What Tony Blair gets right about Keir Starmer’s predicament

As the former prime minister writes in his New Statesman essay, Labour has yet to to persuade voters that it is both radical and serious.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Change or die – that's the message that Tony Blair delivers in this week’s New Statesman magazine, in which he gives Keir Starmer’s political strategy both barrels. He warns that Labour has exchanged a leader who was seen as “radical, but not sensible” for one who is seen as “sensible, but not radical”, and he criticises the Starmer strategy of seeking to swerve “culture war” issues, saying that “the battle is being fought on ground defined by the right because sensible progressives don’t want to be on the field at all”.

Elsewhere, Peter Mandelson tells Anoosh Chakelian that Starmer “knows a transformation is necessary, but he doesn’t have the political project to match that transformation”. This is essentially the fear that almost everyone in the Parliamentary Labour Party has: that Starmer has no real politics.

Of course, the Labour Party being what it is, the party’s right thinks this means Starmer will end up moving to the left, while the party’s left thinks this means he will end up turning rightwards. 

Whatever you think of Starmer’s various critics, Blair is surely right to say that, as the post-mortems into Labour's defeats in 2015 and 2019 both showed, Labour has yet to manage to persuade voters it is both radical and serious. And no one genuinely disputes – not least the team around Jeremy Corbyn, whose entire strategy after 2017 was predicated on this basis – that what Labour needed to do to go from a near-miss election to victory was to make further inroads into the ranks of socially authoritarian voters in general and Leave voters in particular. 

And no one could claim that Team Starmer’s way of doing that – swerving every culture and security issue that comes before the House of Commons, nodding in the direction of every liberation movement but having nothing to say for itself – has worked. The average voter hasn’t noticed yet, but surely, the position Labour has with its internal stakeholders, in which essentially every liberation movement suspects the Labour leadership is not committed to them, and every internal opponent of those movements thinks Starmer is a wholly owned subsidiary of “identity politics”, is the one Labour is careening towards without a change of approach. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

Free trial CSS