When his parents named him after Keir Hardie, Labour’s first leader, they could not have imagined how often their son would be measured against other people who have done the job. When Sir Keir Starmer ran for the role, some were under the misapprehension he would be a beardless version of Jeremy Corbyn. They know different now. During his first two years in the role, many thought, including a lot of people who sit in today’s shadow cabinet, he was fated to be another Neil Kinnock: someone who would haul the party back from the brink of oblivion, but not return it to government. And now that Labour looks like it is on the cusp of power, there’s a fashion to make comparisons with Tony Blair.
They are often intended as insults, especially when they come from segments of the left. Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite union, recently jibed that Sir Keir seemed “intent on becoming a 1990s tribute act”.
Well, there are more terrible ideas than trying to replicate Sir Tony’s trio of consecutive electoral hits. A worse one would to be a “tribute act” to the 2010s when Labour lost four elections in a row.
There are significant differences between the characters and beliefs of Sir Keir and Sir Tony, but before we get to them, let’s first examine the things they do have in common. One similarity is a view about power. A laser-like focus on getting it and keeping it was a critical component of the Blairite creed. “They say I hate the party, and its traditions,” said Sir Tony in the final conference speech he gave as leader. “I don’t. I love this party. There’s one tradition I hated: losing.”
Sir Keir, another extremely competitive type, shares the belief that the purpose of being in politics is to make things happen. “He doesn’t want to be leader of the opposition, he wants to change the country,” says one of his team. Whenever I ask people who know him well what gets Sir Keir out of bed in the morning, they invariably respond along the lines of: “He wants to win.” As he has grown in confidence as a leader, he has been remorseless in disposing of policies, including a lot that he once advocated, and putting aside people, among them some who were close associates, when he has concluded that they are an obstacle on the path to Downing Street. Towards foes, he has demonstrated mercilessness. “When he became leader, there was an expectation that he would be sort of Ed Milibandy,” remarks one Labour frontbencher. “But he’s been very Blairite in being utterly uncompromising towards the hard left. He’s actually been more Blairite than many of the Blairites. I think that’s basically because he was so disgusted by what he inherited.” Sir Tony has been heard to say, in an admiring way, that Sir Keir has been even more ruthless than he was in remaking the party.
There are also clear similarities in tactics and techniques because Sir Keir is borrowing heavily from the Blairite how-to manual on winning elections. “Keir has studied the New Labour ascendancy very carefully,” reports a shadow cabinet member. One sign of that is the determination to go into the election as fireproofed from enemy assault as possible by denying opportunities for the Tories to attack even if that can mean sidelining causes close to his party’s heart. He’s also followed a New Labour script by ruling out any increases to income tax or unfunded spending promises in an effort to reassure swing voters that they have nothing to fear from a Starmer government. Building confidence in their economic competence is also a driver of the New Labour-like operation spearheaded by Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, to be on good terms with the business world. To a degree that upset the stomachs of many Labour people, Sir Tony put a lot of effort into courting the rightwing media, especially the Murdoch papers. Sir Keir is also doing some of that, though with more of a grimace.
When it comes to personnel, it is true to say that people who broadly answer to the description New Labourite are now more heavily represented among Sir Keir’s senior staff and on the frontbench than when he first became leader. But he reacts with exasperation to the crude interpretation of his recent reshuffle of the shadow cabinet as a Blairite “takeover”. He has told friends: “I don’t know whether someone is a Blairite or a Brownite. I wasn’t around at the time. I don’t think like that. I’m interested in whether they have experience and talent.”
Morgan McSweeney, who is generally regarded as the most powerful operator in the behind-the-scenes team, took his nursery steps in political campaigning working with Peter Mandelson, the co-architect of New Labour. Matthew Doyle, Labour’s director of communications, used to be employed by Sir Tony. Peter Hyman, a senior advisor to Sir Keir, was on Sir Tony’s staff for 10 years, one of his roles being chief speechwriter. Pat McFadden, recently appointed as Labour’s campaign coordinator, was also in Downing Street during the Blair years. Yet just because someone once worked for Sir Tony doesn’t mean they agreed with him about everything then or do so now. When he was prime minister, virtually all of his senior staff at Number 10 were to his left. Few departed the building starry-eyed about their time there. After six years in Downing Street, Mr Hyman said he regretted that New Labour had over-emphasised “momentum, conflict and novelty” when what most mattered in achieving change was “empowerment, partnership and consistency”. He concluded that “real delivery is about the grind, not the grand”. Having veterans of that era about the place brings not just experience of how to win power, but also valuable inside knowledge about where, how and why the last Labour government made mistakes.
One of the more obvious differences between Sir Tony and Sir Keir is style. In advance of its first landslide, New Labour was inwardly neurotic, but conveyed the impression to the world of a party swaggering towards power bathed in sunlight. Starmer’s Labour moves with a less bouncy gait under glowering skies. If Sir Keir is the next prime minister, he will inherit much bleaker economic conditions than did Sir Tony in 1997. Whereas the latter talked relentlessly about “opportunity”, Sir Keir places a lot of emphasis on economic “security”. This is the result of both a different context and contrasting characters. “Keir is much more a John Smith personality than a Tony Blair personality,” remarks one senior Labour figure, meaning that Sir Keir is more cautious, less seduced by glitz and more conventionally social democratic in his views.
The importance he has attached to public sector reform is not so much early Blair as later Blair, after experience of government had convinced him it was imperative. Sir Keir has even said that he wants to “go beyond what the Blair government did on public services”. On the other hand, he has views about society which are very unBlairish. Such as this: “There may have been times in the recent past when Labour was afraid to speak the language of class – but not my Labour party. No, for me, smashing the ‘class ceiling’ that holds working people back is our defining purpose.”
One Labour veteran who is very well placed to compare the former prime minister with the aspirant one says: “Tony and Keir, though friendly, are not in the same place politically. Keir is most certainly not a Blairite. Of all the people in his office, he’s the most left wing. Not madly left, sensible left. He’s essentially soft left.”
Asking around senior Labour people, I find a lot of agreement that he has borrowed from Blairism, but is not a Blairite. Members of the shadow cabinet are reluctant to place him on a precise location on the political spectrum. “I don’t know,” said one. “It’s hard to say.” Responded another, tongue in cheek: “He’s a Starmerite.” In the view of someone in his inner circle: “He’s hard to place because he doesn’t think in traditional ideological terms.”
As the party conference approaches, we should expect to see commentary along the lines of: “Will the real Keir Starmer reveal himself?” I recall a torrent of those kinds of pieces about Tony Blair before he crossed the threshold of Number 10. Many of the features of what became known as Blairism were fuzzy in the run-up to 1997 and only began to acquire sharper definition once New Labour was in government. The same, I think, is going to be the case with Starmerism.
Source of data and images: theguardian