Keir Starmer Is Very Serious About the Status Quo

The UK’s new Prime Minister, elected on July 4, won’t touch the structures that helped him ascend to power—and that hold most working people in Britain down.

Sarah Jaffe

Keir Starmer is a Very Serious Politician. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

LONDON — Prepare for Keir Starmer to be the new hero of the sensible center.

As Democrats in the United States abandon Joe Biden like rats from the proverbial sinking ship and Emmanuel Macron spectacularly self-immolates over in France, Sir Keir’s wide margin on the Fourth of July in Britain is bucking the trend, claiming victory for the middle of the road.

Sir Keir’s wide margin on the Fourth of July in Britain is bucking the trend, claiming victory for the middle of the road. Voter turnout, perhaps the best indication of enthusiasm, was the lowest in a British election since 1886.

Labour won in what one commentator called a loveless landslide,” winning at least 412 seats (a few are left to be counted) with a vote share possibly lower than it achieved in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn, and just 1.4 points higher than 2019, which was counted a disaster for the party. It is the largest party in England, Scotland and Wales, but it lost votes and seats to its left. 

Voter turnout, perhaps the best indication of enthusiasm, was the lowest in a British election since 1886.

Starmer’s election does mean change for British politics after 14 years of Tory rule, but Starmer has mostly achieved this by not doing too much while his main opponents in the Conservative Party crashed and burned. A certain kind of Labour Party insider apparently calls this the Ming vase” strategy: moving like you’re carrying a priceless object across a slippery floor. Move too fast, do anything unexpected, or really anything at all, and you could destroy the whole thing. 

It’s never interrupt your enemy while he’s making a mistake,” ratcheted up to 11.

Labour promised little more for this election than, well, at least we aren’t those guys — meaning Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May or David Cameron. (Each of the former PMs’ seats fell to their left in this election. Sunak held his, but rumors abound that he will resign.)

That’s led to a sweeping victory for Starmer in a nation that nevertheless doesn’t think particularly highly of him. As the Financial Times noted a week before the election, If the current polling were borne out on July 4, the result would produce the lowest combined vote share, of 63%, for the main parties since the two-party system emerged after the first world war.” The BBC’s estimated total Friday morning was even lower: 58%.

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Labour and the Tories both dropped support after the election was called, and smaller parties picked up big wins: notably, shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire lost to the Green Party in Bristol Central, and the Greens picked up two more seats for a total of four. Four independents who made Palestine a central issue also won seats. Data published on June 26 showed 33% were satisfied with the job Starmer was doing, with 52% dissatisfied. That gave him a negative 19 net approval, the worst for a Leader of the Opposition entering Number 10 (worse than Thatcher, Blair and Cameron).” 

But Starmer benefited from the fact 78% thought it is time for change.” Amongst Labour voters in particular, the party is less popular than it was in the last three elections (two with Jeremy Corbyn as leader and one with Ed Miliband). And his personal majority was nearly cut in half even as his party’s vote swept him into the Prime Minister’s office.

Starmer, in other words, has won largely due to circumstance. He’s not Sunak who himself suffered from association with his predecessors, and he’s not Corbyn, either — in fact, he has so thoroughly purged Corbynism from the party that Corbyn had to run as an independent, and won his seat with a larger majority than Starmer had over another left-wing independent in his own constituency.

“I do think people need hope, but it needs to be what I call ordinary hope, realistic hope,” Starmer said.

Yet Starmer and his fans in the mainstream press will no doubt credit his resounding victory to his being a Very Serious Politician, unlike those scruffy socialists. Indeed, he told the FT’s Jim Pickard that his slogan might as well be Make Britain Serious Again.” Imagine the Obama campaign but stripped of all jouissance, all sense of joy and, well, hope.

I do think people need hope, but it needs to be what I call ordinary hope, realistic hope,” Starmer told Pickard.

Serious” is one of Starmer’s favorite words, and it is echoed by reporters. It’s certainly true that Britain and the world face a whole host of serious problems. The trouble is that Starmerism has absolutely nothing to offer when it comes to actually fixing them. On migration, he’s tacked to the right, promising to work with a potential National Rally (far-right) French government to stop small-boat movement. For me, that’s what serious government is about. So yes, we will work with whoever,” he said. On climate, his Labour has jettisoned its pledge for £28 billion in green investment. A party named for labor has cut back its proposed New Deal for Working People. 

