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Keir Starmer has every chance to become a future British prime minister

There’s reason to hope that the new Labour leader will bring decency and competence to the British political scene
New Labour leader Keir Starmer (Reuters)

A lot of people have been jumping to conclusions about the new Labour leader Keir Starmer. 

The wrong conclusions.

On the Labour right, there is a sense of gratification that the Blair years are apparently back with us in the shape of another lawyer from Islington in fashionable north London. 

Meanwhile there is a sense of bereavement on the left.

Not only has their main man gone, but most of the leading Corbynistas have been swept away in what looks like a purge. But I like Starmer. I think he has every chance of becoming the next prime minister. 

Filling the void

Most Conservatives are convinced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority will see the Tories back for two terms not one. If they are correct, Starmer - like Neil Kinnock, who was leader of the Labour Party and opposition from 1983-1992, after the Thatcher landslide in 1983 - will need at least two general elections to leverage himself into Downing Street. 

Perhaps. But Starmer has four and a half years to assemble a coalition capable of sweeping the country when the next election is due in 2024. 

Starmer is in a remarkably strong position to build a serious and moral politics

That means filling the electoral void created by Johnson’s expulsion of centrist Tories represented by Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve. It means being pragmatic. But it does not mean - as some on the left are now arguing - selling out. 

In this article I will argue that Starmer is in a remarkably strong position to build a serious and moral politics which stands in the magnificent tradition of his namesake Keir Hardy, the first Labour leader, as well as Clem Attlee, leader of the Labour party from 1935-55, Harold Wilson, who served twice as Labour prime minister in 1964 and 1974 and John Smith, who led the Labour party from 1992 til 1994.

I will do so by concentrating on the most contentious part of Starmer’s inheritance from Jeremy Corbyn: foreign policy.

No sell-out

Those who assert that Starmer is an Establishment sell-out need to account for the foreign policy pledge for his leadership campaign. A repudiation of Blairism: "No more illegal wars. Introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Review all UK arms sales and make us a force for international peace and justice."

This first point cannot be stressed too strongly. Starmer is the first Labour leader, either from left or right, who was not implicated in the Tony Blair years. 

The same applies to Lisa Nandy, his capable and promising choice of shadow foreign secretary. Neither were around at Westminster at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Both were against the war.

Indeed, Starmer says the war was illegal, writing in the Guardian: “In my view, the military action taken in Iraq in 2003 was not lawful under international law because there was no UN resolution expressly authorising it.” 

Nandy was not an MP in 2003 but says she marched against the war in Iraq. Furthermore, she significantly abstained on a vote in 2016 calling for Tony Blair to be held to account over Iraq.

Starmer more prudently voted against. If Starmer is not Blair, nor is he Jeremy Corbyn. 

The Palestinian question

Corbyn honourably supported the Palestinian cause, but made a fatal mistake - his allies would say that this was not altogether his fault - by allowing the issue of antisemitism within the party to spiral out of control. 

Nandy was 'horrified' by Trump’s Middle East plan and highly critical of what she called foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s 'reckless' response

Immediately after being announced as leader, Starmer vowed to "tear out the poison" of antisemitism from his party "by its roots".

No sane and decent human being can disagree with that.

At the same time, in appointing Nandy, he has chosen a shadow foreign secretary who has never been afraid to criticise the Israeli state and stand up for Palestinians when they suffer injustice. 

Bear in mind that Nandy is chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East, a role she assumed in December 2018. She says that she is “committed to ensuring that Palestinian rights are protected and international law is respected”.

She criticised the Trump administration for cutting support to Gaza. She supports a “peaceful two-state solution". She has also spoken out against the shooting of teenage Palestinian medic Sajid Muzher by an Israeli soldier in March 2019.

Lisa Nandy, Labour party's new Shadow foreign secretary (AFP)
Lisa Nandy, Labour party's new shadow foreign secretary (AFP)

According to Jewish News, Nandy came under fire during the leadership contest for endorsing pledges put forward by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which included support for Palestinians’ right “to self determination and to return to their homes”.

Starmer should not allow allegations of antisemitism to be employed to suppress reasonable criticisms of the actions of the Israeli state

Furthermore, Nandy was "horrified" by Trump’s Middle East plan and highly critical of what she called Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s "reckless" response. 

At the same time, she won the backing of the Jewish Labour Movement in the leadership election, winning a round of applause when Nandy addressed the group at a hustings: "I’m ashamed of where this party has got to, where we’ve lost all of our moral authority over this issue and - more than that - that we’ve caused damage to people out there in the country. I’m angry about that too and I’m really, really sorry. But you deserve more than my anger and my sorrow."

Nandy has criticised Israel (and Donald Trump) in a way that the Conservative Party has repeatedly ducked. But in doing so she has shown a sure political touch for someone who is relatively inexperienced, especially in such a complicated and sensitive area. 

Scruple, fairness and legality

The same applies to Starmer who, in a sharp departure from the record of almost every recent British political leader, had a genuine career before entering politics. 

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Tony Blair was a lawyer for only a few years before being parachuted into the Labour Party, while Starmer had a long and impressive record as a human rights lawyer before becoming director of public prosecutions. 

When it comes to the vexed issue of Israel and Palestine, if Starmer is sensible he should choose to be guided by his experience, knowledge and expertise as a lawyer. And not behave as a wheeler-dealer politician. That in turns means being guided by scruple, fairness and legality.

As a lawyer, he should be able to make the essential but sometimes difficult distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel, and the poison of antisemitism.

Once again, as a lawyer, he should understand the importance of protecting free speech. And not allow allegations of antisemitism to be employed to suppress reasonable criticisms of the actions of the Israeli state. 

Decent politics

Likewise as a lawyer he’s in an excellent position to make informed interventions when it comes to Britain’s morally compromised stance on Saudi Arabia, including when it comes to the Yemen war. Under repeated Conservative governments, British policy has been contemptuous of human rights. 

Starmer's legal background will be equally valuable when it comes to the equally vexed issue of Iran. Or Myanmar and the genocide of the Rohingya.

It’s early days. Let’s wait and see. Starmer, like all politicians, will be judged by events. And there’s every reason to hope that he will bring decency and competence to the British political scene which has seldom been in such need of it. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.