Oliver Eagleton’s The Starmer Project shows the Labour leader to be a devious, self-interested defender of the conservative establishment, finds Terina Hine
Readable, detailed and concise, Oliver Eagleton’s biography of Keir Starmer reveals a politician deeply embedded in the establishment. Promoted as a progressive, liberal lawyer, in reality he is a ruthless autocrat ‘combining intervention abroad with repression at home’ (p.186). The book is packed with detail about Starmer’s political and legal career. It often makes for unpleasant reading: his political life is defined by duplicity; his legal notable for defending the state while prosecuting activists. His leadership bid was an act of fraud.
Unusually for a political biography we learn almost nothing about where Starmer came from, his formative years, his family, schooling or hobbies. Rather, Eagleton provides a meticulous account of Starmer’s career, from human-rights lawyer to Leader of the Opposition via the CPS and a brief stint (a mere five years) as an MP and Shadow Brexit Secretary. From the outset, it is clear Starmer had his sights set high, the speed by which he achieved his goals a combination of opportunism and ruthless determination.
The subtitle, A Journey to the Right, is more a comment about Labour’s shift from Corbyn to Starmer than about Starmer himself. Contrary to common belief, Starmer was always on the right. In 1990, at the beginning of his legal career, Starmer was voted secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers; once in post his first act was to suggest removing ‘socialist’ from the society’s name (p.14). How prescient. Starmer’s left-wing credentials were a sham, relentlessly exploited in his leadership campaign.
A prosecutor for the establishment
The record of Starmer’s early career counters the narrative that his left-to-right trajectory occurred in the face of realpolitik. His time as DPP was marked by defending state abuses of power. He prevented Home Office officials responsible for the death of migrant Jimmy Mubenga from being charged, he did the same for PC Harwood, the officer responsible for killing Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor who died following the G20 protests, and most famously he refused to bring charges against the killers of Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead by police at Stockwell tube station. Similarly, Starmer protected the Spycops who used their undercover roles to abuse women. In contrast, he pursued Julian Assange and hacker Gary McKinnon. Whistleblowers and protesters were fair game, but not MI5 agents who torture or police who kill and abuse. Eagleton explodes the myth of Starmer as radical lawyer with example after shocking example. That Starmer defended the McLibel activists in his early career was the exception rather than the rule.
Starmer’s close relationship with the US state will be a revelation to many. During his tenure the CPS acted ‘as a proxy’ (p.29) for the US State Department overseas, with Starmer himself becoming an envoy for the US Department of Justice. He forged close links with US Attorney General, Eric Holder, at one point going way beyond his remit by promising to secure Gary McKinnon’s extradition - a young man who, while looking for evidence of UFOs, hacked into US military databases. Eagleton describes Starmer’s ‘fury’ (p.31) with Theresa May when as Home Secretary she stopped the extradition. In one heart-rending passage Eagleton quotes McKinnon’s mother after she met Starmer to plead her son’s case. In it she tells of Starmer’s response to her pleas: ‘“I’m feeling very uncomfortable,” said Mr Starmer. “Speaking to you is making me feel very uncomfortable”’ (p.30). His lack of interest and concern in her son could not have been more transparent.
Starmer was elected as Labour Leader on the back of ten pledges to uphold Corbyn’s radical agenda. He promised the left he would re-package the policies to gain wider electoral appeal. Once in power he lost no time in abandoning them altogether: nationalisation was buried, the Green New Deal diluted, and anti-war internationalism replaced by hawkish warmongering. He presented himself as the unity candidate, played up his left activism: his time on the Wapping picket line, his opposition to the Iraq War, and his defence of McLibel Two. He was the serious candidate, a thoughtful lawyer, the grown-up in the room.
Opportunism and machinations
But the only pledge Starmer kept was the one to end factionalism, achieved through mass expulsions and an authoritarian hardline. Rather than opposing the Tories, Starmer concentrated his mind on internal party discipline, ‘myopically focussed on the party apparatus, using rule changes and disciplinary procedures to crack down on socialists of any stripe’ (p.150). Sanctions for breaking a one-line whip were dramatically increased, described by one MP as a deliberate intimidation tactic (p.150). Socialist groups were proscribed and a left-wing cull instigated. And of course, there was Corbyn’s own suspension, which according to Eagleton, was ‘the real prize’ (p.153). A prize pursued by the Blairites who took over the leadership team (including Peter Mandelson, recruited as one of Starmer’s political advisers). Eagleton provides a detailed account of the manoeuvres to expel Corbyn, including how the antisemitism row was used to achieve this goal.
