A review of The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right, Oliver Eagleton (Verso), £12.99
Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown—a roll call of past Labour Party prime ministers hardly conjures up hope for the next one. Where is there a champion of the oppressed and exploited, a bulwark against racism or opponent of imperialism? The ruling class has cause to reflect comfortably on Labour leaders’ time in office. So, what hope of Sir Keir Starmer, who was happy to receive a knighthood—that mark of acceptance by the British establishment—“for services to law and criminal justice” before becoming Labour leader?
Starmer presented ten pledges when he stood for the leadership election in 2020: promises to stand for economic, social and climate justice, promote peace and human rights, defend migrant rights, strengthen workers’ and union rights, support “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”, and “end outsourcing in our National Health Service”. His “where I stand” declaration appeared to offer those on the left willing to be convinced a kind of “Corbynism” without the maligned Jeremy Corbyn, allied to a pledge of “effective opposition to the Tories”.1
Almost all these pledges have been dropped. A promised abolition of student tuition fees—part of the pledge on social justice—ditched at the beginning of May 2023 was only the latest in a long line, with Starmer noting, “We are likely to move on from that commitment because we do find ourselves in a different financial situation”.2 The promises made during the Labour leadership election morphed by February 2023 into “five missions for a better Britain” built on “economic stability, national security and secure borders”.3 What Tory could not sign up to these?
Oliver Eagleton’s The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right examines Starmer’s time as a lawyer, politician and Labour leadership candidate, and his first years as leader, which marked his reversal of “almost every gain made by the left” under Corbyn. He notes Starmer won the reputation of a “lefty lawyer” as a legal officer for civil rights group Liberty, then secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and while working on behalf of Amnesty, which led him to write a book about European human rights law.4 Yet, Eagleton quotes a former Haldane Society chair who claimed Starmer “was motivated by ambition”. In Eagleton’s assessment, and it seems fair from his account, Starmer charted “a careful course between good-cause legal campaigning and collaboration with the security services”.5
Dispatched by Haldane to investigate allegations of police brutality in Northern Ireland, Starmer ended up playing football regularly with British troops in West Belfast. He subsequently became an advisor to the Northern Ireland Police Board overseeing the newly created Police Service of Northern Ireland, which replaced the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. When Belfast police allowed a Unionist march through a Catholic neighbourhood, deploying water cannon and beating counter-protestors, Starmer defended their actions. His support for the Northern Irish police subsequently drew praise from Ian Paisley, MP for the sectarian Democratic Unionist Party. He noted Starmer “gave us the tools and the arguments and the defence lines to allow us to say that water cannon are necessary or plastic bullets are allowed…and all police officers in Northern Ireland carry a gun… His lasting legacy is that you can have all these accoutrements to policing provided they meet human rights guidelines effectively, and he provided…the arguments to do that and the legal cover to do it”.6
As director of public prosecutions—Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) from July 2008—he appears to have had few problems working closely with Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve and implementing the cuts imposed by the austerity-driven, Tory-led coalition government from 2010—so much so that Grieve commended Starmer’s “great efficiency”. Eagleton notes Starmer “not only set about realising Grieve’s spending plans; he also began strengthening the CPS’s role within the British security state”.7 Starmer began to regularly liaise with the United States’ National Security Agency and the Specialist Operations Directorate of London’s Metropolitan Police on CPS “work” overseas. This was significant given the international “War on Terror” being prosecuted by the US and Britain. Eagleton quotes an unnamed member of the CPS’s international division: “We made sure what we were doing was most relevant to Britain’s international objectives.” This involved “building up the counter-terrorism capacity of overseas security services” in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Kenya and Afghanistan.8 Eagleton also finds evidence that Starmer liaised regularly with Eric Holder, the attorney general in Barack Obama’s administration, who advised on “how the CPS could best advance US counter-terrorism objectives in Africa and the Middle East”.9 He argues the CPS under Starmer “agreed to act as a proxy” for the US State Department in countries “reluctant to accept direct US interference”.10
