LAST week, Sir Keir Starmer called on the new PM to “get a proper Home Secretary”. In five words, this intervention sums up the strangely unpolitical character of the current leader of the opposition in Westminster.

Faced with gruesome reports of overcrowding and infectious illness from Home Office detention centres in Manston in Kent, Starmer complained that nobody had been deported to Rwanda under the government’s scheme. “It’s not working, is it? He hasn’t got a grip,” he said.

If your main objection to the state of Britain’s refugee policy is that too few people are being despatched to central Africa too slowly – that Suella Braverman’s scheme doesn’t work in practice and the planes haven’t flown – then you’re seriously missing the wood for the trees.

But this approach is classic Starmer – a bit of priggery, a bit of political triangulation and another outing for his obsession with transforming questions of raw politics and values into questions of competence.

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It isn’t that competence is unimportant. Seriousness of purpose matters. A commitment not to wreck the place can be a valuable impulse in political leaders. Recent experience with Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng has taught us this isn’t guaranteed.

But competence isn’t a political programme. Competence isn’t a political campaign. Competence isn’t a value system. Competence isn’t an analysis of Britain’s society or economy, of its winners and losers and why they win or lose, and how this can and should be changed.

Politically, competence is an empty suit – which is why it buttons up just as comfortably over Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt. After less than a week in power, with a new Tory cabinet staffed by the same old faces, an Observer poll has revealed that Sunak had already clawed back Labour’s lead on who voters trust most to manage the economy. Labour remains ahead, but substantial inroads have been made in their polling lead. Sections of the electorate seem prepared to treat September’s mini-Budget as “ancient history”. And we’re two years out from a General Election.

I’ve just finished reading a short biography of the Labour leader by Oliver Eagleton. Eagleton is an associate editor at the New Left Review and is marinaded in pro-Corbyn politics. The title – The Starmer Project: A Journey To The Right – gives you a flavour of the author’s fundamental thesis. Defenders of the Labour leader will write off this book as a hatchet job, seeking to rehabilitate Starmer’s predecessor and lay blame for the failure of the Corbyn project at Starmer’s door.

It certainly pursues both arguments, but the book also does useful work excavating the largely unknown aspects of the Labour leader’s professional history and the influences which formed his politics. The basic argument of Eagleton’s book is – we shouldn’t be surprised that Starmer hasn’t emerged as a radical figure. He’s never really been one.

Starmer’s background as a human rights barrister is perhaps the best-known aspect of his personal story. Starmer’s cases included the notorious McLibel case where, to his credit, he acted pro bono for the campaigners sued for defamation by the fast-food multinational. He also acted for trade unions and workers.

Which made it all the more surprising when he was made Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008. Or at least superficially so. Eagleton argues that Starmer’s time as the DPP wasn’t spent upholding human rights or holding the powerful to account, but instead in sweeping the British state’s excesses under the carpet, promoting authoritarian policies on behalf of the UK Government, adopting protocols which made it harder for sexual offence cases to be prosecuted, handmaidening Tory budget cuts, ratcheting up the punishments doled out to the 2011 rioters, getting cosy with the Americans and the state security apparatus, and redeploying the public relations resources of his office to hog the limelight.

Some aspects of his time as England’s chief public prosecutor were new to me. When he was DPP, Starmer was an enthusiastic proponent of extraditing Gary McKinnon to the United States. The Glasgow-born hacker managed to subvert the security protocols in American military computers and Nasa. McKinnon had been looking for covert evidence of UFOs.

When this breach was detected, the US began a sustained campaign to have him turned over to their custody for trial. McKinnon faced up to 10 years imprisonment on a string of charges. But medical evidence suggested there was a real risk he would end his own life if he was removed from the country.

In October 2012, the better angels of Theresa May’s nature – and these cherubim didn’t take flight very often – blocked McKinnon’s extradition to the state of Virginia on human rights grounds. Blindsided and outraged by this development, Eagleton claims Starmer hopped on a flight to allay the outrage of the American cousins.

This was the man who stepped first into Labour politics, then the Labour leadership. For a politician so taken with his own integrity, honesty and decency – Starmer secured the leadership of the Labour Party by a series of whoppers. You don’t have to be a fellow traveller to marvel at how shamelessly he kippered the Labour Party membership after Corbyn’s resignation in December 2019.

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Starmer stood for leadership on the basis of Ten Pledges. The basic sell was “Corbynism but with competence”. There were big policy commitments here. “Public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders.” Support for common ownership of “rail, mail, energy and water”. An end to tuition fees, outsourcing in the NHS and Justice and the abolition of universal credit. “No stepping back from our core principles.”

In press interviews since taking over, Starmer and his surrogates have cheerfully junked these commitments as unworldly, undeliverable and impolitic. If you go looking for the detail of Starmer’s Ten Pledges on his campaign website, you are now automatically redirected to his tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth. As metaphors for Starmer’s political approach go, being deflected from “the moral case for socialism” to a patriotic reflection on the death of the sovereign is too on the nose – even for me.

As Eagleton writes, “so little remains known about Starmer that his actions are usually interpreted as overtures to others”. His critics on the left often see the Labour leader as an empty vessel into which the depleted essence of Tony Blair has been poured – a New Labour transfusion aimed at killing off the remaining cells of Corbynism in the party. For them, Starmer is the Labour party’s undeadening. But as Eagleton argues, it is clearly more complex than that.

When it swept into power in 1997, Tony Blair’s government was characterised by distinctive policy positions. There were ambivalences and triangulations. Like all big-tent parties, Labour learned the advantages of talking out of both sides of its mouth from time to time. But the appeal wasn’t just the continuity of Thatcherism and a compromise with market forces.

If the Conservatives represented stolid middle age, then Bambi Blair was the bright young thing. If the Tories were narrow and nationalistic, New Labour would be more cosmopolitan, with a vision of Britain “at the heart of Europe”. If the Tories were old-fashioned, Labour would be modern. If the Tories were socially conservative, New Labour would be socially liberal.

Devolution, human rights, and freedom of information were introduced, though it is telling that parts of the party immediately began to regret legislating for all three. The party presided over the creation of a national minimum wage – despite shrieks from Tory industry – and massively increased public spending on the NHS and education.

The dark arts were much in evidence here, too, of course. Gordon Brown perfected the art of the stealth tax – and the stealth welfare benefit. Successive Labour Home Secretaries played the role Braverman plays now, with a similar flair for authoritarian thuggery and myth-making about rebel lawyers and bogus human rights claims. War and terror escalated this tendency.

Starmer is certainly the inheritor of New Labour’s authoritarian impulses, telling LBC last month that he wants climate protesters to spend longer behind bars. But what’s missing today are any of the social oppositions which made New Labour possible.

Starmer isn’t the face of a new political generation. He doesn’t represent modernity against the past or change in the face of continuity. He isn’t the big spender. He isn’t more cosmopolitan. He isn’t obviously more socially liberal. On social policy, policing and security – his impulses are to outflank the Tories on the right.

To understand Starmer’s political pitch simply as “Blairism without the élan” ignores the profound differences between today and the political atmosphere when Labour last persuaded the British public to put them into office. There’s little enough élan under his leadership – but the Starmer project also lacks the defining differences with the Tories which were intrinsic to New Labour’s cultural appeal.