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‘Keir Starmer’s Authoritarian Approach to Politics Risks Stifling a Labour Government’

The Labour leader’s labelling of those who disagree with him as ‘unBritish’ is a worrying sign of things to come, argues his former adviser Simon Fletcher

Keir Starmer. Photo: GaryRobertsphotography / Alamy

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In the last few months Keir Starmer has called opponents of nuclear power ‘contemptible.’ He called critics of his position on migration ‘unBritish’. As a method of argument, it is problematic.

Writing for The Sun last month Keir Starmer argued that “some people” said Labour should not talk about immigration “or shouldn’t believe in secure borders”, while others wanted Britain to “turn our back on the world”.

“Both are wrong. Both are un-British,” he said. It’s a striking turn of phrase – anyone who does not agree with him is “un-British.” 

Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, and now the President of the TUC, was right to say that it is “kneejerk” to label everyone who raises concerns as “un-British.”

Unfortunately the Labour leader has form. In August, in an effort to distance himself from Just Stop Oil, he wrote for The Times that “the likes of Just Stop Oil” want us to simply turn off the taps in the North Sea, “creating the same chaos for working people that they do on our roads. It’s contemptible. So is saying you want clean energy as we move away from fossil fuels and then opposing nuclear power, even though it is vital to any viable plan to lower energy bills and deliver energy security for working people.” So not only are Just Stop Oil contemptible, so are the opinions of the large number of people opposed to nuclear power.

Un-British. Contemptible. For an aspiring Prime Minister it is a bad, authoritarian approach, a mechanism that ‘others’ different voices so that they are outside the debate. Consider that high-handed line translated into Government, from the pen of the Prime Minister. 

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And Labour’s huge victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West byelection is the latest indication that Labour is indeed heading for government. As the likelihood of Labour in power moves closer, so there is increasing interest in the party’s political thought under Keir Starmer. 

Labour’s openness to ideas and debate is rightly under scrutiny, including from some who are not all Starmer-bashers. During the summer for example, the former adviser to Tony Blair – John McTernan – called for Keir Starmer, to “make peace” with his party and the left in order to achieve definition with the public.  His argument was that “it is time for Starmer to look within the Labour party and engage with the leftwing thinkers and the ideas that underpinned the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos. Every family has its hidden secrets — and in Labour it’s the fact that Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, asked many of the right questions, even if he came up with the wrong answers.”

Shortly afterwards, Philip Collins, who has been a speechwriter for both Tony Blair and Keir Starmer, struck a note of concern about the level of intellectual vigour in comparison to the Blair-Clinton era, adding: “Such intellectual energy as can be found anywhere is on the Labour left, in identity politics and in climate change activism. When party politics is this boring the idealistic young separate from the ambitious young.”

On the eve of Labour’s conference, some senior veterans of the last Labour government have warned against a range of pitfalls, from treating the nineties as the only point of reference to caution over campaigning and the economy.  

What we are seeing is a disconnect between the scale of the problems a newly-elected Labour government will face and the level of political and intellectual liveliness required to confront it.  And fighting to exclude the left from the party’s landscape has blocked off an important source of new ways of thinking. The present Labour leadership has consciously inhibited an atmosphere of dialogue and the exchange of viewpoints. It has favoured not so much a battle of ideas than the application of machine politics. It has hunkered down on its lack of interest in differing ideas and philosophies, presenting a hard face towards them and damping down expectations of what the party’s grassroots can hope to achieve through the policy-making process. Labour’s leadership has imposed an internal regime designed to squeeze out different strands of opinion through repeated blocking of candidates for parliamentary selections, as the journalist Michael Crick has documented in great detail. When Keir Starmer writes of the contemptible and the un-British, he encapsulates the culture.

A ‘Deadening’ of Ideas

As Labour gathers in Liverpool this week, it will consider the national policy forum documents that will inform the writing of the party’s general election manifesto. Throughout the party’s policy-making process strenuous efforts have been made to drain it of “unfunded spending commitments.” There is no great ideological argument taking place about economic choices. And if a policy’s funding mechanism is not pre-agreed, it does not get far. As a way to discuss ideas it is at best very top down, and more often than not, deadening.

Keir Starmer’s trajectory has been to pursue uniformity yet further. His most recent reshuffle amounted to another elevation of the party’s right at expense of the soft left, with those further to the left already gone. 

The political situation screams out for a renewed vigour and dynamism, the very moment when the exchange of ideas is needed most. Nothing in Britain seems to work anymore. The full consequences of thirteen years of Conservative Government can be seen everywhere from crumbling schools to the cancellation of HS2. Household incomes have been squeezed at an unprecedented level and the NHS is in crisis.

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Many problems go back further, to the post-1979 consensus that privatised the water companies now pumping out raw sewage and the failed railway franchising system. Such times might well offer the chance for a new consensus, but a more incremental approach dominates. The difficulty is that the precise conditions that have demolished Conservative support and presented the opportunity of a Labour government will then immediately confront Labour in office. It will be a Government challenged by a hard-right wing Conservative party and their outriders in the media, whipping up reactionary populism. 

With the climate crisis and economic malaise, and a Conservative party spiralling off in a dangerous direction, the best hope for a resurgence of ideas lies not with Labour’s leadership but with the left. That resurgence has its greatest chance of being forged at the intersection where the left, the unions, civil society, and the climate movement meet. And it will have to involve a mobilisation against rigid party orthodoxy that stifles critical thinking.

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