Keir Starmer: Bringing the Left to the centre

The man who could be the next British Prime Minister has toned down many of his early leftist promises and has brought the Labour party to the centre, focusing on economic stability, workers rights and climate justice

Updated - July 05, 2024 06:30 am IST

Published - June 02, 2024 01:02 am IST

“I changed Labour. I will fight for you and change Britain,” Keir Starmer, chief of the Labour party, wrote on X on May 28, as part of his campaign for the U.K. elections, scheduled to be held on July 4.

Whether Mr. Starmer will fulfil the promise remains to be seen. However, the Opposition leader has certainly changed the identity of Labour from former leader Jeremy Corbyn’s time. Mr. Starmer, who became an MP in 2015, ran for leadership of Labour in 2020 after Mr. Corbyn, a leftist, resigned following the party’s defeat in the 2019 election. Mr. Starmer stood for the leadership race with an agenda of 10 key pledges, which he stated was ‘based on the moral case for socialism’. Some of the key pledges include an increase of income tax for 5% of top earners, restricting the U.K.’s arms sales, nationalising the rail, mail, energy and water sectors, a new Green Deal, strengthening workers rights, etc. But since his election as party leader, Mr. Starmer has abandoned most of these promises.

Mr. Starmer’s recurring defence has been that Brexit, the COVID pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and the disastrous policies of the Tory government had completely destroyed the nation’s economic progress. What is of utmost priority, at the present moment, is economic and financial stability. This is reflected in Labour’s election manifesto as well.

In the manifesto, Labour pledges to nationalise just the railways. It also walked back on the promise of raising taxes of the top rich as it’s a ‘different situation’ now that the U.K. has its highest tax burden since the Second World War. Mr. Starmer has also put on hold a €28 billion climate investment promise which he made in 2022.

Additionally, he has been accused of carrying out a systemic phasing out of the more left-wing candidates of the party. This internal divide has come out in full force recently as decisions are being taken about the candidates to be fielded by the party for the coming election. A couple of incumbent leftwing MPs have been banned from standing for elections. Diane Abbott, the first Black woman MP in the U.K. said Labour was carrying out a “cull of leftwingers”.

Another common link being drawn between the banned MPs has been their call for a permanent and immediate ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza. Mr. Starmer has, contrarily, thrown his weight behind Israel, upholding its “right to defend itself”. At one point, when asked whether cutting off water and power supplies into Gaza would be an appropriate response, he replied: “I think that Israel does have that right”. It is only recently, after Israel’s Rafah onslaught began, that Mr. Starmer called for a ceasefire ‘that lasts’.

Some say the shift from the initial pledges to status quo has been an act of betrayal by Mr. Starmer, a tool used to gain votes from both sides of the party for leadership. Others say it’s part of his pragmatic and solution-oriented outlook on politics.

Idealist to realist

Mr. Starmer was born into a working class family in 1962. He has repeatedly drawn attention to this fact to emphasise his commitment to the working people and trade unions. He grew up in poverty, being one among four siblings with an ailing mother. His father used to work as a toolmaker in his village in Surrey. Following his schooling, Mr. Starmer went on to study law, and became the first person in his family to graduate college.

Mr. Starmer’s record as a human rights lawyer had earned him a good deal of ire from both the progressive and conservative factions of society before he had even entered politics.

The Opposition leader has always centred human rights in his practice. In his early days, he would travel across Caribbean countries defending convicts against the death penalty, a punishment he says “horrifies him”. He was also involved in the famous Mclibel case wherein he defended two environmentalists who were taken to court by McDonalds on charges of libel for stating that the company was damaging the environment.

He was deeply committed to bringing out large-scale change, often feeling frustrated at the lack of systemic changes through individual cases.

His shift towards a ‘realist’ started in 2003, when he was appointed the human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland. From 2008 to 2013, he had been the Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). He would later reflect on his time in these institutions as key to his political approach.

“I came better to understand how you can change by being inside and getting the trust of people”, he said.

The Gist
Keir Starmer rose to the leadership of British Labour, after leftist Jeremy Corbyn resigned, with 10 key pledges, which he stated was ‘based on the moral case for socialism’
Since his election as party leader, Starmer has abandoned most of these promises, but he says he remains committed to the cause of workers and upholds nationalisation of public industries
Starmer says his immediate focus is on economic stability and that he doesn’t support giving markets a free rein but believes in shaping the market for economic growth through policy

As Director of the CPS, Mr. Starmer tried to stay true to his human rights-based approach. For example, certain high profile sexual abuse cases led him to change the CPS’s guidelines on sexual assault cases wherein prosecutors were asked to start from a position of believing the victim. He also brought to book several MPs over false accounting charges. However, he was decried for his disproportionate response towards student protestors in 2010 wherein he advocated for rapid sentencing. He has also faced public scrutiny for refusing to prosecute police officers in cases such as that of Jean Charles de Menendez, a Brazilian immigrant who was killed by police who mistook him for a terror suspect, and Ian Tomlinson, who was killed by policemen during a protest against the 2009 G-20 summit.

However, as Director of the CPS, his role in the Julian Assange extradition trial must be one of his least known cases. Mr. Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is now detained in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London and is involved in a prolonged legal battle against his extradition to the U.S. Mr. Starmer had tried to fast-track Mr. Assange’s extradition to the U.S — he took various trips to the U.S. with respect to the case, and persuaded the Swedish authorities to keep their case of extradition open.

A ‘New Deal’

Some experts state that Mr. Starmer has no ideology. Some others have compared him to Tony Blair because of his apathy towards ideology and his drive to revamp the Labour party, especially after the Corbyn years.

However, unlike Tony Blair, Mr. Starmer has called for the party to take up the cause of the workers and the trade unions, upheld nationalisation of public industries and talked about putting more money into businesses. He is fully committed to Labour’s “New Deal for Working People”, which calls for expanding collective bargaining and granting workers’ basic rights, such as sick pay, parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal. He doesn’t support giving markets a free rein but believes in shaping the market for economic growth through policy. He also believes in climate justice and setting up of green industries. Thus, with all opinion polls and trends predicting a win for Labour, Mr. Starmer has firmly placed the party in a centrist position. His vision has been coined by some as Starmerism, wherein economic stability, workers rights and climate justice hold precedence.

However, with a stagnant economy, a health system in shambles, collapsing public services, and high national debt, it is to be seen whether Starmerism can hold ground.

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