Starmer's greatest challenge is to defeat the Tories on patriotism | Polly Toynbee

A Zoom party conference is a miserable thing, with no packed hall for Keir Starmer’s first leader’s speech today: no standing ovation, no policy parades on the fringe, nor huddles of aficionados dissecting his every phrase.

The party members watching from home will be warmed by YouGov’s poll showing, for the first time under Starmer, Labour on level-pegging with the Tories. Starmer beats Boris Johnson as best for prime minister – though a walloping third of those surveyed haven’t made up their minds. That’s the purpose of the conference slogan: “A new leadership”. It takes time to introduce a new leader; even longer to expunge a dire party image.

If such brazen purging of his predecessor sets Corbynite teeth gnashing, so be it: burying memories of Labour’s calamitous 2019 campaign will take deep digging. Labour has 123 seats to win, requiring a swing of more than 10%: that’s impossible by normal electoral lore, but nothing is normal now.

The Tories still have support from 40% of those polled, after presiding over more deaths and a worse economic hit since the start of the pandemic than any similar country. Irrefutable failure has never been easier to measure, with the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, warning yesterday of worse to come. As test and trace fails, the Tories could yet pay a price for knowingly putting an incompetent in the driving seat. His U-turns and zig-zags over Covid-19 – veering from “eat out”, “go back to the office”, “take the train” to panicky local lockdowns – sit badly with blaming the people for his confused messages. We’re told boozing in pubs is OK but family birthday gatherings in the garden are banned.

Though Labour has wiped out the Tories’ 24-point lead in just six months under Starmer’s steely prosecution of Johnson’s blunders, beneath that headline number Labour still lags. Slightly more voters trust Labour on Covid than don’t trust them, but the pandemic should be long over by the next election in 2024. Here’s the perennial crunch: Labour lags by nearly 10 points when people are asked whether or not it can be trusted with the economy. And here’s the killer: only 29% trust Labour on Brexit, against 45% who don’t. And Brexit may not be altogether a dead duck in four years.

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As Starmer trounces the prime minister weekly on every other issue, Johnson keeps stabbing at that Brexit achilles heel. Watch every Labour speaker this week try to escape. “The leave/remain argument is over,” Starmer proclaims; “Get it done,” he taunts Johnson. The shadow cabinet all repeat it: remain lost the argument; the people have spoken decisively twice; we move on. All remainers need to swallow that message: there’s no going back, moan and mourn no more.

True, the argument festers on in some Labour corners: Starmer lost Labour the election with his remaining; or Jeremy Corbyn lost the referendum by refusing to campaign seriously. But that’s all ancient history now.

In the real world, most voters thought Brexit was done: they’ll be perplexed at its eruption in parliament with the provocative internal market bill. Wouldn’t it make political sense for Johnson to revel in his Brexit victory, strike a reasonable deal, proclaim it “fantastic” and move on? But he needs to keep Brexit alive in those “red wall” seats. Labour frontbenchers confirm their visits to lost places yield no sign yet of those voters returning, reinforcing Deborah Mattinson’s findings in her book, Beyond the Red Wall.

Johnson needs to keep Brexit alive as it’s all that binds his party together. Ideologically, Tories are split between austerians who regard Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme as socialism, and pragmatists who back it as electoral necessity. Those who whooped with glee at breaking an international treaty are a separate tribe to those who were profoundly shocked at this un-Conservative disrespect for law and order.

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And the pandemic reopened another old rift: between libertarians who see Covid emergency law as draconian dictatorship, and old conservatives who would regulate to save lives. Unanchored and vacillating, Johnson can’t appease all wings of his fractious, fragmenting party.

By comparison, Labour is remarkably united, its old rifts swept to the sidelines with remarkable ease. Labour’s frontbench, parading this week, looks rock-solid – not showy, but adept and formidable as it hammers the government’s failures. “Incompetent” has now gained so much public traction you hear it even on anxious Tory lips.

But where’s the vision, impatient Labourites demand? With aeons until an election, Starmer’s 10 pledges are plenty for now. His team point to nationalising rail, mail, energy and water as representing his radicalism. Meanwhile, neutralising the legacy of negatives is still Labour’s heaviest task. “Unpatriotic” is a gut accusation pollsters hear from Labour defectors. It will take more than Starmer singing the national anthem and watching the Queen’s Christmas speech to retrieve it.

Labour needs to appropriate patriotism as its own. Angela Rayner did it well in her opening speech. It is not patriotic, she said, for companies such as BA and British Gas to fire and rehire their workers on worse pay and terms: “If you’re going to use our country’s name, then you had better respect our country’s values.”

Patriotism will be the weapon time and again to uphold British standards in animal welfare, food quality and environmental rules against bad foreign trade deals. Tories in the shires will agree with defending British local planning laws against unpatriotic vulture developers. When a pitifully thin Brexit deal betrays the fisheries and farmers, Labour can brand that unpatriotic. A damaging Brexit deal causing 20-mile tailbacks at the ports, and needless customs form-filling, will be unpatriotic when a good deal was available – and promised.

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Starmer spoke on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday of how the pandemic had exposed the fragility of the public sector and the economy. That nation-damaging decade of austerity was indeed profoundly unpatriotic. Any Labour people who feel squeamish at “patriotism” should shake that off right now, and welcome capturing it for themselves.

Love of country is universal. Interpret patriotism not as nationalistic preening over foreigners, but a collective impulse to protect us from predators of every kind: a Johnson government welcomes commercial predators against the national interest.

Failing on the economy, on employment, Covid-19, “levelling-up” and everything else, a floundering Johnson will manufacture artificial “culture wars”. He will woo red wallers by trying to brand Labour as the out-of-touch “woke” metropolitan elite. Pathetic attempts appear in emails to Tory members: last week they were asked to “protect our heroes” from Labour, whose “support of our armed forces is being exposed for what it is – a political facade”. Watch him repeal the Human Rights Act or rattle the trans issue.

But culture-war stuff will be thin ammunition against the mighty arsenal Labour can use. Jobs, the NHS, social care, Marcus Rashford’s hungry children, housing evictions, schools on the edge, and council services collapsing: these will be people’s daily experiences. If Labour convinces on the economy, if it is unafraid to champion a national spirit to rebuild all that has been wrecked, then in these abnormal political times it begins to look possible that this electoral Everest can be climbed by 2024.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist



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