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Keir Starmer ‘lacks clear sense of purpose’ claims Labour ex-policy chief

Keir Starmer ‘lacks clear sense of purpose’ claims Labour ex-policy chief

A key centre-left Labour MP says Keir Starmer appears to lack a clear sense of purpose due to his detachment from his party’s traditions, and casts doubt on whether he can become one of its more successful prime ministers.

In A Century of Labour, a book published to mark 100 years since the formation of the first Labour government on 22 January 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald, Jon Cruddas says that Starmer – while clearly a “decent” and “principled” man – “remains an elusive leader, difficult to find”.

Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham and a former party policy chief, writes that “apart from his actual name, little ties Starmer to the ethical and spiritual concerns of Labour’s early founders, figures such as Keir Hardie and George Lansbury”.

He continues: “His approach to economics does not appear to be grounded in any specific theoretical understanding of inequality, material justice and welfare distribution. Despite a successful career as a human rights lawyer, as Labour leader Starmer appears disinterested [sic] in questions of liberty and freedom.”

The impression the Labour leader leaves, Cruddas suggests, is of someone disconnected from the party’s roots and history. “Starmer often seems detached from his own party and uncomfortable in communion with fellow MPs.

“In his immediate circles, he appears to value the familiar and unchallenging. It is difficult to identify the purpose of a future Starmer government – what he seeks to accomplish beyond achieving office. Labour appears to be content for the coming election to amount to a referendum on the performance of the governing Conservatives rather than a choice between competing visions of politics and justice.”

The intervention comes as speculation grows that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, may be planning a May general election off the back of a tax-cutting budget on 6 March.

In Whitehall, civil servants are being told to prepare for the possibility of a May contest, though most MPs still believe that Sunak – who remains way behind Labour in the polls – will delay going to the country until the autumn.

In his new year message, Sunak describes the past 12 months as “pretty momentous”, saying: “We’ve delivered record funding for the NHS and social care. Schools in England are surging up the global league tables. We’re getting the economy growing.” Looking ahead to 2024, he promises further tax cuts and “decisive action to the stop the boats”.

Starmer declares himself ready for government and confident he can end the cost of living crisis, cut crime, improve the NHS, deliver cheaper energy and increase educational opportunities for children.

Above all, he stresses that he wants to restore trust in politics and politicians’ ability to deliver. “This year, in Britain, the power to shape the future of our country will rest in your hands,” he tells voters. “I’m ready to renew our politics so it once again serves our country.”

As he writes about a century that has produced only six Labour prime ministers – MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – Cruddas offers his own reinterpretation of Labour history by assessing how its competing traditions and visions for advancing socialist justice – the belief in redistributing wealth, increasing liberty and freedom, and ideas on how to promote human virtue – have played out.

He argues that Labour leaders only succeed when they unite those traditions, and the people associated with them on the left, right and centre of the party.

Cruddas says that in his campaign to succeed Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, Starmer’s 10 policy pledges had brought together those political traditions and ideologies around a central idea: what Starmer called “the moral case for socialism”. But once in office, Starmer performed a series of “pivots” or U-turns, he says, that saw him abandon many of the 10 pledges, including those on public ownership, the implementation of tax rises for the top 5% of earners and constitutional reform.

He also “oversaw a brutal centralisation of power on strictly factional lines and the removal of any signs of independent thought from prospective Labour candidates”.

Unlike the postwar Attlee government or Blair in 1997, Cruddas doubts whether Starmer has a convincing or detailed enough programme for government. “Even after four years in post, Keir Starmer remains an elusive leader, difficult to find,” he writes. “He is clearly an honest, decent man engaged in politics for principled reasons. Yet there are few contributions to help reveal an essential political identity and little in the way of an intellectual paper trail.”

He says the ditching of campaign commitments “guarantees a complicated future relationship with his party”. Cruddas concludes by warning that without more connections to the party’s traditions and values, and a clearer offer to the electorate, an election win could bring real dangers and even existential risk. “Without such reconciliation, a party of labour could be destroyed by victory.”

A Century of Labour by Jon Cruddas will be published by Polity Press (£25)on 19 January

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