Inside Story

Who is Keir Starmer?

Britain’s next prime minister doesn’t have quite the pedigree you’d expect — but his small-target strategy might seem familiar

Michael Jacobs London 27 May 2024 2474 words

Starmer’s career trajectory means there is almost no public record of his political views before he was elected Labour leader. Stefan Rousseau/PA

It’s tough to make predictions,” the American baseball star Yogi Berra famously remarked. “Especially about the future.” But the pollsters here in Britain are certain about one thing: the result of the forthcoming general election. Labour, they say, has a 99 per cent chance of winning. The betting companies have the party at 25 to 1 on. In a two-horse race, those are unusual odds.

Mind you, the election date itself caught them by surprise. Faced with polls putting him up to twenty percentage points behind Labour, prime minister Rishi Sunak was widely expected to wait until October or November before going to the country. Even his own troops were shocked when he announced last week that the date would be 4 July. And the first few days of the campaign have betrayed a party far from ready. A hastily arranged set of public events for the PM has not gone well: having made his initial announcement drenched by pouring rain — with no one apparently able to locate an umbrella — a visit to the shipyards in Belfast where the Titanic was built looked particularly unfortunate. (The memes are already doing the rounds.)

Dismayed Tory MPs are saying openly that Sunak seems to have given up, simply wanting to get out as soon as he can. And many of them are following suit: nearly eighty have announced they won’t be standing for re-election. There is dark talk that if Sunak campaigns as badly as this for the next six weeks the Conservatives could suffer a near-wipeout on the scale of the Canadian election of 1993. That saw the ruling Progressive Conservative Party reduced from 169 seats to two.

Labour hates this kind of talk, of course. For them the biggest risk is being unable to get their vote out because people think the result is a foregone conclusion. The party’s campaign team gave a slide presentation to the shadow cabinet recently highlighting multiple cases when big polling leads were blown during election campaigns — with the Australian election of 2019 being one of the examples. They are desperate to warn against complacency.

Yet their anxieties, though understandable, are unconvincing. Labour has not only been at least fifteen points ahead of the Tories in the polls for almost eighteen months, it is also ahead on every single salient election issue apart from defence. And the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is preferred to Sunak on every measure of leadership.

Yet there is something odd about this. Starmer is ahead of a deeply unpopular prime minister. But his own approval ratings are net negative, somewhere between –17 per cent and –31 per cent. Compare this (for example) with the +22 per cent Tony Blair enjoyed in advance of the 1997 election. The public clearly prefer Starmer to Sunak and they are ready to give him the keys to 10 Downing Street. But they are by no means convinced of his qualities.

So who is Sir Keir Starmer?

The “Sir” makes Starmer sound like an aristocrat or political grandee. But that’s not at all the case. His knighthood was reward for his five-year stint as director of public prosecutions, the country’s leading prosecuting lawyer. And getting that job was by no means an obvious career outcome. Starmer, the first (and only) member of his family to go to university, started out as a human rights lawyer, notably defending prisoners facing the death penalty in Caribbean countries and working pro bono for two young anti-McDonalds campaigners in the 1990s.

Born in 1962, he grew up in a working-class household. His father was a toolmaker, his mother a nurse who later suffered serious ill-health. They were not well off. A talented teenage musician, he chose to study law rather than music, attending Leeds and Oxford universities. He rose swiftly to become a Queen’s Counsel and head of his legal firm. He wrote legal opinions against the Iraq war and co-authored books on human rights law.

Starmer only became an MP in 2015. Coupled with his civil service legal role this gives him the most obscure political pedigree of anyone who has aspired to lead Labour. As an MP he had no time to make an independent mark: he was immediately promoted to the front bench by then leader Jeremy Corbyn, first with an immigration brief and then — after the European Union referendum in 2016 — as shadow Brexit secretary.

In that role he had the near-impossible task of managing a divided Labour Party through the tortuous parliamentary process by which Britain left the European Union. The party’s members had almost universally voted to remain in the EU; but many of their voters had opted to leave. An impossible task ended with Labour’s catastrophic defeat to Boris Johnson in the general election of 2019.