Perhaps one of his ugliest swings has been to slide towards transphobia: a reminder that seriousness” is at its core an appeal to white masculinity. Often, as Joe Kennedy pointed out in Authentocrats: Culture, Politics, and the New Seriousness, as a weak substitute for class politics. In this line of thinking, so common in the press, working-class people are too thick to understand complicated concepts and are terrified of anyone different from themselves; their material concerns are brushed aside, as they mostly were in Labour’s manifesto, in exchange for some perceived cultural red meat.

As economist James Meadway, host of the Macrodose podcast and former advisor to the previous Labour leadership, wrote, Labour’s manifesto promises less new spending than the Tories did. 

A total increase in public service spending of £4.5bn is dwarfed by the £20bn of annual cuts currently scheduled for the next parliament. If implemented those £20bn of cuts will be easily equivalent to the austerity horrors inflicted by George Osborne and the Coalition government in the early 2010s. Worse, they will be cuts imposed on services already broken by the austerity years.” 

Starmer became Labour leader in the wake of the 2019 election, when Corbyn’s Labour lost to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. At the time, he promised a sort of soft-left Corbynism: Corbynism in a proper suit, maybe, but still socialist, he swore. Despite having been the party’s lead on Brexit, the issue that helped doom Labour that year, he managed to skirt accountability on that issue and promised he would keep the popular policies from the 2017 manifesto. The Economist deemed him a serious Labour man,” while the BBC even noted at the time that Few would doubt that he is a deeply thoughtful and serious politician. But what does he actually stand for?”

Seriousness” in this case is largely an empty signifier: Starmer was a relatively new Member of Parliament (MP), one who had wavered in his support for Corbynism and, once leader, waffled on nearly every issue of substance. But he looked the part: the right kind of white man making the right kind of soothing noises to the right people. As Moya Lothian McLean wrote in 2020 in a piece memorably titled Keir Starmer is a wet wipe,” Starmer’s Oxford degree, background as both human rights” lawyer and prosecutor, and his knighthood seemed to have shaped his reputation more than anything he’d actually done in Parliament. “[H]is tenure as Labour leader has so far been marked by profound cowardice and fence-sitting,” she wrote. Since September, Keir has ordered his party to abstain on controversial votes concerning Covid-19 tiers, the Covert Human Intelligence Source bill (aka the spy cops’ bill) and the Overseas Operations bill (also known as the torture’ bill).”

Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour Party leader, ran in this election as an Independent and won. Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Attorney Matt Foot, coauthor of Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest, knew Starmer in his days as a lawyer and recalled his change from human rights attorney supporting protesters to director of public prosecutions (DPP). Notably, part of that swing came as he was working as a human rights adviser to the Northern Irish Policing Board.

Starmer was DPP during anti-austerity protests and the 2011 uprising after police killed Mark Duggan in north London and, Foot said, under his watch, many people with no prior convictions were saddled with violent disorder” charges. Starmer, he said, became part of the establishment: You know Marx’s phrase that social being determines consciousness?” He continued, He wouldn’t answer the question when he was standing for leadership: who was funding his campaign? Once you are funded by rich people, then you are representing their interests.” 

Scholar Adam Elliott-Cooper, author of Black Resistance to British Policing, noted Starmer’s time as DPP coincided with the prison population explosion. We see a massive increase in not only young people and working class people being incarcerated, but we see Black people now being incarcerated at the same rates as African-Americans in the United States and people of color in Britain more generally being grossly overrepresented in incarceration rates.” The period also brought a massive increase in police powers with very little judicial oversight — including when the police killed Duggan.

Starmer has promised to continue to enforce the laws his predecessors have made—laws which “reinforce the power of landlords, reinforce the power of employers, reinforce the power of border regimes, reinforce the power of energy companies, and criminalize the forms of resistance to these institutions of crisis.”

But Starmer, Elliott-Cooper noted, has been able to nevertheless wrap himself in the image of the police and the courts as a symbol of national pride and humility and diligence and respectability.” Even with the recent decline in support for police, particularly after the murder of Sarah Everard, Starmer’s association with the judiciary gives him an aura of objectivity, of being above politics.

