Since Keir Starmer was elected leader of the party in April 2020, most members of the Parliamentary Labor Party have worked hard to remind the membership at large that, above all else, he is a genuine election winner. Starmer is, his supporters insist, an unwavering certainty to reclaim 10 Downing Street for Labor after more than a decade in opposition. After he was first elected leader, former Blairite luminaries immediately went public with their congratulations. Tony Blair himself tweeted his praise via his charitable foundation, saying Starmer had taken “the responsibility of providing a cohesive and effective opposition” and looked forward to him transforming Labor into a “serious and effective candidate for government”.
Yet just over two years after he took office, there are strong indications that the picture is not all rosy. Publicly, Blair and his longtime aide Peter Mandelson continue to support Starmer and his purge of the left wing of his party. However, behind the scenes, Starmer appears to have lost support from the Blairites. Privately, doubts have been growing for some time over Starmer’s much-heralded eligibility. Blair had already said it out loud in May 2021, after Labor lost the Hartlepool by-election, a seat Labor has held twice under Jeremy Corbyn. Write in the new statesmanBlair said Starmer was “sensitive but not radical”.
by Blair new statesman article was, so far, the clearest sign that Blair et al. no longer believe that Starmer has the magic touch. That was until a few weeks ago when the UK project was created. His exact purpose remains unclear, except that he seeks a more centrist alternative to Starmer’s work.
The Britain Project identifies itself on its own website as a “non-partisan political collaboration”. He aims to build what he calls “a broad coalition in the center of the field”. Created by a former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate and a formerTime journalist, the British project would seem at first glance to be the purest distillation of third-way centrism in the 21st century. But the British project is more intriguing for what it doesn’t reveal than for what it does. From the website, it is not clear whether it is a political party, a think tank or a charitable foundation. Hard facts about the organization are few and far between: it “launched,” as far as is known, on January 20, with unclear sources of funding.
For an organization that seeks a top-down transformation of British politics, the UK project hasn’t created big waves – in fact, so far it’s barely made a ripple. For an organization that boasts ‘luminaries’ such as Rory Stewart, Trevor Phillips and David Gauke, the UK project hasn’t made big statements and barely made a splash since its launch four months ago. And despite his Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts, his internet presence is minimal.
At first glance, there’s little to suggest Blair’s involvement in the project. Several centrist politicians and junkies from the Blair years adorn his personal page, although he himself is nowhere to be found. Yet, tellingly, on the very day the UK project was launched, Blair gave a speech at the Global Center for Health Innovation that was not so much a blessing as a laying on of hands. “The UK Project is a group that works across party lines,” Blair said. “He will hold a conference in May” – now scheduled for June 30. “We want this conference to be an opportunity for people to come together and set a broad direction for Britain’s future.” It is perhaps no coincidence that the speech is republished in its entirety on the UK project’s website.
The Brittany Project is truly remarkable; a whole new political party (if it is one) can be founded, receive Tony Blair’s blessing, and receive virtually zero attention from the mainstream media. It could still turn out to be the last forgettable attempt to bring the dying corpse of the Third Way back to life, but Blair’s involvement would suggest that the firm’s architects have more serious ambitions for it. So what should we conclude?
First, it is the strongest indicator yet that Blair and Mandelson have lost faith in the Starmer project and its vaunted eligibility. Indeed, even in the face of the Conservative government’s clumsy response to COVID-19, which has left Britain with one of the highest death rates in Europe, and the warmest media reception a Labor leader has received since Blair himself in 1994, Starmer failed to catch wind with the public. The public hasn’t called it a good job since January 2021. By comparison, Neil Kinnock trailed Margaret Thatcher by 15 points midway through her third term, but still lost the following election.
Second, and more intriguingly, these developments suggest the possibility that the Blairite wing of Labor has not only lost hope in Starmer, but is now looking beyond its assigned role; namely, to purge the left faction of labor and remove all socialists from parliamentary politics. The creation of the project would indicate that Starmer’s attempts to persuade right-wing billionaires and powerful institutions that the interests of the ruling elite are safe in the hands of Labor have been for naught. Even after suspending Jeremy Corbyn from the parliamentary party and expelling many left-wing Jewish activists from Labour, Starmer failed to convince Blairites that it is now a party that can be relied on to protect the capital interest.
Perhaps the most significant conclusion we can draw from the creation of the British project is the glimpse it gives us of what a centrist Third Way formation might look like in the next decade. The concept of a “broad coalition at the centre” exhibits the same old paternalistic qualities of New Labour, although Blair’s rhetoric also gives it a tougher, darker and meaner edge. For the former Prime Minister, the NHS must be “completely redesigned” and taxpayers’ money must be saved by using AI and automation to eliminate high-paying administrative jobs. Crucially, Blair does not rule out privatization of the NHS, urging against risk aversion “even in such a politically sensitive area as the NHS”. Pensions also need to be “redesigned” for the next generation, Blair says, pointing to the high cost of pensions. It also calls for a biometric identification system to combat illegal immigration.
With such reactionary politics in mind, perhaps the real ambition of the project is to push Starmer to the right, and even further away from the “progressive” rhetoric on which he won the 2020 leadership race. Obviously, some members of Blair’s coterie would like the British project to stand out from the work, providing their country’s response to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche vehicle. The French president would even have been invited to the conference on June 30. Yet such candidacies do not appear to be viable in the UK electoral system, with the harsh “first past the post” logic having already doomed similar recent efforts such as Change UK.
New Labour’s real achievement has been to entrench neoliberal hegemony in the British political system by taking control of an existing party while sweetening the pill with light interventionist policies such as tax credits to offset the decline salaries. New Labor told the ruling elite it would continue Thatcherite policies in government without dire consequences. It is, in short, why Blair is still revered by many key institutions in British public life, including the BBC and the civil service.
However, among the British public itself, there is very little enthusiasm for a return to the much-vaunted glory days of 1990s third-way centrism, characterized by the triple boon of deregulation, privatization and of commodification. Without a significant foothold in the UK electorate, the UK project looks set to wither on the vine like Change UK. But electoral success, of course, is never the real goal. Starmer has their backing, for now, because he is doing Blair’s lifelong work: ridding Labor of socialism and returning to the party the ruling elite loves most, a party that will achieve power and won’t do anything with it. The electoral left has nothing to fear from the British project. What Starmer must fear is another matter.