For all the policy U-turns and accusations of profligacy on principle, “Starmerism” is in fact a political mode of thought defined by very real strategical coherence.
Tory tailspin notwithstanding, Keir Starmer has stuck to a pretty strict script as Labour leader: at every turn he has sought to project competence in the hope that self-contained managerialism might provide a reassuring contrast with the Conservative party’s perceived chaos. The approach, which has coincided with a remarkable revival in Labour’s polling fortunes, has also had clear implications beyond the mere cosmetic.
The strategy has seen Starmer shadow the Conservatives closely on policy, presenting a small target to those rabid government-supporting attack dogs desperate to leverage some totemic “dividing line”. On fiscal policy, for example, Starmer traverses a narrower and narrower path — taking positions conditioned by the political incentives provided by Liz Truss’ short spell in office which continues to spur the salience of spending commitments. Fiscal conscientiousness, informed by iron-clad economic oaths, is an increasingly essential aspect of Starmer’s political pitch.
Still, the Conservatives continue to test Starmer’s commitment to his core strategy: thus the attempts at laying political traps through recent “energy” and “small boats” “weeks”. But Sir Keir refuses to nibble as he tacks tightly to the government’s own positions, depriving the Conservatives of their much sought after “wedge issues”.
So with a winning formula established and complacency rejected, Starmer continues to talk tough on migration, both legal and illegal, and has undertaken ruthless rearguard action on ULEZ, green energy and the two-child benefit cap.
But while “Starmerism”, cautious and tetchy, reigns supreme in England — it may be accused of failing to take stock of the emerging electoral frontline in Scotland. For while mundane managerialism may be the order of the day south of the border, in Scotland, SNP-Labour swing voters will crave a rather more bracing political offering.
It is now well-established that the Scottish National Party’s Scottish supremacy is under challenge amid a police probe into party finances and a broader debate over party identity. It is also clear that Labour intends to capitalise on the SNP’s political tumult, with Starmer now a frequent visitor north of the border, including earlier this week.
Still, in seeking to gain support from erstwhile SNP voters, the Labour leadership may be forced to return to its essential political offering — thus far forged through competition with the Conservatives in England. Starmer’s new challenge begs the question: can the Labour reconcile a progressive pitch in Scotland, that wins over the newly SNP-sceptic, with an approach in England, that is defined by shadowing Conservative policy positions?
This question is now so salient because 20 seats in Scotland would essentially guarantee Labour a majority at the next election — even if polling tightens in England. And with a by-election forthcoming in Rutherglen and Hamilton West (SNP majority, 5,230), Starmer must face up to this problem of strategy sooner than anticipated.
The Labour leader will know that, in recent months, there have been signs that Starmerism is struggling to adapt to the tone and substance of Scotland’s political culture. An especially controversial recent case was the Labour leader’s announcement that he would maintain the two-child benefit cap if he wins the next general election. In England, the new position was proudly sold as another sacrifice on the altar of fiscal prudence; but in Scotland, the SNP has placed the move at the centre of its argument that Starmer’s Labour is shedding its progressive credentials.
In turn, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, under pressure from the SNP to stress his independence of mind and action, labelled the two-child benefits cap “heinous”, adding that he would continue to lobby Starmer to scrap it.
But Starmerism’s Scottish dilemma does not stop there.
Sarwar was also a supporter of Nicola Sturgeon’s measure — currently blocked by the UK government — that would allow 16-year-olds to change their gender by a simple declaration. Sir Keir, on the other hand, stated his opposition to the bill, which is thought to be popular in Scotland but less so in England. On this matter, the Labour leader’s opposition could quite easily be explained by his desire to scrub out a potential culture war dividing line with the Conservatives.
However, with matters quickly coming to a head in Scotland over the forthcoming Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, Starmer — who has so far U-turned to scupper Conservative attacks and never to buttress them — could be about to buckle.
On Tuesday, Starmer told an “in conversation” event with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, when prompted on the two-child benefit cap, that if Labour enters government it would ensure welfare policies “operate more fairly”. The wording marked a notable change from Sir Keir’s first attempt to take a stand on the policy — when he insisted in deliberately unequivocal terms that Labour would “not change” the policy in government.
At the same event, Starmer even said that he would not have blocked the SNP’s proposed gender recognition reforms with a Section 35 order. It followed a coded comment on the controversy in the pages of the Scotsman that morning, in which the Labour leader said: “Devolution [should be] respected and protected”.
Of course, the political imperative for Starmer’s newfound flexibility on issues once reserved for unequivocal stolidity may be explained as short-term electioneering. Ahead of the upcoming by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Starmer wants to be seen as at one with his Scottish Labour leader. The softened approach will have been urged and now welcomed by Sarwar, who — like every Scottish Labour leader — must confront criticism that he runs Labour’s “branch office” north of the border.
But Sarwar’s lobbying aside, Starmer’s approach here appears to challenge the core tenets of his long-term political strategy, which rests on remaining steadfast on issues over which Labour might reasonably be viewed as exposed to Conservative attack. This analysis begs the questions: will further campaigning in Scotland see Starmer review his self-imposed ideological boundaries? And might renewed SNP-Labour competition in Scotland, therefore, catalyse a radical tilt in the UK party at large?
These points underline that it is in Scotland, not in England, that Starmerism looks set to face its greatest challenge.
A crucial element here is that Rishi Sunak, desperate to forge and exploit dividing lines with the Labour leader, will seize on Starmer’s bid to win over Scottish voters for his own ends. Indeed, following Starmer’s comments on the gender self-ID issue on Tuesday, Sunak rushed to the Daily Mail to issue a stinging comment. He declared: “Sir Keir Starmer has just U-turned on his own U-turn. First he was for self-ID, then he tried to convince us he was against it. Now he’s for it, but only if you’re in Scotland. Women and girls need their rights protecting, no matter where they live in the UK”.
In this, Starmer may be consoled by the fact that there exist attacks on the Conservatives and the SNP that are both consistent and, even, mutually affirming. A core theme of Starmer’s recent article in the Scotsman, for example, was its commentary on the “gesture politics” of the SNP’s separatism and the Conservatives’ muscular unionism.
The 2,700-word tract also sought to emphasise aspects of Labour’s pitch to Scottish voters which might not be leveraged against the party in England. For example, Starmer argued that “GB Energy”, Labour’s proposed publicly-owned clean energy generation company set to be based in Scotland, “shows … a new way of doing Westminster politics. … I freely admit this aims to fundamentally change the relationship between Scotland, England and our union”.
Nonetheless, as the Labour leadership gears up for a general election expected in 2024, the question of how closely Starmerism should stick to its core strategic assumptions, forged in England, will loom large. Refuse to budge in Scotland and the party risks being attacked by the SNP as a closet right-wing party. But change direction and Sir Keir could opening up dividing lines in England which Sunak will enthusiastically exploit.
Viewed in full, Starmer’s “Scotland question” is as profound a strategical quandary that he has faced during his tenure as Labour leader. Sir Keir has always sought to locate and follow the obvious electoral incentive on issues such as these; but it is far from clear which path Starmer takes on Scotland will yield the greatest windfall. Would securing 20 seats north of the border, for example, (as one recent poll suggested was within Starmer’s grasp) be worth enduring sharpened Conservative attacks in England?
But ahead of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, whatever happens in a future general election campaign, Starmer seems keen to soften his approach on areas the SNP might label “Conservative-lite”. It may underline that Starmer’s road to radicalism — if such a path exists at all — runs squarely through Scotland.
Josh Self is a political correspondent at Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
Image from Keir Starmer’s Flickr account.