I think it’s dangerous,” Elliott-Cooper said. It’s dangerous because we know that the judiciary is none of those things.” The judicial system works within the laws that are made by politicians, he noted, and Starmer has promised to continue to enforce the laws his predecessors have made — laws which reinforce the power of landlords, reinforce the power of employers, reinforce the power of border regimes, reinforce the power of energy companies, and criminalize the forms of resistance to these institutions of crisis.”

But this, after all, is what Serious really means: it means that Starmer can be trusted not to touch the structures of power that, after all, have benefited him in his rise to power. It means that the rabble will be punished for making demands, whether that means being thrown in jail or merely thrown out of the party. It means that he can be a safe pair of hands to steer the ship while capital accumulation proceeds. The Ming vase strategy is not simply about getting elected but a fundamental philosophy of government. 

The trouble is that it is not 1990 anymore. History rudely restarted after being declared over with the triumph of neoliberalism. Starmer will come to power in a time of multiple catastrophes (the current term of art is polycrisis,” though I prefer to joke, following Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about learning the plural of apocalypse) that cannot be avoided with slowness and caution. The National Health Service is at a breaking point, the water is full of sewage, trains don’t run properly, and schools are literally crumbling. Nothing works anymore” is a common refrain. Housing is unaffordable and jails full to the brim, requiring near-immediate attention. 

Rachel Reeves is the UK's new chancellor. Sarah Jaffe

And then there are the international crises: the ongoing, horrific assault on Gaza and the war in Ukraine. The rise of the far right, which has been legitimated by the same sort of grown-up” dealings from the center that Starmer promises when dealing with a potential Trump reelection. And looming over it all, the climate catastrophe, which promises, as Meadway noted, to turn our lives upside down, even as it has been almost entirely left out of campaign discussions.

In these conditions, Starmerism no longer looks serious. It looks disconnected from reality, the willful stuffing of heads into the sand. 

As Joe Guinan and Howard Reed pointed out, it’s hardly that Britain is out of money — that money is simply being hoarded by the rich. But a government unwilling to tackle that basic balance of forces will find itself in trouble, fast. Labour will be challenged by what could be a new bloc within Parliament to its left, which could give cover to its remaining left-wing members to break with Starmer as well; it will also face new pressure from Reform, Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle for right-wing populism, which won at least four seats this election.

Politicians of the center keep forgetting the main tenet of politics: you have to make people’s lives better. You don’t hold their loyalty long with scolding, as the center is learning to its great pain in France and in the United States. Starmer is benefiting now from a population wanting — needing — change, but he should take heed from his compatriots across the sea and channel, as well as from his poll numbers: his support can evaporate very quickly if he doesn’t take action, and having done his best to crush his own party’s left, the people waiting to pounce will be the right — perhaps reconstituted and led not by the same old Tories, but Farage, or by Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch, both of whom held their seats and already appear to be angling for Conservative leadership. 

The serious center, counted on to dispatch the threat from the left, finds itself once again swallowed by the right — a right wing that has benefited, over and over, from Silvio Berlusconi to Trump to the National Rally, from being seen as unserious, unbelievable as parties of government, right up until they win a landslide. 

Rather than touting Starmer as the future, a once-again-resurrected centrism able to stave off the irrational right and left, we ought instead to see Britain as a few years behind the French and ourselves. The safe pair of hands, elected less because of its own promises than in a desperate bid to stave off, as in France, or replace, as in the United States, fascism 2.0, will not be able to rely on that fear forever to maintain its power. Sooner or later, voters will tire of broken Britain” and cast around for someone, anyone, promising to actually spend money to make things work again.

It’s time for the Very Serious People to take the concerns of real people seriously.

Sarah Jaffe is a writer and reporter living in New Orleans and on the road. She is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone; Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, and the forthcoming From the Ashes: Grief and Revolution in a World on Fire, all from Bold Type Books. Her journalism covers the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets, and her writing has been published in The Nation, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and many other outlets. She is a columnist at The Progressive and a contributing writer at In These Times. She also co-hosts the Belabored podcast, with Michelle Chen, covering today’s labor movement, and Heart Reacts, with Craig Gent, an advice podcast for the collapse of late capitalism. Sarah has been a waitress, a bicycle mechanic, and a social media consultant, cleaned up trash and scooped ice cream and explained Soviet communism to middle schoolers. Journalism pays better than some of these. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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