This personal history means there is almost no public record of Starmer’s political views before he was elected Labour leader in the wake of that defeat. To a remarkable extent we really don’t know what he believes in.

(We know more about his abilities as a soccer player. In an unusual foray into investigative journalism your correspondent has played against him. I can report that he is a fine midfield general, the fulcrum of his team, and a natural leader. Indeed, he was not only his team’s captain but also, until recently, the organiser of their weekly game.)

The problem of Starmer’s lack of political background has been compounded by his record since he became leader. Starmer stood for the leadership on a left-wing platform that persuaded many Corbyn supporters to support him. But in the four years since he has abandoned almost every radical policy position he took then. It has made him an implacable foe of the left and provided an easy attack line for the media. How can the voters trust him if he is willing to say one thing to get elected and then something completely different once in office?

Starmer has a ready defence. Over the last four years the British economy has suffered the Covid pandemic and Ukraine energy shocks and been trashed by Liz Truss. So the country can simply no longer afford to get rid of student tuition fees or renationalise the water companies, and abolishing the House of Lords will have to wait.

In truth, Starmer has been following a ruthless electoral strategy. To return from its disastrous electoral performance in 2019, when the party fell to its lowest number of parliamentary seats since 1935, Labour needed to win back two groups of voters. In its former heartlands in the midlands and north of England, it had to appeal to people in working-class communities who had been gradually abandoning the party over two decades, and after voting Leave in the EU referendum had defected to Boris Johnson in 2019. Meanwhile in the south of England and in smaller towns Labour had to persuade Conservative Remain voters that, after the left wing Corbyn experiment, the party could once again form a moderate government they could trust.

It was not rocket science to work out what was required. Starmer first took on Corbyn. After the former leader said that claims of anti-Semitism in Labour had been exaggerated, Starmer had his party membership suspended. Corbyn will now fight the election as an independent. Hundreds of other left-wing party members were also effectively purged, many on somewhat dubious grounds, including well-known MPs with long track records in the party. Starmer wanted to show that Corbynism had been decisively expunged.

He then took aim at the party’s policies. Labour has a long history of being painted by the Conservatives and the media as over-fond of taxing and borrowing. Starmer was determined to take this accusation off the table. So out went any commitment to public spending that could not be funded by an identifiable tax rise on somebody unpopular.

Labour said it would increase the windfall tax on oil and gas companies, remove charitable tax status from private schools, and abolish loopholes allowing wealthy foreigners to avoid UK tax. But that was it: Labour supported the general income tax cuts introduced by Rishi Sunak and has ruled out any other tax rises. As it did so, its spending ambitions were shrunk to match.

Most notably, Starmer abandoned what had been the party’s flagship policy, a pledge to spend an annual £28 billion investing in renewable energy, home insulation and other net zero climate measures. A bold commitment that had given Labour a distinctive appeal to younger and greener voters, the climate policy had come under attack by the Conservatives for necessitating an increase in government borrowing. Starmer felt vulnerable to the charge: after a painful reconsideration, the policy was watered down to less than £5 billion a year.

Labour’s package of new rights for workers underwent the same fate. After intense lobbying by business interests, many of its provisions — such as abolishing “zero hours” contracts and ending the practice of “fire and rehire” in which workers are sacked and re-employed on worse terms — became merely commitments to consult, or get-out clauses added. The policy now had “more holes than a swiss cheese,” said one union boss.

Starmer’s approach has in reality been very simple. Familiar to Australian readers, it is known to electoral analysts as a small-target strategy: give your opponents and the media as little as possible to attack. In Labour’s case this means not making big spending commitments; not raising taxes; not looking too pro-welfare; not looking too pro-union; looking very pro-business; matching every government policy on crime, immigration, tax cuts and defence. Like a Roman phalanx turning itself into a tight circle with its shields on the outside, Labour has ruthlessly closed every possible chink of weakness.

