Keir Starmer’s broken promises will come back to haunt him (and Labour)
Britain’s Labour leader was elected as a left-winger, but then ran to the right. Why would voters trust anything he says?
Keir Starmer’s broken promises are a real problem. More of a problem than his strategists will be telling him, I suspect. A problem for his chances of election, a problem for the country.
In 2020, when Starmer ran to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, he framed himself as the natural heir, a friend of Jezza who had worked closely with him in the shadow cabinet.
“My promise to you,” he said on his campaign website, “is that I will maintain our radical values and work tirelessly to get Labour in to power. Based on the moral case for socialism, here is where I stand.”
After these words, he listed ten pledges. Each one allows you to download a snazzy graphic. Number six includes "defend free movement as we leave the EU".
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This weekend, Starmer directly contradicted it. Speaking to the Daily Mail, he said: “A Swiss deal simply wouldn't work for Britain. Freedom of movement is a red line for me… it won’t come back under my government.”
It isn’t the only time he’s gone back on his pledges to Labour members. Starmer also said he would push for an increase in income tax for the top 5% of earners. But while his shadow chancellor has floated policies as specific as a temporary increase in the Digital Services Tax, this promise seems to have evaporated.
Elsewhere, Starmer gave the distinct impression that he planned to end interference of Labour’s National Executive Committee in selecting candidates to stand for Labour in elections, tweeting that: “The selections for Labour candidates needs [sic] to be more democratic and we should end NEC impositions of candidates. Local party members should select their candidates for every election.”
Yet under his leadership, more than any of his predecessors, the central party has triggered controversies and resignations across the country by blocking popular local candidates from standing for MP selection.
He promised the Communications Workers’ Union he would renationalise Royal Mail, but appears to have rowed back from that. He said he’d scrap tuition fees, but seems to be considering reversing that.
These aren’t just wonky policy details. Together, his broken promises amount to an about-face. Or, perhaps more accurately, a double face. His leadership campaign was, it transpires, a huge deception. As Owen Jones has put it: “He has brazenly, overtly, delivered the exact opposite of what he said he would be as Labour leader.”
Whatever we might think about its morality, the tactical case for this seeming dishonesty is obvious. He wouldn’t have won the leadership election without painting himself left, yet he couldn’t court the media support he believes he needs to become prime minister without turning to the right. The academic evidence that elections are won from the centre is scant at best, but it’s a maxim people in politics widely believe. And in any case, the press only tends to point out the political lying it doesn’t like: it’s perfectly happy to see Starmer screw over socialists in the Labour Party.
Beyond those tactical details, however, I suspect the whole cunning plan is in fact a strategic blunder.
At the core of modern politics is an argument about its own nature.
On one side, you have those who believe that our democratic structures can be used to solve the great problems that we face. These people tend to spend their time talking about policy – how to use the levers of power to alleviate poverty, or limit environmental damage, or fight a pandemic. They may disagree heatedly about the answers to those questions, but they all accept the basic premise – that ‘politics’ is capable of delivering, that politicians mean what they say, and do their best to do it.
On the other side, you have those who believe that politics doesn’t work. These people say things like “politicians are all the same,” that they “don’t trust any of them,” that “it’s all a pack of lies”. Some of these people follow the Westminster show closely, furiously. Most change the channel.
I first started speaking to people across the UK about politics and political issues around 20 years ago. Over that period, a huge number have slid from the former camp to the latter: according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, the percentage of British people who said they trusted the government “most” or “all of the time” was 40% in 1986, 15% in 2019.
This drift favours the right, for three reasons.
First, left politics is about using the state to improve lives. Right politics is about leaving things to other social structures – the market, national ruling classes, family, faith groups, racial hierarchies.
When I travelled around the UK ahead of the 2019 election, it became very clear that Corbyn’s Labour was suffering not because people didn’t want the things his manifesto was offering, but because they didn’t believe he would deliver them. “Politicians will promise anything before elections,” people would say. His bigger promises just made him a bigger liar, they thought.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, on the other hand, were promising very little. In fact, they were actively promoting the idea that politics was bad. Again and again, people said they were voting Tory because they were fed up with the whole Brexit thing – by which they meant all of the political debate at the time – and they just wanted it over and done with. “Get Brexit Done” wasn’t a commitment to use EU departure to improve our lives. It was a pledge to shut up about it.
Second, distrust of politics is most pronounced among people for whom the system works worst – that is, people with the least power, the parts of the electorate most likely to vote to the left, if they vote. In 2019, turnout was down in 49 of the 56 seats Labour lost to the Tories. The right didn’t succeed so much by inspiring voters to back Johnson, as by dampening enthusiasm in Labour.
And third, when people don’t trust a process for change, they cling to the default. Which in Britain means the class system in general, and the Conservative Party in particular.
This loathing of politics, the sense that the whole thing was baffling, heinous and detached from reality, didn’t just happen. And while some of it is a function of neoliberalism privatising power out of the political sphere and into the market, much of it was consciously cultivated. As I wrote at the time, Boris Johnson made politics awful, then asked people to vote it away. The Tories and their outriders poured huge sums into online disinformation, creating a sense that – as a call centre worker called Wes in Crewe said to me – “there’s all these facts flying around on social media – you don’t know what to believe”.
In 2017, Corbyn did relatively well in part because he was perceived as a conviction politician. Whether or not people agreed with what he said, they believed he believed it. By 2019, there was a strong sense – justly or otherwise – that he didn’t have a clear, principled position on Brexit, that he would say anything on the subject to get elected, and that undermined broader faith in his honesty.
Interviewing people across Italy after their election this autumn, which produced the country’s first far-right prime minister since 1945, I found very similar sentiment. “They’re all the same,” people said, again and again. I found the same in Slovakia ahead of the 2020 election in which the far-right and anti-politics independents surged and literal neo-Nazis gained seats, and among far-right voters in Czechia and Hungary.
The Labour Party goes into the next general election as the clear favourite. It is more than 20% ahead of the chaotic Tories, and appears so grey and stale that the right-wing press and City will be much less afraid of it than it was last time.
But, surely, the Tories will take the blank screen that is Keir Starmer, and project onto it the image of the unprincipled liar, someone whose promises and pledges you can’t trust, someone you can’t take at his word – drying all his pledges to dust, ensuring voters don’t believe anything he says. Unlike much of their messaging in 2019, this will have the advantage of being objectively true. And they will do everything they can to project the sense that ‘they’re as bad as us,’ that when politicians propose to do nice things, they are lying to you. And the bigger the promise, the bigger the lie.
And so they will try to drive up frustration, and drive down turnout. And if they do win, that will be how.
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