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The Meaning of Keir Starmer
When Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party, the commentariat acquired an idée fixe. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee described him as a ‘trusted, tried-and-tested, big-brained grown-up’; the Telegraph’s Tom Harris touted the return of ‘grown-up politics’; the Independent editors applauded his ‘grown-up debating style’. Ian Dunt expressed his relief that ‘finally, there’s a grown-up in charge’, while Pippa Crerar listed Sir Keir’s best qualities: ‘serious, forensic, grown-up’. Of course, any candidate from outside the Corbyn faction would have been similarly aureoled. But the discourse of adulthood was particularly apt for Starmer – and not just because of his tailored suits or sculpted haircut. Its proponents seemed to recognise that the primary function of the ‘grown-up’, in this instance, was to rein in childish fantasies: to enforce the reality principle, to stabilise the symbolic order. This was the punitive parent, who reaffirms the limits of desire when they’ve been transgressed.
During his stint as Director of Public Prosecutions, from 2008 to 2013, Starmer played this role for much of Britain. After the 2011 riots he dispensed harsh justice to alleged looters; at the height of student activism he altered prosecution guidelines to criminalise protesters. Now, having ascended to the Labour leadership, he would redeploy the same skill set by foreclosing another disruptive episode in British history and disciplining those responsible.
Such is the politics of the superego, variously described in psychoanalytic literature as the father or the police. Crowds of free young things once chanted for Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury, revelling in the twin irresponsibilities of youth and old age. In those two times of joy that sandwich the mature years of hard work, Corbyn represented student radicalism and grandfatherly tenderness; his election pledges were like ‘ice cream’, as Conservative former Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, put it. Corbyn promised treats, guilty pleasures. The years 2015–20 in Labour Party politics could now be cast in the Starmerite imaginary as a failure of restraint and the free play of desire – for communal luxury and anticolonial freedom, against the discipline of the boss and the imperial state. The moral fable to which the Labour Right cleaves, where such things must lead to election defeats, attains its power from combining an image of liberty, or license, with danger. Labour members pursuing policies they like are akin to children in a sweet shop, encouraged by a carefree elderly Santa, before getting sick on all that sugar. The 2019 general election defeat was thereby stripped of its specificity (the Brexit crisis, and the new hegemonic blocs of rightwing populism) and forced to fit this general schema.
Starmer had trialled his countervailing claim to discipline in the 2020 leadership election, but he played it softly then. The first nine of Starmer’s ten pledges were designed to reassure Labour members that he would deliver hard work and so election success without abandoning too markedly their policy ambitions. But in the last of his pledges he promised a ‘professional election operation’, in an implicit swipe at Corbynite immaturity. He swore to be ‘forensic’ in challenging the government, nurturing an image of the careful, hardworking lawyer against the emotional, megaphone-wielding militant. This was the leitmotif, although its implications were initially denied. But having run for the leadership as a human rights lawyer, his 2021 conference speech stressed instead his role as a prosecutor, claiming that the three words ‘Crown Prosecution Service’ all but define him. ‘Three very important words’, he said: loyalty to the crown, to hierarchy and the nation; the love of punishment, of just desserts to restore a moral balance when infractions have been committed; and the claim that this is all work and no fun. Social-democratic politics is the politics of the state apparatus against libertines on the Right and Left.
That compound signals something quite distinctive, and it discloses truths about our moment. The Labour Right has always defined itself negatively, against current images of radicalism. In the 1990s free markets were crucial to discrediting a socialist vocabulary. Everything should be rebuilt in their image, said New Labour; public services must be taught the rigours of competition. The economy became the primary battleground, and Tony Blair’s early language of ‘responsibility’ was designed, pace Bill Clinton, as a slick retort to the Right that avoided traditional radicalism. Their soft communitarianism pushed back against Gordon Gekko and the free-wheeling capitalist buccaneers of the 1980s, while the choice to speak of ‘duties’ and ‘obligations’ to the collective simultaneously created a political language for punishing the poor. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) soon followed, along with CCTV cameras and panics about benefit fraud and asylum scroungers, which sought to justify the degrading policies of welfare discipline and incarceration for refugees.