The result, inevitably, has been a significant lessening of ambition. Labour’s electoral promises have been reduced to small spending pledges on health, education, anti-social behaviour and immigration control, backed by an extremely cautious fiscal stance almost identical to that of the Tory government. Writing in the Conservative Daily Mail, shadow chancellor of the exchequer Rachel Reeves proudly boasted Labour was now the party of “sound money.”

Two distinctive policies remain. Labour is committed to reducing the UK’s power sector emissions to net zero by 2030, and will set up a publicly owned energy company to help it do so. And as part of a more active industrial strategy it will establish a sovereign wealth fund to invest in new and growing businesses.

Labour’s manifesto has not yet been published, so there could yet be some surprise additions to the policy package. It is mooted that they will extend the vote to those aged sixteen and seventeen. (Sunak meanwhile has pledged to re-introduce national military service for eighteen-year-olds.) There will likely be commitments to increase housebuilding rates and new rights for private tenants. Civil servants will be given a “duty of candour” to prevent the covering up of bureaucratic failures and miscarriages of justice.

But overall the appeal is deliberately minimal. Starmer has taken to warning that not everything will change immediately and expectations should not be too high. Labour will need ten years to really make a difference.

But therein lies the risk. The model Starmer is assumed to be following is that of Tony Blair in 1997. Blair’s “New Labour” similarly made only modest promises to get elected, relying principally on the public having become fed up with the Tory government after a long period in office. Like Starmer, Blair had a significant and longstanding polling lead and faced an incumbent prime minister who seemed capable only of making things worse.

But 2024 is not at all like 1997. Then, the economy was booming. Five years of strong growth had put the public finances in good shape. Globalisation seemed unstoppable and the international community to be growing closer.

Those are not the circumstances Sir Keir Starmer will inherit. The British economy has been flatlining for 15 years, with average wages still below the level of 2007. Its growth rate is anaemic and productivity more or less stagnant. The world is splitting into competitive trade blocs, and after Brexit the UK is in none of them. The tax share of national income is at a seventy-year high, but public spending is still effectively in austerity. In the National Health Service waiting lists are at record levels. Local authorities and universities are going bankrupt.

The list goes on. There is no dividend to be had from a declining defence budget, as there was in the 2000s; on the contrary, geopolitical tensions are causing defence budgets to rise. The climate and environmental emergencies demand radical shifts in energy, transport, agricultural and industry policy. The net zero transition must somehow be managed without causing a wave of job losses akin to the deindustrialisation of the 1980s. Artificial intelligence might be about to destroy a swathe of jobs.

This is as daunting a set of challenges facing an incoming government as anyone can remember. So Starmer is surely correct that Labour will need ten years to make a significant difference. But the problem is, that means they will have to win, not just this election, but the next one, in five years’ time. And to do that they will surely have to make much bolder changes to economic policy and to public services than their current plans suggest.

As Britain’s leading fiscal think tank has warned, Britain’s current public finances are not sustainable. In a context of slow growth, an ageing population, rising child poverty and long public service backlogs, Labour’s present spending plans will make barely a dent in the surface of highly visible problems. The party risks going into an election in 2028 or 2029 with the country feeling little different from today: with simply not enough having been spent or reformed to change people’s lived experiences and their perception of the government’s achievements.

Sir Keir Starmer has so far been exceptionally lucky. In Rishi Sunak he has an opponent who has achieved almost nothing of what he set out to do and who has presided over a toxic mix of policy failure and internal party division. Starmer has been able to watch the Conservatives blow up their own reputation for economic and political competence while needing to offer few alternatives of his own.

But that luck won’t last once he gets to No 10. At that point Britain’s failings will become his responsibility, and their continuation his fault. A volatile electorate propelling him into office in 2024 will certainly be capable of ejecting him again five years later if not enough has changed to justify his premiership.

So the lack of policy ambition in Labour’s current approach could yet backfire. It looks as certain as anything is in politics that Starmer will win on 4 July. But if he sticks to his stated plans, that might not be enough. •

Article amended 1 June 2024 to correct the reference to Yogi Berra, who played baseball rather than football.