Here’s a curious paradox: progressive politicians the world over want to hear what Labour leader Keir Starmer has to say. But, back home in the United Kingdom, Sir Keir is urged to be more explicit about exactly what his party would do in government — in lieu of any detailed programme for government.
There are a few ways to square this circle as I see it. One might contend that the conclave of centre-left leaders who made their way to Montreal this weekend somehow mistook Starmer, that perennially dull pragmatist, for some progressive paragon — incorrectly reading enthusiasm for Labour into the tale of Conservative Party’s self-inflicted collapse.
Another view would be that Starmer, that alleged unconvincing Tony Blair tribute act, genuinely does have something to contribute when it comes to the intellectual trajectory of progressive politics.
A separate but likely reading, of course, is that world leaders have been studying the UK’s opinion poll data and have concluded that Starmer has the keys to No 10 within his grasp. Indeed, with polls placing Labour between 15 and 20 points ahead of the Conservatives, it is perhaps inevitable that Starmer’s vast and sustained polling advantage has invited the interest of his international centre-left comrades.
And the conference in Montreal held over the weekend provided that perfect forum in which curious foreign dignitaries could collect and solemnise, becoming more familiar with the Labour leader and “Starmerism” generally. The obvious question was thus: how has an unassuming former lawyer turned around the fortunes of a party that in 2019 seemed set for perhaps a further decade in the political wilderness?
But the question that necessarily follows is trickier: what does this guy actually stand for? British politicos, confronted with what Andrew Marr has termed the “Starmer conundrum”, might simply shrug.
However, presented with a willing audience of international leaders in Montreal, Starmer spoke expansively about what the Labour Party intends to offer Britain and, rather more interestingly, what other centre-left leaders might learn from his approach. Take notes, Trudeau.
At the top of Starmer’s agenda was detailing how centre-left governments should treat an emerging “axis of insecurity” — composed of issues including the cost of living crisis, illegal migration, the war in Ukraine and climate change
In this way, the Labour leader explained how left-wing leaders must become more comfortable when it comes to talking about border control. He implored his audience to refuse to cede such territory to the political right — something which Starmer said succeeds only in leaving progressive politics open for attack from populists.
Indeed, the key message of Starmer’s trip was thus: policies on illegal immigration must be incorporated, communicated and delivered as part of a progressive agenda.
But, what is more, when it comes to border controls, Starmer argues that the long-assumed dichotomy between purity in principle and electoral gamesmanship is false.
Speaking at an event alongside the Norwegian prime minister, Sir Keir said: “In principle it’s wrong to think that control of the border is not a progressive issue. Because if you lose control of the border, a number of things happen – that’s when in certain places you get into the business of people talking about walls and fences because you’ve lost control of the border.
“It goes down this slippery slope. And if you can’t have a wall and a fence, you have some of the gimmicks that we’re seeing in the United Kingdom.”
During his recent visit to the Hague, Starmer spoke of how he would “crush” people-smuggling gangs in government, adding that people smugglers must be treated skin to terrorists. Now in Montreal, Starmer explained how only with such a “muscular” pitch on illegal migration can progressive politicians counter perceived Conservative divisiveness and inhumanity — captured in “gimmick” policies such as the Rwanda scheme.
This was Starmer, therefore, projecting an image of himself on the world stage rather different to that of the competent and reliable manager which we have become so accustomed to domestically.
Another key theme of Starmer’s globe-trotting adventures has been the need for joined-up international efforts to tackle intersecting crises — an imperative he argues Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government has repeatedly rejected.
He recommitted Labour to the “rules-based” order in Montreal, announcing moreover that a Starmer government would seek to renegotiate the present Brexit deal in a bid to cultivate a more effective UK-EU relationship. This announcement — quickly criticised by a slew of Conservative spokespersons — arguably shows how the interviews, roundtables and panel discussions in Montreal have helped Starmer hone a new quiet confidence and, even, intellectual energy.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Starmer has angled unapologetically at a transnational “progressive moment”, but it might be the first occasion the Labour leader has detailed what he might contribute to it. In this way, Starmer perhaps sees his party more and more as a lodestar for a new kind of centre-left politics — in which his diagnosis of an “axis of instability” can act as an animus.
Starmerism enters its final pre-election phase
With a 18-point poll lead, conference season approaching and an intellectual curiosity newly unveiled, it is now a matter of where Starmer goes next.
But what is clear now is that the Labour leader is enlarging his totemic “small target” and, in turn, becoming more engaged with issues that will confront him if he does become prime minister in 2024.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Starmer explained over the weekend: “The question we need to answer is: “If not them, then why Labour? … That’s the central question as we go into conference we intend to answer.”
He added: “What I want to do at conference is reject the notion that reassurance and hope are distinct and mutually exclusive ideas and to weld them together.”
Here we see Starmer, someone who has shunned any talk of complacency in Labour, looking towards the horizon. Having ruthlessly reshaped his party over the past three years, evinced by the recent shadow cabinet reshuffle, Sir Keir is now interested in showing what his intent could culminate in in government.
Ultimately, only time whether the 61-year-old Starmer — with progressive politics once again under siege internationally — can emerge as the new centre-left poster boy.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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Picture taken from Keir Starmer’s Flickr account.