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Posturing Is All Keir Starmer Has to Offer

The Labour leader's Beergate gamble is a thin cover for the fact he has nothing to say on the cost of living crisis – and making personal integrity a central pillar of your politics is a risky strategy when you don’t have any.

(Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

It was hard to feel a great deal of sympathy when the so-called ‘Beergate’ row came back to bite Keir Starmer. Having demanded the resignation of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak when they were issued with fixed penalty notices over lockdown rule breaches, Starmer found himself hoisted by his own petard when Durham police launched their own investigation into him. Starmer’s promise to resign if he is issued with a fine seems more designed to exert pressure on the police not to proceed than a genuine demonstration of ‘integrity’.

Tempting as it was to indulge in schadenfreude at Starmer’s expense, there was really only one story that should have dominated this week. A report from the Food Foundation revealed that two million adults in the UK had, within the last month, gone a whole day without eating. An estimated 7.3 million adults are now estimated to be food insecure, an increase of 57 per cent since January, when the same figure stood at a still scandalous 4.7 million.

With energy bills rocketing and food prices also rising sharply amid falling real wages, the study found that millions more–among them 2.6 million children–are eating smaller meals than they were, or are simply not eating when hungry. The situation has become so desperate for so many people that food banks are reportedly asking that charity food parcels include no food that needs to be stored in a fridge or freezer, or that has to be prepared using a cooker.

The Trussell Trust reported last month that it had provided more than 2.1 million food parcels to people across the UK over the preceding year; this included over 830,000 parcels for children, up from 720,000—an increase of 15 per cent—year on year. The soaring cost of living, and the government’s refusal to take more energetic action in order to shield people from it, means that a sharp increase in poverty is now all but inevitable. The Resolution Foundation predicts a rise in absolute poverty of 1.3 million, including 500,000 children.

It is astonishing, and frightening, how easily this country has become accustomed to the kind of mass poverty and hardship that would have caused outrage—if not an outright uprising—in previous eras. In this context, then, the optics of this week’s Queen’s Speech could hardly have been any more decadent; the Imperial State Crown was transported to Westminster in its own royal car, while Prince Charles, perched on a glittering golden throne, then delivered pre-scripted homilies about the need for a ‘responsible approach to the public finances’.

What makes matters worse is that not only is the government indifferent to mass suffering—hardly out of character for the Tories—but that its nominal opposition is once more so somnolent in its response. Those of us who flooded into the Labour Party in our hundreds of thousands under Jeremy Corbyn had hoped that, if we achieved nothing else, it would at least never again be so lethargic in the face of poverty. But with the lingering traces of the Corbyn insurgency now largely stamped out, Labour has simply reverted to type.

The trouble for Labour is that a vigorous anti-poverty campaign would require a willingness to challenge elite interests, and this has recently been notable by its absence. Instead, Starmer’s Labour has chosen to make ‘values’ the cornerstone of its appeal—following the approach laid out by Claire Ainsley, his chief strategist—eschewing Corbyn’s class-based left populism. As Tribune journalist Solomon Hughes has said, Starmer’s team has emphasised his personal character as a way of avoiding having to talk about social reform.

However, this has now rebounded on Starmer with regard to ‘Beergate’, elevating what ought to be—in the grand scheme of things—a relatively trivial issue into a major political row, and one that could threaten Starmer’s political career. Talk to anyone on the Labour left about Starmer’s ‘honesty and integrity’ and you’d get a hollow laugh at best, but having placed so much political stock in those supposed qualities, he now finds himself (and his future as Labour leader) at the not-so-tender mercies of the Durham Constabulary.

In truth, the fact that even political leaders and their staff seem to have had such trouble interpreting and following lockdown rules is partly an indication of the often arbitrary and contradictory nature of those rules in the first place. An amnesty on Covid fines, and reimbursements for those already paid, should really be in order. But Keir Starmer, having very publicly positioned himself as a stickler for those rules—‘Mr. Rules’, as Lisa Nandy recently called him—has painted himself into such a tight corner that he can’t say so.

There is, of course, a much bigger problem with the ‘values’ approach to politics as far as Keir Starmer is concerned: namely, that if you’re going to make your personal values the central pillar of your strategy—as opposed to offering policies that could materially improve people’s lives—then it helps if you actually have some to begin with. If Starmer wanted to show real values and bravery, he’d be relentlessly attacking the obscene poverty and injustice that scar this country. But that would mean providing some solutions, too.