This is an important episode in the genealogy of Starmerism, but today’s enemy is not Bennite nationalisation but Corbynite anti-imperialism. That was the abiding charge against the Labour leader in both the 2017 and 2019 elections: Corbyn was a traitor to the nation, a cosmopolitan. He was not a dinosaur pitted against the modernity of the City, which is how New Labour had framed old trade union leaders; Corbyn was instead an alien against the traditional values of those northern ‘red wall’ voters whom New Labour rhetoric had more easily castigated. Economic policy remains a site of contestation under Starmer because his office includes hold-outs from the Blairite past, whose nostalgia is potent. But, overall, geopolitics has ascended in importance as an ideological dividing line. Against this backdrop, the model character for the Third Way has shifted from the entrepreneur to the police.
In his staged photo opportunities, Starmer often resembles the grisly detective of countless ITV dramas. The policeman hunts rich and poor alike when they break rules set by something grander: the British state. When the erstwhile Foreign Secretary David Owen split from a leftwing Labour Party in 1981, he proclaimed that his two great loves were the NHS and NATO; Starmer now says the same. This is politics not for the 1990s – the supposed end of history and the years of capitalist vanity – but for our present: a time of anxiety, when the party of order preaches stability. ‘Safety First’, said Stanley Baldwin in 1929, leading the first Conservative election campaign after the general strike. Starmer’s attempt to vanquish the ghosts of Corbynism is something similar, with themes of loyalty and tradition welded to that abiding form of power which Corbyn had been thought to threaten: ‘the West’, and its protective comforts, from bombs and borders to old-fashioned high streets and old-fashioned gender pronouns. It is a politics of loyalty to civilisation, tout court.
What can explain Starmer’s victory? The need to install a professional punisher in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office was partly motivated by sadism: the extreme centre wanted revenge for the near-destruction of its consensus over the past half-decade. But a more developed instinct, on both sides of the party, was masochism. In the run up to the 2019 election, the Left – emboldened by the memory of 2017 – overestimated its ability to defy political gravity. It believed that a set of unfavourable circumstances (a hostile media, a split base, a revitalised Toryism) could be reshaped by a strong-willed campaign. Discussions at The World Transformed forecast the programme of an incoming Corbyn government, creating an intoxicating sense of agency and possibility. In the event, though, the barriers to socialism could not be cleared by canvassing alone. Reflecting on the defeat in Futures of Socialism, Lola Seaton recalls
a feeling of bathos and quasi-embarrassment at the seeming futility and deludedness of the campaigning effort – an effort that had felt all-important, pivotal. Perhaps also the faint feeling of having been misled, or led on … The analogy that comes to mind is the self-loathing that can greet you the morning after a party at which you were too chatty.
This guilty retrospection – the Left’s realisation that its perspective had been distorted by an excess of enthusiasm – set the terms for the 2020 leadership contest. If Corbyn’s followers had disconnected from reality, they needed a successor who would bring them down to earth. When the ballot was held that April, some 40 per cent of them spurned the socialist candidate and voted for the Queen’s Counsel.
Put another way, the 2019 election had caused Corbynites to internalise the accusation – made by Grayling among others – of infantilism. The Left had failed to appreciate the constraints of the external world, attempted to impose their will upon it, and felt its blunt resistance. In that moment of defeat, their illusion of omnipotence had vanished. Yet, as Melanie Klein tells us, failure to properly mourn such lost omnipotence can affect psychic development. Ideally, the child would accept the world’s refusal to bend to her will without giving up on it. She would lay the foundations for adulthood by adapting her desire to this recalcitrant reality. But when that process goes awry, her sense of plenitude is replaced by pure aggression. The child feels intense frustration toward the object, usually a parent, who misled her into believing she was all-powerful. When this object of frustration is introjected, self-loathing ensues. Bathos breeds masochism. The child swings from attacking the mother for convincing her she could have everything she wanted, to attacking herself for being stupid enough to believe this was the case.
