Keir aura: Starmer’s time at the top

Oliver Eagleton’s analysis of the Labour leader’s record suggests a disturbing critique of his political trajectory, writes George Binette

Thursday, 26th May — By George Binette

Sir Keir

NEVER mind “Beergate”: a member of New Left Review’s editorial board, Oliver Eagleton, has authored a slim, but lucid and heavily footnoted (373 footnotes), volume that amounts to a substantial “charge sheet” against the Leader of the Opposition.

The basics of Starmer’s story are relatively familiar: a grammar-school boy from modest circumstances; post-graduate studies at Oxford, then a stellar career as a barrister focused on human rights work, much of it pro bono as in the protracted battle of the “McLibel Two”. This work, which Eagleton duly credits, featured prominently in Starmer’s Labour leadership campaign video.

Eagleton goes on, however, to chart a sharp turn toward ever less critical support for “the establishment,” culminating in Starmer’s ascent to the role of Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in 2008.

In the book’s most revealing chapter, Eagleton conducts a nigh forensic examination of Starmer’s five years as DPP from 2008-13. Previously, he had served as a monitor of the Police Service Northern Ireland, successor force under the Good Friday Agreement to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, notorious as a brutal enforcer of sectarian rule.

Starmer angered Sinn Fein by refusing to issue a formal ban on the use of plastic bullets but won praise from a surprising quarter.

Democratic Unionist MP Ian Paisley Jr told Tory peer Michael Ashcroft that Starmer had given “us the tools and the arguments … to say that water cannon are necessary or plastic bullets are allowed … that you can have all these accoutrements to policing provided they meet human rights guidelines”.

Much of Starmer’s time as DPP coincided with the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition’s austerity regime. On the one hand, he presided over cuts at the Crown Prosecution Service. On the other, he doggedly pursued the swift prosecution and sentencing of teenagers caught up in the July 2011 unrest, which erupted after the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by Met police officers.

Sir Keir seemed especially keen to maintain a “special relationship” with President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder by seeking to hasten the extradition of both Julian Assange and the autistic computer hacker Gary McKinnon, whose transfer was only halted by then Home Secretary Theresa May.

Towards the chapter’s end the author concludes that “despite his overtures to the Labour Left in early 2020, Sir Keir’s record [as DPP] shows his evolution into an unabashed authoritarian”.

Following Eagleton’s assessment of his term as DPP the reader might conclude that the October 2020 decision to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the Government’s controversial “Spycops” (Covert Human Intelligence Sources) legislation reflected not so much a pragmatic accommodation to “Red Wall” voters’ perceived prejudices as the strength of Sir Keir’s identification with the police and security services.

Eagleton moves on to more contentious territory in discussing Labour’s internal tensions over Brexit. The chapter features considerably fewer footnotes.

Instead, he adopts the style of a Westminster lobby journalist, relying heavily on unattributed quotes. Eagleton’s account breaks with the previously received wisdom about Labour’s Brexit-induced agonies, embodied in Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour under Corbyn by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire.

While they suggest that Starmer maintained some distance from the People’s Vote campaign, Eagleton argues that as Shadow Brexit Secretary he was plotting with New Labour grandees (Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson) central to the second referendum campaign, which also had the barely disguised goal of undermining Corbyn’s leadership.

There are, however, clearly sources with axes to grind not only against Sir Keir, but especially against former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and to a lesser degree, Andrew Fisher, Labour’s policy chief from 2016-19.

The latter has characterised the chapter as “a very partial account … riddled with inaccuracies”.

Eagleton approached neither Fisher nor McDonnell. Other sources deny McDonnell pushed for Starmer’s appointment to the Brexit post and considered ludicrous the suggestion of any subsequent alliance between Starmer and McDonnell in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.

While there’s a powerful argument that Labour’s tortuous road to support for a second referendum paved the way to December 2019’s brutal defeat, the author preferred a narrative from ex-insiders sympathetic to a “left populist” Brexit.

The remaining chapters chart the aftermath of the party’s electoral hammering as Sir Keir followed a smooth, well-funded path to victory in a leadership contest where he posed as a champion of Labour’s 2017 manifesto offering competence and an end to internal warfare only to centralise power ruthlessly and junk most of his “10 pledges”.

Though he dwells in considerable detail on Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from Labour and continued exclusion from the PLP, some may find Eagleton’s treatment of the party’s “anti-Semitism crisis” surprisingly brief.

He certainly discusses Starmer’s drive to root out alleged anti-Semites – a remarkable proportion being anti-Zionist Jews – but he doesn’t examine Sir Keir’s swift journey from speaking on a March 2015 Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign platform to stifling all but the mildest criticism of Israeli actions from Labour’s front bench. Curiously, the book omits any mention of the so-called Forde report, still unpublished more than two years after its commissioning.

The concluding chapter persuasively depicts a politician who carries little ideological baggage and seems dependent on focus-group obsessed advisers, determined to erase any residual “Corbynite” traces.

Since spring 2020 Labour’s membership has slumped dramatically and its finances are woeful, but a fragile opinion poll lead should secure Sir Keir’s leadership, barring a nasty surprise from Durham police.

Crucially, for key backers, his time at the top has demoralised and isolated Labour’s left. Eagleton’s afterword offers that left little comfort, but he’s surely right to tie its fate to an ability to relate to resurgent union militancy and social movements not currently in the party’s ranks.

The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right. By Oliver Eagleton, Verso, £12.99
George Binette is former Camden Unison branch secretary and current vice-chair of Camden Trades Council

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