Keir Starmer’s caution may be frustrating, but it’s right

Rafael Behr

Prime minister might not be the hardest job in Britain, but it combines the highest level of responsibility with the lowest barrier to entry for inadequate candidates. You don’t get to be a rocket scientist, for example, by reckoning you’d be good at it and persuading enough people to give you a go.
But rocket scientists don’t need to win a popular mandate to take tough decisions. They don’t need to be liable on telly. Running a government is almost impossibly difficult because the skills necessary for winning power are unlike the ones required to use it well. Campaign wizards can lack the temperament to be competent managers. Shrewd judgment doesn’t always express itself in memorable phrases; which brings us to Keir Starmer. If the Labour leader reaches Downing Street, his journey will not be remembered for lofty oration along the way. It isn’t a gift people suddenly acquire – and if Starmer had it, we’d know by now. Luckily for him, Rishi Sunak has the same weakness. Happily for both leaders, the value of charismatic performance has tanked since the bursting of Boris Johnson’s bubble. Liz Truss’s spontaneous political combustion had a similar effect on the market for visionary radicalism – or government by dogmatic hallucination, as it turned out.
Sunak’s offer to the public, on taking over from Truss, was a period of steady administration; no more stomach-churning loops on the political rollercoaster. The switch to a technocratic style has been cosmetic. The incompetence is less spectacular and erratic, more dull and predictable. He has also delivered up to a point. The ride has been smoother. That was the right pitch for an incoming prime minister with a wafer-thin mandate. But the Tories get no credit because frenzy has been swapped for decay. It would be a mistake for Labour to see Sunak’s failure as a repudiation of the idea that Britain is ready to be led by a professional manager. The vacancy is for someone who can project that approach alongside a credible likelihood of making things better for most people; managed improvement instead of managed decline.
That feels like a bleak proposition to those activists and radicals (of left and right) who like to break things and see incremental change as pointless fidgeting with the status quo. Starmer’s eschewal of the more drastic approach is not, as the Labour left alleges, an expression of paltry ambition or some crypto-Conservative abandonment of egalitarian principle. It is a response to the vast scepticism so many voters feel when presented with anything that looks like an undeliverable promise and anyone who claims to have quick-fix solutions.
That monumental disaffection, reported on the ground by Labour and Tory candidates alike, is resistant to the kind of visionary stump speeches that Starmer’s critics demand of him. Even if he were capable of doing everything they ask, the words would bounce off his target audience without leaving a mark. The task is more subtle and much bigger than conventional political persuasion. It is nothing less than rehabilitation of the idea that politics can make a positive difference in people’s lives. It is making a virtue of what Max Weber, the political theorist, characterised as “the slow boring of hard boards”. It is the craft of getting difficult things done without denying that there is a cost; managing trade-offs and competing interests without hunting scapegoats or vandalising institutions that uphold the rule of law.
That isn’t a case easily made from opposition, without levers to effect change. It is also a romantic reading of the hyper-caution that so frustrates Starmer’s detractors. More mundane explanations are available. One is tactical. Why interrupt the government, mid-implosion, with interventions that could draw the Tories’ fire and unite them in partisan rebuttal? Why stick with policies that gladden your enemies and furnish them with campaign ammunition? The perils of learning on the job is another factor. Starmer became leader of a ruined and demoralised party having been an MP for only five years. By Westminster standards that is barely an apprenticeship in operating political machinery. He has been building a plane while flying it.
Policy U-turns that the left interprets as surrender to a Blairite revanche are construed by the leader’s allies as rational choices by a man who wants to win an election, has looked at the evidence of how it can be done and will be ruthless in taking down obstacles in his path. The difference between those interpretations comes down to perennial suspicion that anyone taking the pragmatic road to power must be travelling light on principle. On that front, the Labour leader’s pre-political career is more instructive than raking over Tony Blair’s record and auditing ways in which 2023 is like and unlike 1997. At 61, Starmer is on course to be the oldest new prime minister since James Callaghan and the first since Blair to arrive with zero experience of government. (David Cameron had been a special adviser under John Major; every other 21st-century prime minister had held a big cabinet job before moving into No 10.)
But, unlike most of his predecessors, Starmer ran a large public sector organisation before entering politics. He was director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013. The Tories have tried mining that period for evidence of softness on crime or anything with a whiff of “woke”. The pickings are thin. They have resorted to a nasty conspiracy theory involving Jimmy Savile never having faced charges. Given how many fissile issues come across a DPP’s desk, the notable feature of Starmer’s record is the absence of scandal. He crossed a minefield unscathed. That experience contains clues as to the way Starmer operates now. Speaking to a parliamentary committee in 2013, he explained how the likelihood of securing a conviction was paramount, trumping any public or political pressure to act in high-profile cases. The evidence test “must come first and should always come first,” he said.
Prosecute when you know you can win and not just because people are demanding that something be done. It is not hard to see in that adage the kernel of Starmerism as practised in the opposition leader’s office. Politics rarely affords leaders the time for meticulous evaluation of evidence and often rewards the opposite. There is a lack of agility in Starmer’s method that could be punished by the relentless barrage of events that former prime ministers describe as the hardest part of the job, and the one for which they felt least prepared.
That is just one in a long and gloomy list of ways a Labour government, facing harrowing financial constraints, a disenchanted electorate and a hostile media, could come unstuck. Pessimism is the safer bet given the recent trajectory of British politics. But when it comes to Starmer’s management credentials, the evidence is not so disheartening. Under his leadership, a dysfunctional and bitterly divided party that looked destined for another decade in the wilderness has been turned around and brought to the threshold of power.
There is ample dispute inside the Labour party about the merits and methods of that process. Seeds of future strife are sown in the ground that has been cleared for the march on Downing Street. But from the outside, to swing voters who are fed up with Tories and ready for regime change, the quietly ruthless transformation of the Labour party speaks well of its leader. In a country exhausted by political chaos, it is significant that Starmer’s way is one thing that appears to be working.