Although Starmer’s leadership campaign pitched left, it also spoke to Corbynites’ impulse to narrow their horizons in the name of growing up. It posited a binary separation of politics from professionalism that assured them that embracing the latter didn’t mean drastically altering the former. Yet the hope generated by this assurance always jostled with an element of doubt. Though the new layer of Momentum-Starmerites explicitly bought into this dichotomy, they implicitly belied it by seeking to adapt their principles to Starmer’s respectable image: repudiating the 2019 manifesto for a hazier commitment to anti-austerity politics; steering Labour toward ‘moral socialism’ (and away from its ‘ideological’ antinomy); and abandoning solidarity with Palestine. More than any other policy, Starmer’s inflexible support for Israeli apartheid signalled that, although he would ease a socialist conscience on issues like tuition fees, painful accommodations would also have to be made. Since pain was seen as just recompense for a period of excessive pleasure, this only increased the candidate’s appeal. His ‘tough line on antisemitism’ was not just a tacit capitulation to the establishment that had sledgehammered the previous leadership; it also reflected Corbynites’ wish to bring that sledgehammer down upon themselves. The following October, Starmer would exploit this issue to banish his predecessor from the parliamentary Party and suspend anyone who stood in solidarity with him.
A similar structure of desire was discernible on Labour’s Blairite flank. Toynbee and her colleagues had spent the previous years denouncing Corbyn for his stance on the European question and demanding he back a second referendum to reverse the 2016 vote. When they finally got their way, the outcome was electoral supremacy for Johnson and a guaranteed hard-Brexit: one of the most spectacular own-goals in British political history. Like their Corbynite opponents, the ultra-Remainers believed they could overturn an objective reality only to find it forcefully reasserted. They could have subsequently rallied behind a candidate who would campaign to rejoin the EU; but instead they accepted Starmer’s declaration that ‘The Leave–Remain debate is over’ and jettisoned the cosmopolitan reflexes they had supposedly been defending, at all costs, against Brexiteers on both sides of the aisle. In the early days of Starmer’s leadership, the most strident Europhiles endorsed his view that the route to power involved a full-scale Blue Labourite renovation (waving the flag, fortifying the borders, praising the troops and the police). Of course, this volte-face proved that the Remainers were never faithful to their internationalist self-image. After Corbyn’s departure, they found that the dreaded EU-exit was easier to swallow now that normalcy had been restored. Yet, much like the Labour Left, they were also forced to abandon the political identity they had formed over the past five years: marching in the streets, swimming against the tide, working to prevent a seemingly inevitable outcome in the name of decency and common sense. So, just as Corbynites diluted their leftism, Remainers parted with their liberalism. This, too, became a matter of maturity – of recognising that one can’t always get what one wants.
Hence, when the newly elected Starmer set out his plan for a ‘constructive opposition’ that would resile from making ‘impossible demands’, it resonated across the party. Starmer repeatedly intimated that the Tories’ electoral success was just recompense for Labour’s hubris. His antidote to such delusions of grandeur would be a scrupulous reticence, enacted through the strategy of parliamentary abstention. Silence, inertia, refusal to take a stance (though still appearing beside a Union Jack wherever possible) became his modus operandi. In an interview with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Starmer described his own passage from childhood to adulthood as a process of gradually shedding knowledge. ‘I started by thinking I had all the answers. And as I’ve grown up, I’ve learnt the power of saying, I don’t know.’ Whereas the Corbyn movement and the People’s Vote campaign both suffered from a surplus of self-confidence, Starmerism would replace it with a deficit. The overload of cathexis seen in 2019 would be offset by psychic withdrawal.
Yet Starmer did not entirely eradicate the Labour Party’s pretensions to knowledge; he merely displaced them. If 2019 was an experience of symbolic castration, the locus of phallic power was relocated to the most electorally decisive region: the ‘red wall’. If the thought-world of leftists and liberals had become detached from the real one, the North of England came to represent the hard truths they had forgotten or repressed. Starmer enjoined Labour members to accept that they knew nothing while the Workington Man knew everything. The task of mature politics was to outsource decision-making to this sujet supposé savoir (the subject supposed to know), whose views could be ascertained by various methods: focus groups, surveys, consultations, ‘listening exercises’. An internal restructure in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (LOTO) aimed to streamline these techniques. Teams of professional pollsters and expert advisers were hired to put the party in touch with popular sentiment. Shadow ministers were told to refrain from making any intervention that wasn’t first approved by this cadre of soothsayers. Starmer refused to sign-off on everyday decisions – some as innocuous as the podium design for the party conference – before they went through several rounds of focus grouping with ex-Labour voters. This was a consolidation of the trend that Joe Kennedy diagnosed as authentocracy, in which centrist politics performatively grounds itself in the presumed opinions of an ‘ordinary person’. The masochism of the Starmer project, caused by its introjection of a ‘bad object’ after the 2019 election, was counterbalanced by this projection of a ‘good object’ – absolute knowledge, authentic reality – in the form of the ordinary ‘red wall’ voter.