This culminated in Starmer’s pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on behalf of the White House. The details of Starmer’s involvement remain “opaque”, according to Eagleton, but he concludes: “Starmer’s CPS was singularly responsible for Assange’s seven-year confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy, which a United Nations rapporteur criticised as ‘arbitrary detention amounting to torture’”.11 Yet, when compelling evidence emerged of MI5 and MI6 involvement in the detention without trial and torture of suspects during the “War on Terror”, Starmer and the CPS consistently found “insufficient evidence to prosecute”. Starmer’s cooperation with state security forces extended to mainland Britain, where he found “insufficient evidence” to bring charges of unlawful killing against the Metropolitan Police officers responsible for killing Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes at a London Underground station in 2005. Eagleton notes a catalogue of deaths at police hands while Starmer was director of public prosecutions and concludes, “It remains impossible to calculate how many police officers were granted immunity by Starmer, but dozens would be a cautious estimate”.12
Starmer’s inability to find sufficient evidence to prosecute police wrongdoing extended to those responsible for extensive undercover spying targeting activists and campaign groups. However, Starmer drew up tough prosecution guidelines for handling protest, emphasising a determination to target “disruptive activists” and widening the scope for police to make arrests on tenuous grounds such as “causing alarm”, wearing items that “could be considered body protection” and taking “steps to conceal identity”. His response to the August 2011 riots in England was to create a special CPS unit to deal exclusively with riot cases and to adopt “a blanket policy of pressing serious charges in all but the most exceptional circumstances” while demanding 24-hour court sittings.13 The aim, in the words of one of Starmer’s senior prosecutors, was that those arrested “see the shock and awe of the criminal justice system”. Starmer also pursued a penal campaign against welfare benefit fraud, stating, “I am determined to see a clampdown on those who flout the system”.14 Eagleton concludes of Starmer’s legal career, “Despite his overtures to the Labour left in 2020, Sir Keir’s record shows his evolution into an unabashed authoritarian”.15
Starmer the politician
Starmer entered parliament in the 2015 general election that gave a Tory majority to David Cameron, having been awarded the safe London seat of Holborn and St Pancras. When Labour leader Ed Miliband resigned after the election defeat, Starmer backed Andy Burnham to replace him. Yet, when party members rejected “more of the same” from Burnham and like-minded contenders, instead electing Corbyn as leader, Starmer was appointed shadow minister for immigration.
Serial manoeuvring to unseat Corbyn by a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party began almost immediately, culminating in an attempt to remove him through a leadership challenge by maverick right-wing MP Owen Smith following the referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016. Starmer declared he was “100 percent behind Owen”.16 Yet, when Corbyn emerged with even more support than in the first leadership ballot, Starmer signalled his willingness to rejoin the shadow cabinet as shadow secretary for exiting the EU. Eagleton quotes a source close to Starmer who noted, “Of course, he’s a Remainer, but…his personal ambition was always more important”.17 A source within Corbyn’s leadership team explained the thinking behind appointing Starmer: “We wanted to settle the nerves of the establishment on Brexit, and Keir was the perfect poster boy for that”.18
In 2017, when Tory prime minister Theresa May, who had succeeded Cameron in 2016, called a general election believing she could bolster her parliamentary majority, Starmer began plotting a challenge for the leadership in the event of a Labour defeat. In fact, Corbyn—via a campaign of policy announcements and mass rallies under the slogan “For the Many, Not the Few”—pulled off the biggest swing in votes to Labour since 1945, outpolling Blair’s election victories in 2001 and 2005.19
We need not repeat the story of the tortuous, post-election manoeuvring by the May government to secure a Brexit agreement both acceptable to Tory Eurosceptics and palatable to business leaders. It was mirrored within Labour by the machinations of those seeking to undermine Corbyn, those looking to secure a second referendum and those striving for both. Eagleton provides insight into the “internal wrecking operation” mounted by Labour MPs and party officials “in which the key player was Keir Starmer”.20 This saw him working consistently behind the scenes with leaders of the People’s Vote campaign backed by Blair and Peter Mandelson and continually briefing journalists against the line worked out by Corbyn’s office. These processes came together, following May’s replacement by Boris Johnson in 2019 and the latter’s agreement with the EU, in Johnson’s landslide election victory of December 2019.21
