Is Keir Starmer’s professed patriotism a strength or a weakness? | Andy Beckett

Since Brexit, saying you represent the people against the establishment has been one of the most effective moves in British politics. In a country with little respect for politicians but still some reverence for voters, however erratic or flimsily based their opinions, invoking the people is one of the few reliable ways to achieve political momentum.

Despite the fact that in parliament, the press and much of business the Conservatives and their allies are the establishment – and have been since at least 2010 – this populist rhetoric has mostly been used by the right. However out of touch and contemptuous of democracy his government is in practice, Boris Johnson claims to speak for the people at every opportunity.

In recent years Labour has rarely dared to do likewise, except during the most energised moments of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, such as his campaigning “for the many” in the 2017 election. The party has been too lacking in confidence, too inward-looking – and simply too unpopular – to argue that its views and those of the country are in harmony. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour rarely assumes that its periods of success represent British politics in its natural state.

So the fact that this month Keir Starmer has started talking about “the national interest” and “the British people”, and trying to associate his party with them, feels significant. It suggests that after more than 18 months of cautious and defensive leadership – much of it taken up with sidelining colleagues and policies supposedly too radical for the public – Starmer finally believes that Labour can speak for the nation without being ridiculed.

“We are a patriotic party,” he declared in a TV broadcast supporting the Covid booster campaign, sitting behind a large, would-be prime ministerial desk with a union flag beside him. “The Labour party that I lead will always act in Britain’s best interests.” The clear implication – left unspoken because this was a broadcast officially about public health – was that the Conservatives have much less honourable, more partisan motives.

With Boris Johnson in Downing Street, this has become a pretty easy argument to make. So blatantly have his policies been designed to reward friends and punish enemies that even some voters who once tolerated, or even admired, his shameless brand of Conservatism have become repelled. Unlike previous slumps in support for his government, which mainly benefited the Liberal Democrats, many of these Tory voters now appear to be switching to Labour. For the first time under Starmer, this month Labour has achieved large enough leads over the Tories in the polls for a narrow win at the next election – or a hung parliament leading to a Labour-led coalition – to be more than a remote possibility.

In the past, a Labour leader adopting expansive patriotic language has sometimes been a sign of an imminent electoral breakthrough. During a campaign broadcast before the party’s great victory at the 1945 election, Clement Attlee argued that, unlike the Tories, Labour represented “a good cross-section of the nation”: both rural and urban Britons, employers and employees. Labour’s share of the vote at that general election and the next two was not far short of 50%: huge by today’s standards, and large enough to justify Attlee’s claim.

During the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour was almost as popular, and he often talked about “the people” reverently but also a little proprietorially – as if only he and his party understood or could carry out their wishes. Like Attlee, Blair led a government whose initial breadth of support right across England, Scotland and Wales was on a scale that makes Johnson’s supposedly decisive electoral mandate in 2019 look narrow.

One way to interpret Starmer’s still rather opaque leadership is as an attempt to apply the methods of the Blair and Attlee eras to today’s world. Starmer’s stern, rather formal manner, austere suits and haircut, and talk of a “shared national duty” all suggest a Labour politician from the 1940s. Meanwhile his recruitment of New Labour veterans such as Yvette Cooper and Deborah Mattinson and his bash-the-left approach to party management imply that Starmer still has faith in the controlling centrist politics of the 00s.

Given that these are the only two periods when Labour has achieved lasting dominance (Harold Wilson’s election wins in the 1960s and 1970s were much less decisive), taking Blair and Attlee as role models seems reasonable, on the face of it. The fact that both led relatively competent governments with substantial domestic achievements – at least until they got involved in too many foreign wars – is also likely to appeal to Starmer. If he becomes prime minister, in what will probably be tough circumstances, he will be desperate to prove to voters that chaotic 21st-century government is a purely Conservative phenomenon.

But there is also a danger for Starmer in trying to sound and act like Blair and Attlee. It risks drawing attention to the great difference in strength between their political positions as Labour leaders and his. Only a few months ago, much of the talk at the Labour conference was about who was going to replace Starmer, after months of bad election results and personal ratings, bodged Labour reorganisations and barely noticed policy launches. Inside as well as outside the party, Starmer was widely written off as a wooden and uncharismatic figure, unsuited to top-level politics: “a plodder”, as someone who has had decades of dealings with Labour put it to me.

Starmer’s performance has improved a little since. He is more aggressive in his attacks on the Conservatives, using franker words such as “corruption” and allowing flashes of anger to enliven his usually too controlled courtroom manner. And he seems more confident, as if relieved that his painstakingly assembled case against the government is finally being heard.

Yet most of his limitations as a politician have not gone away. The improvement in Labour’s position is not because he is doing his job much better, but because the government is doing its even worse.

And when he declares that only his party can serve “the people” and “the national interest”, he echoes not only Blair and Attlee but also other, less successful Labour leaders, such as Neil Kinnock, who often seemed to assert their patriotism not from a position of strength but of weakness: in a vain attempt to convince the Tory press and sceptical voters that Labour was respectable and not an alien threat. A more assured and rooted party – which was able to explain why Britain would benefit from regular rather than occasional left-of-centre governments – would not have to perpetually prove its right to exist.

Will Starmer end up as one of Labour’s patriotic failures? The jury is still out.


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