Keir Starmer: The World’s Most Typical Pol
Who is the West’s most typical politician? Who best embodies the US-led order’s contradictions? You might think the answer is President Biden, the genial grandfather who forgets which country he is arming and why mid-sentence—the congealed essence of our global gerontocracy. Or maybe it’s Emmanuel Macron: At a time when resurgent centrists are putting the lid back on the alleged populism and authoritarianism of the long 2016, the French president has taught his bourgeois supporters that this is best done by becoming authoritarian populists themselves. Or perhaps Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is the most typical politician of our time, by showcasing that leading a historically fascist party no longer has to get in the way of enthusiasm for the European Union and NATO.
But allow me to make the case for the leader of the British Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer. In 2020, Starmer was a doubtful prospect as the successor to the polarizing socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Against the made-for-TV personality of then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Starmer was as charismatic as a tea towel. At the height of the Brexit debate, he was one of the most recognizable Remainers. And amid convulsions of right and left populism, he had somehow managed to preserve his image as both a do-gooder human-rights lawyer and the country’s former chief prosecutor, with a history of going after left-wing protesters.
The neoliberals who run Labour’s machinery adopted Starmer as a disposable interim agent to shutter democracy within the party, ensuring that the Corbyn wing would never again accidentally attain power. Emerging from a vicious election campaign and Corbyn’s defeat, many ordinary Labour members seem to have voted for the conventional Starmer out of exhaustion and in the hope of being left alone. Starmer got lucky with the unforced collapse of the Conservatives. Tory grandees had reluctantly swallowed “BoJo” to get rid of Corbyn. Once the establishment was rid of Corbyn, Johnson was unceremoniously dispatched. Ever since, polls have predicted a crushing majority for Starmer’s Labour in the general election expected next year.
Notwithstanding the upbeat progressive sloganeering that will no doubt accompany Starmer’s victory, the new premier will be indebted to an extraordinary and frankly impressive piece of negative political performance art. In his leadership contest in 2020, Starmer committed to an ambitious prospectus fairly similar to Corbyn’s left-populist manifesto from 2017, only to renounce measure after measure in a kind of drip effect, one policy every few months.
This theatrical shedding of ideas has occurred in parallel with a studied refusal to launch any ideological criticism of the Conservative Party, especially over the “culture-war” measures the Tory government has sometimes planted precisely to force Starmer into serving as a conveniently “woke” foil. Deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda? Withholding lip-service condemnation of Israel as it ravages Gaza? “Take-back-our-streets” rhetoric against peaceful protesters? With the exception of an early fluff that saw him take the knee for Black Lives Matter, Starmer has replaced agonistic disagreement with the promise to do whatever the increasingly amateurish Tories do—only with the greater managerial efficiency and professionalism for which the Labour leader is renowned.
Overcoming the instincts of his own socially liberal class fraction, he has won this game of “reactionary chicken” hands down. Perhaps this agenda has been successful because it is reassuring to the public. Or merely because it calms the establishment media. Either way, the Starmer agenda is a striking inversion of both Labour’s past and the libidinal politics of the recent “populist” years, during which leaders overperformed by provocatively raising the public’s expectations, rather than lowering them.
It is precisely this strategy that makes Starmer “the most typical politician in the world.” As political theorists such as Dylan Riley, Robert Brenner, Anton Jäger, and Benjamin Studebaker have all recently posited, politicians across the developed world have abruptly pivoted away from big populist or universalist ambitions to use the state to change their countries. Instead, they have turned to a highly targeted “political capitalism” that either makes a zero-sum offer to small factions of their base or promises them nothing but the “hyperpolitical” satisfaction of besting their hated cultural rivals. For a substantial section of Britain’s squeezed professional-managerial bloc, it will be enough that Starmer’s performance of lowered expectations has taught bratty Corbynistas and Brexiteering gammons alike a few facts of life, even if he delivers nothing else. Starmer’s brand of “securonomics” adds hand-tying budgetary constraints and indifference to trade unions to Biden’s platform, which itself is a watered-down simulacrum of the stuff Bernie Sanders said he’d do and Donald Trump never got around to. That’s it: It’s all progressives are likely to get out of Starmer.
Beyond that, Starmer is likely to go further than even the Tories in protecting the police and the military from prosecution, while proscribing protests and suspending online privacy. As Oliver Eagleton’s political biography, published last year, details, Starmer was eager to bring the Crown Prosecution Service’s conviction and sentencing norms into line with the anti-welfare, anti-protest, anti-civil-disobedience agenda of the first David Cameron government. Starmer’s record is one of making it easier for governments to block scrutiny of the state agencies, while bringing the full force of the law against ordinary people.
Starmer’s rabid Atlanticism, meanwhile, stands in sharp contrast not only to the card-carrying anti-imperialist Corbyn, but even to Johnson, whose own parochial jingoism saw him scoff at the “part-Kenyan” President Barack Obama, execute Brexit in defiance of America’s foreign-policy establishment, and recuse Britain from international norms on Covid vaccines, even as he went further than Biden in escalating over Ukraine. As director of public prosecutions, Starmer transformed UK law enforcement into a subsidiary of the American War on Terror and War on Drugs, exporting Atlantic policing and trial norms and priorities to strategic “risk-zone” countries. Incumbent Prime Minister Rishi Sunak can scarcely compete with this for globalist deep-state credentials. At a time when successive crises in Ukraine and Palestine have demonstrated a huge multipolar divide between the US-led order and the Global South, Starmer promises to rally to the most retrograde forms of Americanism.
“Dissident” rightists and free-speech liberals disaffected over the mainstream line on Covid, Ukraine, and much else have cheered Starmer’s treatment of the Corbynistas. Wasn’t the “hard” left to blame for “cancel culture”? And isn’t Starmer’s crackdown against the Corbyn faction a well-deserved case of the chickens coming home to roost? Hardly. It is the resurgent, vengeful center that has meted out harsh sentences to even the most opportunistic and accidental participants in the Jan. 6 riot at Capitol Hill; that launched an unprecedented campaign of lawfare against Donald Trump for the crime of being elected; that censored “Covid misinformation” (read: dissent from masking and lockdowns that was later vindicated); that has mounted a chilling campaign of firings in response to anti-Israel sentiment; and yes, that banished the Labour left from public life.
As a public figure who has specialized in these dark arts since long before he entered electoral politics, Starmer epitomizes these tendencies. He is thus the most typical politician of our post-populist moment. Keep your head down.