, redbrick university, and Oxbridge into select Bar Chambers. Becoming a doughty legal defender of organised strikers, anti-capitalist campaigners and death row inmates, he then ‘took silk’ as a QC, providing a pathway to his appointment Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008 – an establishment role he excelled in, exhibiting rationality and competence tinged with radicalism.
Succeeding Frank Dobson – a former Health Secretary but unsuccessful first Labour London Mayoralty candidate – to the inner city, and still largely working class, safe seat of St.Pancras, Starmer quickly but quietly learnt his Westminster ropes. In October 2016, Jeremy Corbyn appointed him Shadow Brexit Secretary – an appointment based not on political affinity, but on a recognition that his skill profile best matched the requirements of the post, surmounting concerns within Corbyn’s inner circle that it would simply provide Starmer with a stage for a continuing audition for the top job.
Which it did. By far the most effective Shadow performer in the Commons, Starmer effectively critiqued the Brexit position of both May and Johnson governments. Elected Labour leader in April 2020 at the height of the first Covid wave, he soon established himself as a measured but effective leader of the opposition, whose gravitas contrasted sharply and favourably with both a Prime Minister almost habitually reliant on bluster and boosterism and with a predecessor invariably out of his depth at the dispatch box.
But doubts began to surface that Labour’s new leader, while brilliant at discharging a brief and in forensically unpicking an opponent’s case, lacked the ability to create and personify a political counter narrative that could resonate within, yet alone beyond, Westminster. It was also noted that his six Brexit tests and espousal of a ‘People’s Vote’ had proved counter-productive in political and economic outcome terms. After a honeymoon period, apart from taking the whip away from Corbyn, his leadership style was characterised by caution and indecision with a proclivity to tack to the prevailing wind of the day in a way that often smacked more of tactical opportunism than strategic vision.
Since 1945 only three Labour leaders, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair have won electoral power at Westminster – all following a long hiatus for Labour in Opposition. The first two did so not by dint of their personalities but rather by their ability to manage and to link a desire for change within the population, the last by a more presidential project that personified ‘New’ Labour’s colonisation of the centreground.
The December 2019 Tory capture of ‘Red Wall’ seats won with an enlarged working-class support base, along with the party’s practical collapse in Scotland, means that to become the fourth, Starmer – discounting a return of a substantial number of SNP seats in Scotland back to Labour – must secure the largest ever electoral swing that Labour has ever achieved in England of over 12% compared to 10.7% in 1945.
Has Starmer really got what it must take to overcome not only that unprecedented electoral challenge – likely to be compounded by boundary changes favouring the Conservatives – but also concurrently the immense structural social democratic wider political challenge of reconciling necessary fiscal and political responsibility with the accommodation of ever-rising rising demand and need for increased health, social care, and education social expenditure, on top of equitable social security reform – the true underlying fiscal crisis of the state – as well as the secular tendency for education and age rather than social class associational factors to determine voting behaviour, requiring the cultural and the economic to be ever finely balanced in political calculation.
In the short term, policy reviews and prescriptions can wait. Starmer must first build a sustainable value base that can support and illuminate a coherent overarching political strategy chiming with majority concerns covering affordable housing, quality neighbourhood schools, and the building safe and secure communities endowed with well-paid jobs, that some of the more thoughtful members of his Shadow Cabinet, like Rachel Reeves, have begun to build.
Starmer cannot recreate Blair’s presentational elan, but he can mesh such a strategic framework to his personal back story: the son of a disabled mother and toolmaker father who forged a successful career by hard work and application, subsequently marked by public service. He should dare the Mail and Telegraph to sneer at such an epitome of Middle England endeavour and aspiration for honest and in the scheme of things modest material reward.
Starmer as a person and Starmerism as a political project should be joined and projected, linking, by way of contrast, the entitlement and real elitism of the Prime Minister’s back story to his opportunistic and hollow ‘chancer’ policies.
A case in point is the Johnson’s government’s Levelling Up agenda. It relies upon a mix of big ticket and local bus depot-type infrastructural projects with thinly spread centrally determined funding-streams, themselves subject to manipulation for party political advantage. Starmer must seize as Labour’s own, the emerging overlapping consensus, manifested recently by Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane speaking on behalf of the soon to be defunct Industrial strategy council, that sustained local growth needs to be rooted in local strategies, covering not only infrastructure, but skills, sectors, education and culture, measured by defined understandable transformational outcomes: improved educational attainment and opportunity, the generation of new and well-paying jobs, and the spread and mainstreaming of affordable housing.
He will also need to tap an enlarged fiscal space for government borrowing, evidenced by Biden’s Stimulus and Climate Change Package, taking the opportunity to be both bold and lucky, as Johnson did to combine ‘ getting Brexit done’ with electoral success. Unlike Johnson, he also must be honest and straight-talking about linking future social benefit and justice to contribution. It is not just about the economy, but also about values and vision. The policies will follow.