Tony Blair’s recent conference on the “Future of Britain” marked his public embrace of Keir Starmer. Now considered a prime minister in waiting, Starmer is unlikely to tarnish the New Labour legacy. Blair inducted him in a short conversation in which, with due humility, he posed questions like a master to his apprentice. Starmer performed. Such encounters, though, are always more revealing than intended.
In his subsequent speech, Blair spoke with assured poise. He began with the “bad news” – “the British situation is perilous”. Aided by accompanying charts, the former prime minister referenced two defining challenges: making the state sustainable, and raising Britain’s growth and productivity. His message was clear and memorable.
In contrast, Starmer’s speech was a word salad of assertions and intentions. It is usually hard to listen to the Labour leader and this address was a reminder of the incoherence of his politics, the root of his constant U-turns. He has no diagnosis of the crisis facing the country and without it his message lacks definition.
And yet despite his limitations, and Blair’s greater political acuity, it is Starmer who better understands the political moment. It is the apprentice, not the master, who is best equipped for the coming era.
In 2000 Blair uncritically embraced the knowledge economy as “our best route for success and prosperity”. He was wrong then and his claim that today’s progressive political mission is to “understand, master, and harness the 21st-century technology revolution” suggests that he has learned nothing from his mistakes. No one wants a repeat of technocratic liberal rule with the social divisions and political alienation it has generated. And Blair’s hope that new technologies will drive change in politics invites a populist revolt.
Amid Starmer’s jumble of ideas lies a radically different kind of politics that prioritises democracy and people. The task, he said, is to return Labour to the service of working people, to become once more the vehicle of their hopes and ambitions. He said he believes this in his bones, and I believe he does, even if he doesn’t know how to achieve it.
The conference presented a progressive, technocratic politics which has not recognised that it has lost the future. Starmer, despite his dependence on Blair’s policymaking resources, will be its nemesis. Out of necessity, and with no clear alternative, he will have to bring the liberal progressive era of Blair and New Labour politics to an end. Inadvertently or by design, he will bury it.
The existential challenge Starmer faces is not artificial intelligence. It is the indifference of the electorate towards the Labour Party and the stalemate within the political and governing classes. There is no political movement or even the effort of movement. A torpor envelops Westminster and Whitehall that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are capable of shaking off. The coming election in 2024 offers relief in partisan tit-for-tat politics and the illusion of business as usual.
This stalemate has extended itself into society, creating a collective disillusionment and loss of confidence in our democratic system. Nothing seems to work any more and there is no one who can fix it.
The great chronicler of stalemate was the Russian writer Anton Chekhov. In a series of plays culminating in the The Cherry Orchard (1904) Chekhov dramatises the fate of a landowning class in a dying social order that is already grieving for itself. He gives visceral expression to men and women enduring their fate and waiting for their way of life to finally collapse. Their ideals are gone, and they inhabit worn-out forms of life which have already served their time. “Whoever repeats them now,” wrote Chekhov, “he too is no longer young and is himself worn out.”
Starmer is the kind of tragic figure one finds in Chekhov’s plays. He is a product of a worn-out liberal progressive order. Will he be fated to repeat it? His political career began in the collective attempts to overturn the Brexit vote and in the bourgeois militancy of the People’s Vote. He presided over a movement filled with reactionary contempt for the working classes and provincial middle classes who had voted Leave. These are the very people he now relies on to achieve political power. Without an obvious alternative and lacking the political wherewithal to create one, he must break with his political past and convince people he has done so.
Nothing hampers this task more than Labour’s own progressive instincts. The closure of Nigel Farage‘s Coutts bank account offered an opportunity for the party to demonstrate a democratic, national authority by condemning unaccountable institutions and showing millions of distrustful Leave voters it is on their side. Instead its silence, or even glee at Farage’s predicament, exposed a narrow partisan politics, reinforcing the view that Labour stands for the power of the establishment against the people.
Alone among his colleagues it was Starmer, albeit belatedly, who condemned the behaviour of Coutts. Can he break out of Labour’s exclusive progressive culture, escape his own political past and drag his party out of its metropolitan enclaves and into the future? He has proved himself a ruthless machine politician, but he lacks the political antennae that made Blair so formidable in his time.
And yet he is better placed than his predecessor. The future of politics will not be progressive. It will be radical on the economy and conservative on culture and society. The Conservatives have proved incapable of embracing this paradox. The future does not belong to them, but nor yet does it belong to Labour.
A conservative left, not a liberal left, can command an electoral majority. Starmer is the best – the only – hope of achieving this in 2024 and so breaking the country’s stalemate and opening a new era. If he fails, Starmer will be remembered like Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a man who belonged to the past and paid the tragic consequences.