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Why is Keir Starmer so untrustworthy?
Keir Starmer, leader of the UK Labour Party, is an untrustworthy politician. As a member of the Corbyn Shadow Cabinet and, from 2020, Labour leader, Starmer has repeatedly advocated contradictory positions. He has adopted zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, yet campaigned to make Corbyn prime minister. He has accepted Brexit, but was the main barrier to a softer Brexit. He opposes transgender self-identification, yet recently supported this.
Simple explanations for Starmer’s undependability abound, opponents branding him a liar(!), yet this phenomenon requires deeper examination. The liar hypothesis is a supply-side explanation, interpreting dishonesty with reference to politicians, but this family of explanations has problems.
Whilst left-wing politicians have changed – more come from professional classes, research showing this entails less propensity to support redistribution – I am not sure that they are more dishonest than predecessors. In post-war decades, centre-left politicians could be deceitful, figures such as Mitterrand, González and Blair being guilty of this. People who are prepared to lie will always exist and, if politics rewards lying, such individuals will gravitate towards power.
Yet Starmer’s path has been unusually inconsistent, suggesting that changes in voter demand, associated with institutional change, explains his case. This is a wider trend. There are similar cases on the Labour front bench – Jon Ashworth, a member of the Corbyn Shadow Cabinet, was even caught suggesting that Corbyn was a risk to national security – and Conservatives, such as Boris Johnson, can be just as barefaced.
The salience of culture is crucial. In recent years, the cultural dimension of politics has become more important, threatening to overshadow the economic dimension. Whilst politicians can be untrustworthy on the economy – the name of Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, remains a byword for treachery – divisions over culture tend to be bitterer, making compromise more difficult. Had Brexit not been such an emotive issue, Starmer might have had space, as shadow Brexit minister, to agree a cross-party deal. On culture, betrayal is harder to forgive. Many consider issues such as anti-Semitism and transgender rights in existential terms, duplicity being remembered for years.
But on a deeper level, UK politics has become less stable. This reflects the increased salience of culture – parties must now juggle economic and cultural dimensions of politics – but also the decline in partisan identification. Traditionally, significant proportions of voters were loyal to the main parties, stabilizing politics. A fall has made politics unpredictable, leading to more supple behaviour from politicians.
Years ago, a politician such as Corbyn would never have become Labour leader and Starmer would not have been forced to work with him. Yet this happened, necessitating an embarrassing return to the centre as leader, via a leadership election with more broken promises. Brexit entailed a similar challenge, Leave and Remain crosscutting party support bases.
Therefore, structural conditions promote untrustworthy behaviour. Some of this is specific to Britain – in recent years, few countries have undergone such upheaval – but other trends have a wider basis, most Western countries experiencing rises in cultural politics and falls in partisan identification.
Does this excuse Starmer? We should understand that compromises and retreats are inevitable and have become more likely, yet in my opinion, this does not exonerate the Labour leader. Comparisons with other Labour politicians are unflattering; a figure such as Lisa Nandy consistently opposed Corbyn and compromised on Brexit.
We may worry about a Starmer government. Office imposes new demands and Starmer will probably react to them opportunistically. The inclinations of his colleagues will reinforce this, the Labour Party having a wider problem with integrity. Events of recent years have had a selection effect; in the 2017-19 parliament, Labour MPs who followed their consciences tended to lose their seats.
Among moderates, such critiques of Starmer are unfashionable. As the prospect of a Labour government increases, they may become less fashionable still. As a Starmer government goes on, some may have cause to revisit them.
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