Is Keir Starmer a socialist?

Democratic socialism is about building a society beyond capitalism.

“I would describe myself as a socialist. I describe myself as a progressive”. These were Labour leader Keir Starmer’s words in May 2024 shortly after his first speech of the election campaign. Labour’s constitution defines it as a democratic socialist party. So, in theory, Starmer is a socialist.

But what is socialism? One concept of socialism characterises it as being about collective ownership in pursuit of the public good, over private ownership for profit.

Some see a commitment to economic equality as what distinguishes socialism from other ideologies. Others specify co-operation and community reigning over individualism as defining socialism. Or, socialism can be seen as a movement for, or of, the working class.

Whichever it is, democratic socialism is about building a society beyond capitalism.

The day after Starmer proclaimed himself a socialist, his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves was asked about his statement and responded that she was a social democrat. Social democracy is about socialism, but within capitalism rather than beyond it.

Reeves’ definition of social democracy in terms of equal opportunities, good public services, and secure work that pays (very much in tune with Starmer’s platform) does not go as far as socialism within capitalism. Others across the political spectrum could agree with the values she outlined.

Starmer was active in socialist politics in his youth. But we should decide where he stands by what he says and does now. Labour’s purges of socialists in the party have led some to conclude that Starmer wants rid of those who might try to hold him to socialist principles.

What do Starmer’s statements of values and principles tell us? In 2020 he argued for “moral socialism”, so an approach that is based on values as much as structures.

He highlighted injustice especially, but also inequality. There’s a left-of-centre or even socialist tone to the moral socialism he advocated then. But was he just trying to win over Corbynite members for his party leadership bid?

In a 2021 pamphlet on his philosophy as leader Starmer shifted to values of security and opportunity, which he has since continued to put centre stage. He said class holds people back, stressed community over individualism, and active government over the free market.

You don’t have to be a socialist to believe in security and opportunity. However, class inequality, community, and active government have left-of-centre or socialist connotations.

From values to policies

But the proof of a philosophy is in the practice. Labour will set up Great British Energy, a publicly owned company to invest in renewables. Starmer says he will bring passenger train services in-house, and facilitate municipal insourcing and ownership, and more co-ops.

These are small steps to more collective ownership in the economy and public services. But social ownership could be much more widespread, especially given public support for it, including for the energy utilities, water supply and the Royal Mail.

Starmer talks about the tackling the “class ceiling” for working class people and about inequality, especially in policies (or intentions) on education and the new deal for working people. But the emphasis is on equal or minimum opportunities for all rather than a more economically equal society.

He will fund policies by clamping down on tax breaks for the privileged and a windfall tax on energy utilities. But significant redistributional changes to the tax structure, on income or wealth, aren’t proposed.

Starmer expresses sentiments of community and co-operation over individualism. But these tend to be used in relation to policies on security, devolution, localities, a more active state, or partnership with business, rather than institutions of a more specifically socialist sort.

In fact, Starmer’s perspective on community has metamorphosed into advocacy of a “contribution society”. This is used to mean varying things, such as that people and business should contribute rather than being individualistic, and that their contribution should be rewarded decently. This is about responsibility and reward as much as community in a socialist sense.

What is modern socialism?

If socialism on the definitions I’ve outlined isn’t being proposed by Starmer, it could be that he’s redefining socialism for modern Britain. If this involves new means for pursuing socialism, he’s not propounding this.

If it’s redefining socialism as something beyond collective ownership, equality, and co-operation, that’s not rethinking socialism for a new era. It’s dropping what makes socialism distinctive.

If it involves a more intersectional socialism, Starmer is proposing measures on race equality and violence against women, but these match his self-description as “progressive” more than being “socialist”.

Starmer could be putting forward limited policies for the general election, only to then come out as more leftist in office. Active government could be extended to wider social ownership; opportunities for the working class expanded to a more equal structure to society, a foundation also for greater community. Starmer is not advocating such a route. But down it, he could just have a case for calling himself a socialist.

Luke Martell is a Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sussex. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Illustration: The Telegraph

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