A recent controversy provides insight into the strategy and leadership style of Keir Starmer. Speaking in the House of Commons on 1 February, Kim Johnson, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, posed a question to Rishi Sunak. “Since the election of the fascist Israeli government last December, there has been an increase in human rights violations against Palestinians,” Johnson said. “Can the prime minister tell us how he is challenging what Amnesty and other human rights organizations refer to as an apartheid state?”

Johnson’s invocation of fascism in Israeli politics echoes similar warnings issued by senior Israeli politicians. In 2016, Ehud Barak – a former Israeli prime minister and Labor Party leader – said the “seeds of fascism” were being sown by Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2020, Ehud Olmert – another ex-Israeli prime minister – argued in The Jerusalem Post that Israel was at risk of becoming a “fascist” country. Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister in the current Netanyahu administration, openly describes himself as a “fascist homophobe.” Over the past few months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have marched through the streets of Tel Aviv in opposition to proposed legal reforms that would allow Knesset members to directly overturn rulings made by the Israeli Supreme Court. Since December, the Israeli military has carried out a series of raids in Palestinian refugee camps, killing at least seven children in the process. Meanwhile, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities – the centrepiece of Israel’s “apartheid” system, according to Amnesty International – has continued apace in the West Bank. 

And yet, for Starmer, Johnson’s question was a transgression too far. Following her appearance in the Commons, Johnson was summoned to the Labour chief whips office at Westminster and told to rescind her “completely unacceptable” remarks. A few hours later, she was back on the Labour benches in parliament apologizing “unreservedly” for her “intemperate” use of language.

Since being elected, by a landslide, as Labour leader in April 2020, Starmer has systematically expunged any trace of Corbynism from within his party’s ranks. The public rationale for this campaign has been constructed around, but not restricted to, criticism of the state of Israel, which Starmer automatically equates with anti-Semitism. Corbyn’s preferred successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey, lasted all of two months in the Starmer shadow cabinet before being sacked for praising her friend, the pro-Palestinian actress Maxine Peake, on social media. Last year, the leftwing MP Sam Tarry was dismissed by Starmer as shadow minister for local transport after appearing on an RMT picket line. Tarry has since been deselected as a Labour candidate. And, of course, Jeremy Corbyn himself sits in exile from the parliamentary Labour Party, with no prospect of return.

Starmer, to be fair, is nothing if not methodical. In The Starmer Project – a recent, highly critical biography of the Holborn and St Pancras MP – the journalist Oliver Eagleton explains how Starmer mapped out a timeline for the entirety of his tenure as head of the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales. “Year one, evaluate the organization; year two, devise a reform strategy; year three implement it; year four, begin to prepare for a successor.”

You can see a similarly rigid pattern emerge in Starmer’s attempts to rebrand Labour after its 2019 election defeat. Corbyn opposed nuclear weapons and the Washington security consensus. Starmer wants to increase British defence spending and bolster the NATO alliance. Corbyn deepened Labour’s links to the trade union movement. Starmer has distanced himself from striking public sector workers. Corbyn was open to a second Scottish independence referendum and backed Irish reunification. As prime minister, not only would Starmer reject future requests from Bute House for a section 30 order, but he would also argue in favour of the Union in the event of an Irish border poll – a position jarringly at odds with Labour’s traditionally neutral stance on the issue. 

Then there is Brexit. According to Eagleton, Starmer was the principal driver of Labour’s shift towards hardline Remain politics during the peak crisis years of 2018 and 2019. Starmer was determined to become “the darling of the Remain lobby,” Eagleton writes, and ran a “parallel operation” within Labour aimed at isolating Corbyn, who believed (correctly) that a softer stance on Brexit might safeguard at least some of the party’s Leave-voting seats in the north of England. Since then, Starmer has ruthlessly jettisoned his europhile rhetoric and rubbished any prospect of Britain’s reentry into the European Union. There is “no going back,” he told the BBC in January – not into the EU, not into the customs union, not into the single market. 

Starmer’s cynicism is strategic, of course. He wants to signal a decisive break in Labour’s internal culture and mark the party’s shift to a more conservative ideological register. But is it working? To many voters, three years into his leadership, Starmer remains politically formless and indistinct. Recent data from YouGov shows that a plurality of Brits view him as indecisive and untrustworthy. Another poll, published last July, shows that four-in-ten Labour voters don’t even know what he stands for.  

Starmer’s centrist supporters see such vagueness as an advantage. Writing in The Financial Times last month, Janan Ganesh compared Starmer’s trajectory to that of Nicola Sturgeon. On independence and gender reform, the outgoing SNP leader was “boldness incarnate,” Ganesh argued. And, “for all this audacity, she has to show, what? A career that is spent at 52.” Starmer, on the other hand, is on course to become prime minister “by default” and should therefore maintain a rigorously “narrow” political outlook. 