Labour’s authentocratic turn was intended to be an advance on both Blairism and Corbynism. Its intellectual impetus was provided by LOTO policy director Claire Ainsley, whose 2018 book, The New Working Class, laid the foundation for Starmer’s electoral strategy. In it, Ainsley acknowledges that Blairism contributed to the sundering of proletarian communities and erosion of the party’s traditional base. Yet she rejects the idea that Corbynism could recompose that constituency, since its ‘class warfare narrative’ and ‘ideological view of the state’ were alien to ordinary people. Instead of promoting such passé perspectives, she argues, Labour should ‘start with what the public think’ – scientifically determining their ‘core values’ and crafting policies that chime with them. This mimetic approach would repair the damage done by the New Labour period without reverting to Old Labour principles. The technocratic ethos of Blairism would be retained, but its function would be altered. Rather than using technical expertise to guide policymaking, its sole purpose would be to create a political communications operation capable of reconnecting the party with its erstwhile supporters. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush explained in September 2020, Starmer’s Labour
is not a loose coalition of social liberals, big-city progressives and some trade unions. Labour is a party of the labour interest, of working people and the trade unions movement. It is this Labour Party’s desire to revive that historic identity that distinguishes it both from its recent Corbynite past and its electorally successful New Labour days. It’s not just victory Starmer aims for, but to save Labour as we know it.
A reversion to Labour’s authentic roots and a step beyond its two most recent iterations; a grand restoration and a modernising project; a return to the past that propels one into the future, as in any productive psychoanalytic session. This was what Ainsley’s ‘values-led politics’ promised. Yet this was not what it delivered.
Not long into his leadership, Starmer consistently trailed the Tories in the polls and his approval ratings sank below Corbyn’s. As it turned out, basing Labour’s positions on focus-group chatter caused the party to disappear from view. With no distinctive message of his own, and a jumble of contradictory opinions emanating from LOTO’s survey data, Starmer failed to intervene in the news cycle or challenge Johnson at the dispatch box. Sympathetic media outlets became sceptical. His former staffer Tom Kibasi noted that ‘letting randomly selected members of the public set the political tone is followership, not leadership.’ Indeed, while Starmer’s renunciation of political agency had initially been viewed as a mark of maturity, it ultimately reduced him to a state of childlike dependence. Party officials reported that, when asked to make important judgement calls, the leader would become paralytically indecisive – dodging the question, changing his mind, soliciting endless advice from aides. Adult restraint collapsed into regressive helplessness. Starmer’s supposedly pragmatic politics, which spurned abstract ideals for constructive opposition, left him static and immobile. He could not decide anything for himself; he was totally reliant on the subject supposed to know.
Starmer has found it difficult to escape this cycle of dependence because he cannot comprehend a crucial therapeutic insight: that the subject supposed to know knows nothing. Often, an analytic breakthrough comes when the patient realises that the Other to whom she has delegated her authority (or knowledge, or desire) is illusory: an empty signifier. This revelation allows her to take responsibility for her own desire, which is thereby transformed from a conduit for the Other’s will into what Lacan calls ‘decided desire’ or ‘determined desire’. When her experience is no longer mediated by the subject supposed to know, its possibilities are expanded. Dependence is supplanted by autonomy. And that, for Lacanians, is the real meaning of adulthood, although most adults never achieve it. In political terms, this would mean an acknowledgement that the all-knowing ‘ordinary voter’ is a fantasy; that ‘core values’ are unstable and contestable; and that one must have the courage to express one’s own convictions in the hope that they might alter other people’s. In short, it would mean a willingness to engage in the struggle for hegemony, to push the boundaries of acceptable opinion.
But because that model is anathema to Starmer – a career bureaucrat whose inclination has always been to serve the regnant order – he has no choice but to continue seeking answers from the Other. Since the Other is an illusion, this search is both futile and interminable. It will never produce a platform that reflects the views of an authentic political subject. By relying on so-called ‘value statements’ gleaned from high street vox-pops, Starmer risked aiding the government by amplifying its talking-points. That much became clear when the leader faced his first electoral test in spring 2021. The Hartlepool by-election on 6 May saw Labour lose a northern seat it had held for six decades with a significant swing to the Conservatives. In local elections on the same day, eight councils switched hands and more than 300 Labour councillors were ejected. Voters who had abandoned the party cited its apparent lack of direction. John McDonnell complained that the abstentionist strategy had sent candidates into their constituencies ‘almost naked without a policy programme’.