Starmer’s bid for the leadership, in preparation long before the 2019 defeat, brought together all those opposed to Corbyn. Yet, Eagleton notes, “His campaign was founded on the promise to keep most of the 2017 manifesto commitments while simultaneously unifying the party…and foregrounding his lawyerly competence”.22 The pitch was summarised by left-wing Labour journalist Paul Mason, who suggested, “When people see Keir Starmer they’ll realise what was missing—professionalism, prudential principle, resilience, communicative ability”.23 The upshot was that “half of those who voted for Corbyn in the previous two leadership elections voted for Starmer”.24
In practice, Starmer has pursued a strategy as leader of throttling the left and jettisoning the policies of the Corbyn era while, as Eagleton puts it, “supporting Tory policies in principle but questioning the means of implementation”. In Starmer’s own words, he has sought to “engage constructively with the government”, not present a political alternative. Eagleton charts the crackdown on the left and the symbolic suspension of Corbyn, when an alarmed Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, warned that Starmer was ready to suspend “thousands and thousands” of party members.25 The process uncovered by Eagleton suggests Starmer repeatedly changed his mind on how to proceed under pressure from the right of the party and the media, setting Corbyn up for suspension by agreeing to coordinate responses to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report on antisemitism in the Labour Party, then moving the goalposts, suspending Corbyn, reversing the suspension, then twice reversing the reversal. Eagleton notes that although “Labour poll ratings began to slide after Corbyn’s exit…the suspension was part of a broader strategy to win Tory voters by shedding any association with Corbyn’s class-based politics”.26
Starmer’s level of indecision—Eagleton describes him as “often cripplingly indecisive”—might be comical were it not that he represents the sole hope of removing the Tories by purely electoral means. Eagleton recounts that, in 2021, “Labour staffers were exasperated when the leadership could not decide on a lectern for the upcoming party conference without first putting several designs through focus groups.”27 Yet, Starmer’s rout of Labour’s left has been anything but indecisive. The Spectator, the Conservative Party house journal, reports:
Since becoming leader, Starmer’s main focus has been rooting out Corbynite influence at every level of his party and finding moderates to replace the far left. Many of the new faces…look almost like a Blair and Brownite restoration…but it is the aides to Blair-era figures who are the main people to make a return… Staff at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change are expected to stage an exodus to become special advisors in any future Starmer government.28
Journalist Michael Crick has charted the purge of left-wing and trade union candidates to stand for Labour at the next general election. Commenting on 100 selections by Labour up to mid-March 2023, Crick noted:
The left has been utterly annihilated. Only one candidate is solidly left-wing—Faiza Shaheen in Chingford and Woodford Green. The high command put up quite a fight to stop her and failed. Nonetheless, the left has been weeded out and so has anybody with a strong trade union background… People like Robin Cook and Angela Raynor and Neil Kinnock would never have got chosen in this round of selections.29
Corbyn has been blocked from standing for Labour at the next election. Veteran left MP Diane Abbott had the Labour whip suspended in April and could be next.30
The first 18 months or more of Starmer’s leadership saw much of whatever gloss he had acquired rub off as Johnson’s government led in the polls despite its serial mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Labour hit a new low when it lost the seat of Hartlepool in May 2021 for the first time in 62 years.31 The fortunes of the party and of Starmer have since been restored by crisis after crisis within the Tories, the soaring cost of living and the biggest wave of strikes in Britain in decades.32 Should all this bring Starmer to office, few on the left could genuinely have illusions in what he promises. The political commentator Steve Richards notes:
Starmer isn’t very political but is copying Blair and Brown. He speaks to Blair, Brown and Mandelson all the time. I know of no leader who has so copied his predecessors. Starmer is not that confident. He leans on shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. She spends a lot of time talking to Brown.33
Interviewed by The Economist, Starmer promises:
We’re going to have a core partnership with business… We will deliver the missions together… We’ve been having intense discussions with business. This is about building new relations with business… We’re pro-business.34
The business magazine summarised Starmer’s politics as “administrative critique” and “modern supply-side economics”. It refers to his “tax the rich” proposals—closing the tax exemptions for private schools, private equity company bosses and non-domiciled taxpayers—as “small fry”.35
Early in Starmer’s career, Eagleton notes an “obsession with process”, developing into “a bureaucratic mentality…based on mass consultations, data-gathering, step-by-step procedures and painstakingly formulated codes of conduct”.36 This gels with much of what we have seen of Starmer the politician—an obsession with “process” deployed to mask an underlying project of moving Labour rightwards.
