George Hoare reviews:
Oliver Eagleton, The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right (Verso 2022)
In his analysis of the Labour Party leader’s background and political trajectory, Oliver Eagleton gives the reader a valuable account of the political and intellectual formation of the man, and insight into the political components of Starmerism. The major strength of Eagleton’s account is to show how much-remarked-upon aspects of Keir Starmer’s political approach are not accidents of character but rather are grounded in his political trajectory. This provides important clues as to how Starmer might rule as prime minister.
Starmer’s preference for process over political conflict comes through clearly in Eagleton’s analysis of his time as Director of Public Prosecutions. Eagleton concludes that ‘Starmer’s technocratic method compensated for an inability to make swift or definitive decisions, allowing him to hide behind official processes and delegate difficult judgements’. Eagleton usefully traces how Starmer’s political impulses were and remain fundamentally those of a human rights lawyer, drawn from the milieu of London-based law firms and liberal NGOs. Eagleton also paints a revealing picture of Starmer’s approach to reforming the Crown Prosecution Service through a series of processes within processes, involving extensive consultations and document reviews rather than any openly “ideological” direction from Starmer himself. Labour’s proposed constitutional reforms already display all the hallmarks of this Starmerite approach.
As Eagleton’s story moves to the years of the Brexit crisis, however, the central limitation of his account starts to reveal itself: his analysis of the political relationship between Starmer and the deposed former leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Eagleton presents a clear picture of the political failures of Corbynism, centrally over Brexit, but he seems more willing to ascribe these failures to the political canniness and adroit manoeuvrings of Starmer than the weaknesses of Corbynism.
For instance, Eagleton describes how Corbyn – after defeating the leadership challenge from Owen Smith – wanted to fill his shadow cabinet with “big-name politicians who aren’t necessarily Corbynites”. This consensual approach ended up, as Eagleton nicely draws out, giving Starmer his initial opening. Starmer then out-negotiated Corbyn’s team to secure the crucial position of shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union. He is then supposedly able to impose his Remainer preferences on the party. This view of Starmer as a shrewd, calculating strategist sits at odds with Eagleton’s earlier, more convincing, study of the plodding, processual lawyer.
Moreover, there is a far more convincing explanation of Labour’s Brexit disaster than Starmer’s personal Machiavellianism: the weakness and failure of left populism and specifically of Corbynism. The central contradiction of Corbynism was not its effort to incorporate centrists like Starmer, but rather its claim to be pursuing a majoritarian political project – ‘for the many, not the few’ – despite its obvious hostility to the majority’s political preferences as revealed in the 2016 EU referendum. Corbyn was never prepared to try to line up Labour firmly behind a pro-Brexit position, in a way that Boris Johnson, for example, was with the Tories. It was this weakness that allowed the plodding Starmer an opening to hitch Labour to a Remainer position through his technocratic ‘six tests’ to determine Labour’s support for a Brexit deal – one of which was the impossible condition that Brexit would deliver the exact same benefits as EU membership.
What Eagleton does conjure for the reader is a lively account of the subsequent twists and turns within the Labour Party during the Corbyn years that would lead inexorably to the disastrous second referendum policy and electoral wipe-out in 2019. In particular, Eagleton shows how the increasingly technocratic and convoluted Brexit position of Corbyn’s party was an outcome of the political debates of factions within the Labour Party – and in particular within Corbyn’s inner circle – at that time. In particular, he shows how Starmer played a central role in shifting the Labour Party towards the second referendum position through repeated invocations of the need for process to slow things down when faced with potential directions he did not want to take.
To extend Eagleton’s analysis would require criticism not just of Starmer’s undeniable undermining of Corbyn’s leadership, but of Corbynism’s entire political orientation. According to Eagleton, Labour saw its role in the Brexit process as presenting ‘a credible, technical-sounding Brexit plan using [its] credible, technical-sounding shadow Brexit secretary’. If so, this was always a doomed approach that failed to grasp the significance of the Brexit crisis for the whole edifice of British politics. But, like Corbyn himself, Eagleton is blinded by the left populist view of Brexit as an ‘illusory’ polarisation that needed to be supplanted with the ‘concrete class antagonism’ of the masses against the elites, or the many versus the few. It was this evasive substitution of a fantasy class conflict for an attempt to lead the very real ballot-box insurgency against the status quo that truly doomed Corbynite left “populism” to failure.
Intriguingly, Eagleton concedes that it was Boris Johnson who took the left-populist approach to Brexit that Labour could have taken. As events showed, this was a sufficiently successful political strategy to break the Brexit interregnum and put the final nail in the coffin of Corbynism. He also notes that left populism, having sided with Remain, exposed its conservative character since ‘when it came to such fundamental questions, it was unwilling to break with the status quo’.
However, despite these glimmers of insight, absent is any recognition of how these decisions were not simply errors of left-populist strategy but really an expression of the middle-class character of the movement – rooted in a downwardly-mobile but fundamentally liberal-cosmopolitan, metropolitan base. Corbynism never had a solid base in the working class, not least because its institutional vehicle – the Labour Party – had eviscerated its traditional relationship with that class, leaving it hollowed-out and exhausted. Starmer is the more natural leader of a party that has become fundamentally estranged from the working-class majority, and Remain was its natural orientation. Corbyn’s own election as leader was only facilitated by rule changes designed to destroy the trade unions’ lingering influence.
Despite these weaknesses, Eagleton provides a clear sense of the likely direction of a Starmer-led Labour Party. Over and above being a ‘sensible’, managerial, ‘serious’ party of government, and no enemy of business, Eagleton summarises Starmer’s project ultimately as one of the restoration of the power of the Blairite faction within the Labour Party, after the brief experiment with Corbynism, but now lacking Blair’s modernising impetus. Accordingly, Starmer’s electoral strategy of waiting for the Conservatives to collapse is likely to be complemented with a ‘return to neoliberal economic precepts, overseen by Blairite leftovers’ and an ‘Atlanticist-authoritarian disposition, combining intervention abroad with repression at home’.
Oliver Eagleton, The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right
Verso, April 2022, ISBN: 9781839764622
14 December 2022