Starmer immediately embarked on a ‘listening tour of Britain’. Yet this latest consultative exercise merely highlighted the flaws in Ainsley’s method. On the one hand, Starmer was meant to act as a cypher for the public – a task that required him to silently assimilate their views without imposing his own. On the other, he had remade his party as a comms machine: its Community Organising Unit had been disbanded, its link to the labour movement severed, and absent such participation in working-class struggles, it could do nothing but preach to its target demographics. The inherent reticence of Starmerism was at odds with its singular emphasis on political discourse as a substitute for political activity. Starmer was both a mute object onto which working-class people were supposed to project their desires, and a speaking subject who would render them sufficiently enlightened to vote Labour. Expected to simultaneously say nothing and say something, his disquisitions grew ever more phatic, torpid, vacant.
Struggling to regain momentum, Starmer accelerated two extant tendencies within the party. First, he strengthened LOTO’s ties with the Blairite old guard. The leader’s inner circle – comprised of young, inexperienced staffers carried over from his time as shadow Brexit secretary – was thought to have misread the public mood, and needed to be replaced by a set of strategists who had proved their oracular credentials. The shadow cabinet and LOTO were reshuffled to promote New Labour heirlooms; advisory roles were handed to Mandelson and Blair; Lord Falconer was drafted in to give Starmer a series of economics-for-beginners tutorials. Sir Keir vowed to learn the art of electioneering from those with a demonstrable capacity to interpret the desire of the Other. Henceforth, Starmerism relinquished any claim to be a novel or progressive phenomenon: while it had originally conceived of itself as a plan to ‘save Labour’ from both the disenchantment wrought by Blairism and the ideological aberrance of Corbynism, Starmer now recognised that this attempt to articulate a unique historical project had run aground. The only way to access public opinion and overturn Tory ascendance was, it seemed, to recapitulate the winning method of 1997, 2001 and 2005. Having accepted the criticism that an emphasis on values left the party bereft of concrete policies, Starmer launched a sweeping policy review, overseen by Mandelson, which produced several carbon-copies of New Labourite initiatives. A rehashed ASBO programme would increase the police presence in working-class communities and ramp up penalties for ‘crimes perceived as low-level’; private investment would be welcomed in public services including the NHS; and the party would commit itself to fiscal restraint. Many of these pledges consciously recycled the terminology once used by Blair and Brown. Yet again, grown-up politics began to look like a regression.
The second, related tendency entrenched by the Hartlepool result was Starmer’s war on the Left. Beforehand, the leader said privately that he was open to restoring the Labour whip to Corbyn; afterwards, he made it clear that this would never happen. Previously, his assault on socialists was presented as a crusade against antisemitism; but during the second year of his tenure its factional motives were openly stated, as expulsions targeted members with vague connections to ‘proscribed’ Trotskyist grouplets. Corbyn supporters were barred from standing for elected positions within the party, many of them suspended with no explanation in the run-up to key votes. In a sense this crackdown was a rational manoeuvre: since Labour was determined to reflect mainstream opinion, any faction distorting this reflection had to be marginalised. The party could not passively conform to voters’ values so long as it contained a bloc that was trying actively to influence them. Moreover, by mid-2021 Starmer was widely perceived as a political featherweight – lacking both the communicative ability and societal vision of his Blairite mentors – and needed to salvage his reputation. In this context, the former DPP could play to his managerial-bureaucratic strengths by sharpening his focus on internal party mechanisms. If his media standing had been weakened, he could restore it through a staged confrontation with his leftwing rivals. Come autumn, Starmer had rigged future leadership elections to prevent socialist candidates from running and approved a plan, long advocated by the Right, to cut almost a third of Labour’s workforce, so as to clear out unsympathetic staffers in its Southside headquarters. This administrative shakeup, combined with a narrow by-election victory in Batley and Spen, pleased the press and granted him a reprieve.
