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7 September 2023

We still don’t know what Keir Starmer believes in

Is the Labour leader’s embrace of the Blairites tactical or ideological?

By David Gauke

This is proving to be a very good week for Labour. The government faces a very difficult issue (the school concrete crisis) which it is handling badly; ministers are looking defensive, even self-pitying; there are plenty of reminders of past failures and scandals (Gavin Williamson has had to apologise for bullying, Christopher Pincher faces expulsion from parliament, it is the first anniversary of Liz Truss becoming prime minister); and Keir Starmer has delivered a reshuffle that has promoted some of Labour’s best talents.

There has always been something of a mystery as to what Starmer believes. He was content to serve under Jeremy Corbyn and ran for the Labour leadership on a platform that did not put much distance between himself and his predecessor. People who had known him for a long time generally concluded that he was a figure of the soft left; his early shadow cabinets appeared to confirm that.

An examination of this week’s reshuffle would suggest that Starmer is, in fact, a committed centrist. The winners from the reshuffle, by and large, are those most highly rated by Tory MPs because they can appeal to Conservative voters.

Peter Kyle is an excellent communicator and, with the Windsor framework implemented, deserving of a higher profile brief than Northern Ireland. As shadow science secretary, he may give Labour a more credible growth narrative. He also understands aspiration and its importance to Tory voters.

The same can be said for Liz Kendall, whose heroic campaign for the party leadership in 2015 set out what Labour should have done and very spectacularly did not. (Some of us who were subsequently part of Rory Stewart’s 2019 Conservative leadership bid looked back on Kendall’s efforts with renewed admiration.)

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Pat McFadden, Tony Blair’s former political secretary, understands Whitehall and has a general air of thoughtful, soft-spoken menace that conveys an ability to get things done. Darren Jones has proven to be a consistent irritant for the government as the Business Select Committee chair, an unusual route to prominence for someone in their first term in parliament. A slightly different skill-set will be required as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury but few in Westminster doubt that he will be able to master it.

[See also: The parallels between Argentina and Britain’s inept political class]

Having had the experience of being shadowed by Shabana Mahmood during the 2015 general election, I know that the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, will have to be on guard. She is bright and tough and (like Chalk) a proper lawyer, which helps. And the return of Hilary Benn – experienced, reasonable and decent – provides some added gravitas.

Some of those names are fully fledged Blairites. Others might not quite meet that description but would have happily served in a Blair cabinet and, in the case of Benn, actually did. Certainly, the repudiation of the Blair era that started under Gordon Brown, accelerated under Ed Miliband and reached a state of frenzy under Corbyn, is long behind Labour.

This was symbolised in July when Blair and Starmer shared a stage together at the Tony Blair Institute’s Future of Britain conference. On policy, the Blairite influence can be seen in the watering down of what was previously a long list of promises to strengthen employee and trade union rights. On taxes, Rachel Reeves has dismissed calls for a wealth tax, even if that has not met with the approval of everyone at the New Statesman. Spending discipline and delivering economic growth are the priorities. This all sounds like New Labour Mark II; an attempt to win over vast numbers of disillusioned Conservative voters by occupying the centre ground with the purpose of repeating Blair’s triumph of 1997.

For all the progress made, including in this reshuffle, I remain a little sceptical. Starmer has moved his party a long way, greatly to his credit and that should not be underestimated. This is a reshuffle with a sense of direction, and that is something rare and impressive.  

But is it a direction that Starmer really wants to go and, therefore, one that will be maintained in government? Is he attracted to the ultimate destination or is this merely the route of least resistance for the next part of the journey?  

Why the doubts? There is too much talk of this being a reshuffle driven by the leader’s advisers rather than the leader himself. Perhaps he merely wanted to promote his best communicators and it so happens that his best communicators are on the Blairite wing of the party. This gives him a more formidable team to win an election but does not necessarily mean that it’s how he wants to govern.

When Blair was asked by a colleague if Labour would abandon the pretence that the party had changed after winning his landslide, he replied “it’s worse than you think – I really do believe in it”. Does Starmer really believe in it? 

Circumstances, of course, are different. The challenges of today are different from the 1990s. Labour’s chosen political priority is to win back the working-class Leave voters who defected to Boris Johnson in 2019 and are not akin to Blair’s “Mondeo man”. Blair came to believe the fundamental divide in politics was not between left and right but between open and closed values. Starmer more happily identifies as someone on the left and appears ambivalent about open values.

For some centrist voters who would welcome a Blairite revival, this now looks a more attractive shadow cabinet. But it is not necessarily clear that this is a shadow cabinet in the image of its leader.

[See also: Homer’s history of violence]

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