Keir Starmer has come a long way from the anti-capitalism of his youth
Keir Starmer was a bit left-handed in his youth. It is well known, and two biographies of the Labor leader published over the summer provide some details of his anti-capitalist writings for magazines titled Socialist alternatives and Socialist lawyer in the ’80s and’ 90s. Anyone who hasn’t embarrassingly railed against the injustice of the world in their twenties and early thirties has no heart, but what do these two books tell us about our possible future Premier? Minister ?
For starters, neither book looks promising, as Starmer declined to have anything to do with them. A, Red knight, by Michael Ashcroft, proudly announces that he is The unauthorized biography. It’s hardly surprising that Starmer told his friends that he “would rather they didn’t participate.” Ashcroft, the former Conservative peer and former party vice president, also co-wrote a hostile biography of David Cameron, Call me Dave, which appeared to be the continuation of a feud between him and the Prime Minister, so you can see why Starmer might be wary.
The other book, by journalist Nigel Cawthorne, appears to have been written in part because he went to the same school as Starmer, Reigate Grammar, but that doesn’t seem to have convinced Starmer to cooperate with her. Nonetheless, both authors have done their research, and they are telling us some important things about their subject.
Ashcroft may be controversial, but he has done politics a great service by paying for a huge amount of opinion polls over the past decade, and this book appears to be the product of genuine Starmer curiosity. He establishes that Starmer did physics, chemistry, and math at A-level, although we don’t know what grades he got. Both books rather needlessly dwell on the fact that Reigate Grammar became a private school while Starmer was there, but since Starmer and his cohort were state-funded students throughout, that doesn’t seem relevant. He does not agree with private education and has not chosen it for his children either.
Starmer’s youthful socialism is entertaining, and these books help situate him in the party’s long march to eligibility. “We were radical anti-imperialist ecosocialists,” said Ben Schoendorff, head of the seven-member editorial team, including Starmer, 23, who led Socialist alternatives. The magazine was inspired by Michalis Raptis, a former Greek Trotskyist known as Pablo, whose faction, the Pabloites, wanted to expand socialism to include feminism and green politics. The first issue was published in July 1986, proclaiming that his view of socialism was “the generalized self-management of society as a whole”; he claimed to “work concretely for a radical extension of popular control over wealth and power” by integrating the traditional workers’ movement into the “new social movements”.
Starmer’s articles in the first issue proposed that unions control “industry and community” and criticized a policy document produced by Neil Kinnock, then Labor leader: “Unfortunately, in returning to the market economy, there is a lack of a third alternative, that of participatory socialism based on democratic planning.
Well, that’s a point of view, isn’t it? Even Tony Blair, when he was 29, wrote of how “the resources to rebuild the manufacturing industry require enormous guidance and government intervention. This, in turn, will put any Labor government in acute conflict with the power of capital, especially multinational capital ”.
Starmer’s early policies were also evident in a Socialist lawyer article when he was a 32-year-old lawyer, in which he said that “Karl Marx was, of course, right” about the futility of trying to effect change through abstract statements of fundamental rights. When I wrote about this before I said I thought it was a dry joke, but Cawthorne kindly sent me a copy of the item and Starmer (a) was not kidding, and (b) was skeptical of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law – a policy that produced human rights law in Blair’s first government.
What is important, however, is how Starmer’s thought developed. He now strongly defends human rights law, for example. The value of these books is to tell the story of his subsequent career. Because he was not in politics, Starmer’s evolution must be glimpsed between legal work – Blair, on the other hand, became an MP at the age of 30, so it was easier to trace the growing confidence in his version of social democracy.
What stands out strongly is the seriousness of Starmer. He was committed to equality and the rights of the underdog, but by the time he took over as Director of Public Prosecutions he was clearly a reformer within the establishment rather than an outsider wanting to demolish it.
His misfortune when he became a Member of Parliament was to serve under leaders who seemed to want to go in the opposite direction. I remember Blair saying of his fellow MPs when he was Leader of the Opposition, “You can tell those who had serious jobs before you came here. Starmer was one of those, but unfortunately he rose to the top under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, who had no “serious jobs before coming here”, and both of which made it difficult for Starmer to prove. that he had indeed developed the idealistic “participatory socialism based on democratic planning” of his youth.
Red Knight: The Unauthorized Biography of Sir Keir Starmer, by Michael Ashcroft, Biteback; Keir Starmer: The Reluctant Politician, by Nigel Cawthorne, Gibson Square Books.