Even so, for the remainder of 2021 Starmer remained incapable of fulfilling the hopes that he inspired. His pivot to full-scale factional warfare was briefly useful to project a strongman image, but in the final calculus it proved self-sabotaging. Although his Blairite confidants had demanded a clear-out of Labour’s leftists, this campaign paradoxically showed up the gulf between Blairism and Starmerism, despite the attempts of the latter to emulate the former. At the height of his popularity, Blair hammered home the cultural distinctions between Labour and the Tories: modern/outdated, permissive/intolerant, Europeanist/Little Englander. His main rhetorical target was always the Conservatives. Starmer, however, sought to minimise the contrast between the two parties – going easy on the government while throttling his internal opposition. Peter Oborne lamented that because Starmer ‘appears to see his task as waging war on his own party … Britain has been left without an opposition to one of the ugliest governments in our democratic history’. His single-minded attack on the Left demonstrated that, unlike Blair, he had no modernising ambition, no insurgent energy, no contemporary equivalent to the discourse of ‘responsibility’. Whereas Blair presented the Tories as an anachronism holding back Britain’s potential, the extent of Starmer’s project was a Long Nineties revival that sought merely to unravel Corbyn’s legacy. It was reactionary in the purest sense. Yet in trying to regress to the Blair era, Starmer relinquished the forward-looking elements that constituted Blairism. His duplication of the New Labour style extinguished its original élan. The difference was inscribed in the act of repetition.
Starmer’s authentocratic politics were marked by a parallel contradiction. His declaration that Labour would start ‘facing the public’, ‘looking outward’, ‘stop talking amongst ourselves and start talking to ordinary people’, became impossible to reconcile with his relentless efforts to stoke intra-party conflict. Initially, he could claim he was ‘getting his house in order’ before setting out his stall with the electorate. But after months of petty provocations to the Left, it was obvious that this process had no end-point. As the Labour leadership devised ever more gratuitous ways to torment its opponents (such as sending emails in the middle of the night placing members under investigation for unspecified breaches of conduct), top-down punishment began to seem like an end in itself – autotelic rather than teleological. This was no longer a step toward electability, but a purification ritual. Not war as politics by other means, but war as hygiene.
By September 2021 Starmer appeared to recognise, on some level, that the ordinary voter at the centre of Ainsley’s approach was an ideological fiction; but rather than rethink his strategy, he responded with an outburst of rage. Impotent to access the subject supposed to know, Starmer instead sought violent consolation for its absence in the form of a never-ending purge. This was the analysand who lashes out at the analyst’s silence; the patient who, rather than confront his own imperfect desire, scapegoats someone else for his frustration. In Kleinian terms, it was the paranoid-schizoid subject who preserves his ideal phantasy-object by constructing a negative counterpart against which it can be contrasted. If Starmerism viewed the ‘red wall’ voter as the good object, the Corbynite Left became the bad one which blocked access to it. Labour politics was therefore conceived as a Manichean struggle against the corrupting object, whose stubborn persistence necessitated increasingly granular and obsessive forms of suppression. Starmer’s decision to let internecine battles dominate his first in-person party conference would, wrote Oborne, have struck any outsider as an ‘insane dereliction of duty’. Yet by this time Starmer was no longer primarily concerned with the outsider’s perspective. The aspiring authentocrat was willing to indefinitely defer his pitch to the public until Labour was properly cleansed.
Thus, almost two years on from the general election, Starmer’s leadership was defined by a double betrayal. First he betrayed his ten pledges on the grounds that Labour could only reconnect with popular opinion through an unapologetic Blairite throwback. Then he betrayed this revivalist programme through an all-consuming campaign against internal dissent. What remained of Starmerism after these broken promises? Simply this: the masochistic impulse that conditioned it from the start. In his long-winded Fabian Society pamphlet The Road Ahead, intended to set out his core principles, Starmer continually circled back to the values of hard work and self-sacrifice. His conference speech likewise glorified the difficulty of proletarian life, citing his parents’ experience as a nurse and a toolmaker. When Starmer made policy interventions, they were typically negative ones: against public ownership, against stimulus spending, against the Green New Deal. The former prosecutor felt most comfortable when telling us what we could not do, or have, or hope for. If Starmerism failed to meet the expectations of its supporters, Left and Right, this merely affirmed its governing logic, since it was founded on the pledge to puncture illusions and lower expectations after the 2019 fiasco. Contra the lofty register of Corbynism and Blairism, Starmer increasingly invoked the modest, conservative language of low-church Labourism.