Eagleton’s skilful depiction of the torturous Brexit debacle brings to light the machinations that led to the 2019 election defeat and brought an end to Corbyn’s leadership. The Machiavellian plot has Starmer at its centre, supported by Blairite co-conspirators fully versed in the high art of intrigue and deceit. Starmer’s role as shadow Brexit secretary is analysed with forensic detail, revealing beyond all reasonable doubt that Labour’s Brexit position was about much more than the relationship with the EU. Labour’s eventual Brexit line was as much a strategic attack on the left as a push towards Remain.
Starmer is undoubtedly a Remainer, and keen to move the Party towards a pro-EU stance. Initially he was happy to support a soft Brexit, but with leadership on his mind, Starmer made a calculated shift to betray the Brexit vote and simultaneously undermine and ostracise Corbyn. For the ambitious Starmer it was a win-win position. As Labour’s prime spokesperson on Brexit, through legalistic and procedural obstruction, ably assisted by Alistair Campbell and the Labour right, Starmer prevented Corbyn from adopting a left-populist Brexit position, prevented Labour supporting the compromise position put forward by Theresa May, and pushed the Party towards favouring a second referendum; a position that was electoral suicide. Eagleton argues this was a deliberate act of sabotage. If lucky, it could result in a second referendum, with Starmer the Remainers’ hero, if not, Labour would lose the next election and Starmer could swoop in as new leader to save the Party. What was not to like?
In some ways the most shocking revelation in the book is the role Corbyn’s one-time comrade John McDonnell played in wrecking Labour’s electoral chances. More frightened of a Labour spilt than a left defeat, more concerned about the Party than a Tory government, McDonnell convinced himself that the only way to hold the Party together and retain his position as Shadow Chancellor, was to support the Remain cause. Described by Eagleton’s sources as having an overinflated sense of his ability to strategise, McDonnell ‘took it upon himself to become the special envoy to the Labour Right’ (p.111). McDonnell assured Alistair Campbell and the People’s Vote campaign he would get the leadership onboard with a second referendum. He regularly met with Campbell, inviting him to the Leader’s office without Corbyn’s agreement, and promised the right-wing plotters he would ‘get rid of the staffers in Corbyn’s inner circle who were impeding the turn towards Remain’ (p.111). McDonnell created ‘an atmosphere of division and disorientation’ (p.111) in Corbyn’s office. Unsurprisingly, McDonnell was outwitted by Starmer and the right, and once no longer of use found himself out of favour and out of power.
Eagleton places Starmer at the centre of Corbyn’s demise and Labour’s election defeat, he is portrayed as a calculating political schemer who manipulated events from 2016 onwards in order to gain high office. According to Eagleton, Starmer sees himself as a moderniser, but ‘his function is purely restorationist: to unravel Corbyn’s legacy and re-establish the Right’s monopoly on power’ (p.185). In this he has proved successful. With a multitude of eyewitness accounts, Eagleton exposes Starmer as an ambitious opportunist, neither a lapsed socialist nor liberal defender of human rights, but first and foremost a conservative representing the interests of British state. He is deeply undemocratic, an authoritarian with a penchant for ruthlessly putting his own interests above all else.
As an account of the demise of the Corbyn movement and the rise of Starmer, Eagleton’s book is worthy of attention. Its weakness lies in the concluding Afterword. Eagleton is at a loss as to where the left should go next, having lost the parliamentary battle. He makes vague suggestions for a new political party which he thinks could grow through the ‘cross-pollination’ (p.193) of activist groups at The World Transformed (a festival run by Momentum on the fringes of the annual Labour conference) or through new media outlets such as Novara. That change comes from the streets, through protest and strikes and the struggles of ordinary people is barely acknowledged.
At a time when the country is suffering the worst inflation of any G7 nation, when we are witnessing Dickensian levels of inequality, when Europe has been plunged into a war supported by unprecedented boosts in military spending, and the world is on the brink of a climate catastrophe, this response lacks the urgency demanded by the many who saw hope in Corbyn’s leadership. These multiple crises have the establishment spooked, and it is at such moments when political action moves out of parliament and onto the streets. That is where the left should be.
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