But Ganesh miscues the causes of Sturgeon’s downfall. It wasn’t an absence of caution that triggered her resignation, but an abundance of it. After 2014, the first minister effectively demobilized the independence campaign in favour of flashy post-Brexit PR announcements. And she dithered for years over reform of the Gender Recognition Act rather than updating it quickly, in 2016, when she had the chance. In the end, Sturgeon’s obsession with optics at the expense of movement-building froze the SNP’s momentum. 

Starmer’s preferred approach has been to embrace the language and bearing of late 1990s Blairism. At Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool in September, he echoed Blair by describing the party as the “political wing of the British people.” He did so again in February by deploying Blair’s favourite “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” catchphrase. In 2021, he spoke at the launch of Progressive Britain, a Blairite think-tank formerly known as Progress. His top team looks unsettlingly familiar, too. Yvette Cooper, Pat McFadden, Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips, and Liz Kendall have all been given ministerial or junior ministerial roles. David Blunkett has been called in to advise the party on “skills and apprenticeships.” Douglas Alexander is standing for election in East Lothian. Even David Miliband is threatening a dramatic Transatlantic comeback. 

The Blairite tilt might be sustainable if Labour can maintain its 20-point poll lead – a product more of government ineptitude than opposition skill. But there’s no guarantee that Starmer’s ascendancy will last. Rishi Sunak has already secured one massive political victory this year in the form of a hard-fought deal with the EU over Northern Ireland. His prospects will improve again if the Conservatives can avoid serious losses at the local government elections in May.

Starmer has tried to limit the possibility of a Tory revival by nullifying culture war attack lines from the tabloid right. In October, he backed “firmer” sentences for climate activists who commit acts of vandalism. In December, he urged British industry to abandon its “dependency” on immigration as a source of “cheap labour.” In January, he sat back as Westminster's launched an unprecedented attack on the Scottish Parliament. 

Starmer hit a fresh low this week when the Tories revealed their draconian new ‘Stop The Boats’ deportation plan. Sunak’s Illegal Migration Bill is an “unworkable gimmick” that will fail to deter migrant boats from crossing the Channel, Wes Streeting told the BBC on 6 March. Contrast Streeting’s pallid rhetoric with the far more aggressive denunciations issued by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which described the bill as “abominable”, and the UN Refugee Agency, which said, if enacted, it would constitute an all-out ban on asylum seekers entering the country. Like Blair, Starmer wants to placate anti-immigrant sentiment in British public life, not confront it. As in the 1990s, the net result will be to push the debate over Britain’s borders deeper into Conservative territory. 

The stock defence of Starmer offered by his shrinking band of progressive supporters is that, hidden beneath the crude Blairite posturing and reactionary cultural jargon, lies a bedrock of radical policy. The economist James Meadway – formerly an advisor to John McDonnell – argued in The Guardian recently that Starmer has consistently opposed Tory spending cuts and pledged, once in office, to engineer the rapid decarbonization of Britain’s economy. Equally optimistic noises have been made about Starmer’s constitutional platform. Labour formally embraced the package of reforms set out by Gordon Brown three months ago. These include (modestly) enhancing the powers of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, moving chunks of the London-based civil service north, and scrapping the House of Lords. 

However, given Starmer’s willingness to ditch previously cast-iron policy commitments, how likely is it that any of these proposals will actually be implemented? It’s easy to imagine Brown’s blueprint being junked the moment it becomes politically inconvenient. Likewise, Starmer’s “mission-oriented” economic strategy risks being dismembered by an inflation-buffeted business sector. (In the aftermath of last year's bond market meltdown, Starmer’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves assured asset managers in the City of London that Labour would govern strictly in the interests of “sound money.”)

As Eagleton suggests, Starmer’s project is largely “restorationist.” He aims to rid Labour of any lingering leftwing impulses seeded by Corbyn and reaffirm the right’s hold over the party. Starmer ran for the leadership on a broadly Corbynite ticket, pledging, in April 2020, to pursue Corbyn’s economic priorities – nationalization, higher taxes on the rich, a green new deal – once he reached government. Instead, he orchestrated a putsch. Under Starmer, the Labour left has been sidelined or evicted, and almost nothing remains of Corbyn’s populist vision.

Starmer’s major failing is that he doesn’t understand why that vision took root in the first place, nor that reheated Blairite nostrums won’t clear the heaving pile of social and economic problems – flatlining wages, falling living standards, planetary heating – lying in wait for his administration. Starmer may be good at crushing socialists inside his own party and silencing supporters of Palestinian independence. But rescuing Britain from these onrushing crises? That sits beyond the realms of his technocratic expertise.