Predictably, this discourse had little resonance compared to Johnson’s bullish rhetoric. Whereas Starmer attempted to foreclose political possibilities, Johnson sought to expand them with the aspiration to ‘level-up’. While Starmer withdrew from the struggle for hegemony, Johnson leapt into it, attempting to shape the nation’s values rather than reflect them. Culture wars were intensified, or created ex nihilo, to expand the Tories’ base. And while Starmer tried his best to avoid conflict with the government, Johnson seized every opportunity to provoke it, drawing dividing lines where Starmer wanted to erase them. As a result, the Tories set the agenda and Labour followed. The government was on the front foot; the opposition lagged behind. Starmer’s ascetic disposition was unsuited to the libidinous atmosphere of Johnsonism, coloured by buoyancy, optimism and antagonism.
The promise returns
Just as this pattern appeared to be locked in place, with Starmer disliked by the public and an early general election mooted, the partygate scandal struck. In January 2022, the Tories were already reeling from corruption allegations after they tried to protect an MP found to have broken the ministerial code. Shortly after, successive reports of lockdown parties in Downing Street culminated in the revelation that Johnson himself had attended illegal social gatherings. As Conservative grandees demanded the PM’s resignation, the opinion polls were inverted: a ten-point lead for the Tories transformed into a ten-point lead for Labour within a matter of weeks. Surveys showed that, on individual issues, the majority of the electorate still had no sense of Starmer’s views, but the party as a whole attained its highest ratings since the twilight of Theresa May’s premiership.
It was a rare moment, in that a party-political catchphrase cut through to vernacular discourse. ‘One rule for them, another for us’, said people of Johnson’s behaviour, echoing the refrain of Starmer’s press statements. But Labour worked hard to displace the potential for radical readings of the event. Its rhetorical complaint was not tied to any concrete agenda to transform a polity dominated by the violent liberties of its ruling class. One might imagine a socialist seizing this opportunity to highlight the contempt routinely shown to the public by politicians and police chiefs. The Left seeks metonyms: in scandals, sharp spaces of crystallisation about the indignities of class society and its visceral indifference to suffering. Starmer, however, used Prime Minister’s Questions to focus on the Queen mourning her racist husband as an image of sombre dignity, worlds away from the transgressive Johnson. He directed his remarks not at the public, but at Tory MPs and their decent consciences, appealing to them to oust their tarnished leader. ‘Many of them knew it would come to this’, he declared. These two moves clarified Starmerism. Rule-breaking, understood as a violation of authority, is its greatest crime; and so the charge could not be pursued as a subaltern claim against the hypocrisies of power; instead, its appeal had to be to the state against bad apples. Starmerism calls for the restoration of the existing rules against miscreants: a framing that makes Johnson look like Corbyn, both of them governed by the pleasure principle and in need of a rap on the knuckles from those institutions – the monarchy, the Tory Party – that ensure the normal functioning of the social order.
Up until then, one of Johnson’s most appealing features was his ability to suspend the standard rules of politics. He prorogued parliament, removed the whip from insubordinate MPs and threatened to flout international law in order to fulfil the Brexit mandate. His eagerness to break with convention positioned him on the side of the people against the pieties of the establishment. In 2019, the Prime Minister convinced much of the electorate that by siding with him they could share in his jouissance – stealing back some pleasure from a cynical and uncaring system, without harbouring unrealistic hopes to change it. Yet partygate had the opposite effect, casting Johnson’s pleasure-seeking as an elite activity removed from the law-abiding public. Which meant that Starmer’s self-restraint – his respect for rules and association with the Law – morphed into a positive attribute. Through no effort of his own, then, the Labour leader found himself on the favourable side of an opposition that dominated the headlines, his discipline now perceived as the antidote to Johnson’s incontinence. Given the iron constraints of Westminster’s two-party system, such reversals of fortune are not uncommon. By staying largely out of public view, Starmer has always stood to benefit from frustration with the incumbent party, whose current iteration has been particularly crisis-prone. Yet panellists doubted whether he could maintain his polling lead, even at the height of the partygate furore. As confidence in the government collapsed, data journalist Ben Walker wrote that Starmer’s tactic of ‘gaining by default’ may reach its limit when election campaigning begins in earnest. ‘It is far easier for a governing party to rally undecided voters back to its banner than it is to win over those who have defected to another party’, he warned. If the Tories could reboot their populist project, with or without Johnson, Starmer would yet again be damaged by his inactivity. But in early 2022, when a government in chaos seemed to call for a stern remedy, his prospects of entering Downing Street no longer seemed negligible.