Eagleton’s book is relatively short and somewhat dry, reflecting its subject. The author builds a forensic case against Labour’s would-be next prime minister but does not analyse the nature and function of Labour and its focus on parliament, which makes Keir Starmer so much more “acceptable” as leader than Corbyn. The character Eagleton describes fits the role. In The Labour Party: A Marxist History Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein quote Lenin’s observation of more than 100 years ago that “Labour is a thoroughly bourgeois party because, though made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries…who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.” Cliff and Gluckstein note, “Labour’s politics have never changed in essentials. The difference between old and new labour lies in the external conditions in which reformism operates”.37 They also quote Margaret Bondfield, a member of the first Labour government of 1924 and the first woman cabinet minister: “We have taken over a bankrupt machine and we have to make that rickety machine work”.38 Nearly 100 years on, this is Labour’s role as Starmer sees it.
Eagleton concludes: “Starmer and his enforcers in Labour headquarters have taken extraordinary steps to cleanse the party of socialist influence… The opportunities for building a progressive power base within the party…are negligible.” He is right and has provided a useful and enlightening analysis.
Ian Taylor is a journalist and a member of the International Socialism editorial board.
2 Sky News, 2023.
4 See Foot, 2023.
5 Eagleton, 2022, p20.
6 Eagleton, 2022, p18.
7 Eagleton, 2022, p24.
8 Eagleton, 2022, p26.
9 Eagleton, 2022, p29.
10 Eagleton, 2022, p29.
11 Eagleton, 2022, p35.
12 Eagleton, 2022, p40.
13 Eagleton, 2022, pp50-51.
14 Eagleton, 2022, p54.
15 Eagleton, 2022, p58.
16 Eagleton, 2022, p70.
17 Eagleton, 2022, p74.
18 Eagleton, 2022, p78.
19 See Thomas, 2017.
20 Eagleton, 2022, p86.
21 For a full analysis, see Kimber, 2020.
22 Eagleton, 2022, p136.
23 Eagleton, 2022, p136.
24 Eagleton, 2022, p136.
25 Eagleton, 2022, p158.
26 Eagleton, 2022, p164.
27 Eagleton, 2022, p166.
28 Balls, 2023.
29 Quoted in Gimson, 2023. Robin Cook, foreign secretary under Blair, opposed the Iraq War and resigned in 2003 on the eve of the US-British invasion. Kinnock, now in the House of Lords, was Labour leader from 1983 to 1992. A figure from the party’s left, Kinnock voted 84 times against the 1974-9 Labour government, which had no overall majority, and once denounced the leadership as “careerist pimps”. Yet, as leader, he purged the left and opposed the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.
30 Prasad, 2023.
31 Kimber, 2021.
32 Choonara, 2023.
34 Economist, 2023.
35 Economist, 2023.
36 Eagleton, 2022, p60.
37 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p13.
38 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p98.