Then there was Ukraine. The emptiness of the Labour leader’s appeal to adulthood was confirmed by the common reflexes with which he addressed a champagne party and a war. First, he rushed to doff his cap to the government as conflict raged faraway, confirming his fidelity to the nation in times of distress; then his attacks charged the same government with being soft on the enemy: he would act more swiftly, vigorously, energetically to sanction Russian money, he said. By operating under the regulative guidance of a psychological ideal type (the grown-up), rather than a consistent ideological worldview, Starmer has become a legatee who chooses which figure of power to project as he rises to his feet. He was the swordsman of the Metropolitan Police during partygate; when Russia invaded Ukraine he became the ambassador for NATO. In both cases, Starmer represented these institutions in imagined form, as stable carriers of Western civilisational norms against the selfish and lazy impulses of misbehaving politicians. When eleven Labour MPs signed a letter from the Stop the War Coalition, condemning both Putin’s invasion and NATO sabre-rattling, Starmer quickly moved against them. He threatened to withdraw the whip from the dissidents, who removed their names from the statement within forty-five minutes, while the Party’s spokesperson attested that ‘Labour is under new management’. But for all the apparent decisiveness, Starmer found himself in an awkward position when the Metropolitan Police handed out fines for Downing Street parties during the Ukraine conflagration. The Labour leader promptly called on Johnson to resign, returning to his pre-war attack-line and allowing a bemused Johnson to point out that, just days earlier, Starmer had insisted he should stay in post amid the global crisis. As casualties mounted in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Labour signally failed to call for the one measure by which Britain could most concretely help besieged Ukrainians: waiving visas for refugees. Although the Conservatives looked increasingly callous by ruling out this option, the main priority for Starmer was still to avoid comparisons with Corbyn. And so he trailed rather than led public outrage on this issue, unable to claim much credit as ministers announced a series of partial U-turns. Starmer flourishes when an easy object of displaced identity appears to satiate a contrast with the ambitious politics of emancipation – the responsible adult, the punishing police officer, the guardian of the West. All he must do then is channel this ideal type. But when these strategies of projection fail, when an independent identity is called for, the positive work of defining himself inevitably eludes him. If Starmer looks downward to the authentic voter to supply his media soundbites, he also looks upward to these superegoic archetypes to provide his political aesthetic.
Amid a grand crisis in living standards, energy bills across Britain are set to rise by more than 50 per cent. Across the Channel Emmanuel Macron has forced a state-owned energy provider to take an €8 billion hit to keep price rises below 15 per cent, and Starmer committed himself to nationalising energy provision in his ten pledges, which would theoretically allow him to mimic the French policy. But even this tepid gesture would summon a spectre of domestic radicalism, and such shallow images of attraction and revulsion are the basic stuff of Starmerism. ‘People don’t want a revolution’, he bleats, as he opposes raising the minimum wage beyond Conservative aspirations. Labour is now slipping in the polls after a January surge predicated on Tory woes.
Passivity is the surprising but necessary image of adulthood in this mode, where the ambition to grow up resolves itself negatively – in the absence of clear content – into a quest to punish everything identified as childish, and emulate others past and present who seemed like grown-ups. There is no programme beyond that, only masochism and mimicry.
This is a mood, not a politics. It represents a failure to face the present, to grapple with its multiple crises by honing a political project to meet them. Renationalising energy companies might seem a progressive response to the cost-of-living crisis, and Starmer surely dislikes it for that reason, but he cannot present a rightwing solution either – which renders his political fortunes entirely dependent on government missteps. At times this disposition has served him well against a blundering Prime Minister. Yet, as the revelation about Sir Keir’s possible lockdown breach has shown, an operation that relies on scandals may end up being consumed by one. The image of maturity can be undermined by a momentary lapse, to which even the ultra-cautious Starmer is not immune.
OLIVER EAGLETON is an editor at the New Left Review and author of The Starmer Project (Verso, 2022).