Writing by Joseph Mitchell. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
On the 22nd of September, Labour’s new leader Keir Starmer took to the podium of the online Labour conference sporting the new party slogan – ‘A New Leadership’. After highlighting the Government’s general incompetence on the Coronavirus crisis, Starmer answered the question people had been asking for months – what would this ‘new leadership’ entail? If his speech were anything to go by, it would ostensibly entail a shift in the party’s identity towards British patriotism. In his speech the new labour leader referenced how ‘we love this country as you do. This is the country I grew up in and this is the country I will grow old in’. These patriotic sentiments were echoed by Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy in an interview to the BBC by saying, ’we stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people, we stand for British interests and we will always put that first’.
The beliefs that many had before the conference that Labour was making shifts to the right on rhetoric were confirmed. Labour seems now more than ever to be appealing to the same sense of ‘lost’ national identity that has won favours for the right in elections, not just in Britain but all over the world. Where the Eurosceptic right of the Conservatives wanted to ‘reclaim Britain from Europe’ during the Brexit years, Blairites of the Labour party seem to now be talking of ‘reclaiming Britain from the Conservatives’, accepting the belief that the nationalist agenda is the only winnable one.
Furthermore, this overall patriotic shift is not the only one the party is making in its identity and outlook. The reveal of the new shadow cabinet signified a clear rejection of the Corbyn project as appearances of Corbynite MPs were few and far between. Furthermore, Starmer now has a majority in the National Executive Committee (essentially the governing body of the party) and party membership is likely to fall in line with the party leadership as had happened under the four years of Corbyn.
In terms of policy, the ‘new management’ appears to be taking more Tory positions on issues like national security, economic policy and immigration which runs the risk of abandoning the party’s new core supporters of youth and BAME voters in primarily urban areas. In the last election, an Ipsos MORI poll found that, amongst BAME voters Labour led the Conservatives by 64% to 20%. Similarly, among younger voters, Labour had a 43 point lead over the Conservatives in the 18-24 age group (Skinner, et al., 2019). However, since coming to power, Starmer has managed to increasingly alienate both these core voting groups in the party.
His insensitive comments over the summer on the Black Lives Matter movement caused disappointment as he referred to some of their demands as ‘nonsense’, and calling it a ‘moment’ for us to show solidarity with this American problem, essentially disregarding the idea that racism is still an issue in the UK - a real cause for concern for a leader of the left. Yet only a few weeks earlier, he had been pictured taking the knee, seemingly in solidarity with the call for ending racial injustice.
Starmer’s comments even earned him praise from Nigel Farage over Twitter, perhaps not the sort of recognition he had been hoping for but nevertheless, he got. Farage’s rhetoric on issues on everything from national sovereignty to immigration has won him support in Northern communities who have been devastated by deindustrialization and globalization but Labour would simply be doing a disservice to these communities by co-opting this divisive rhetoric.
By accepting the right’s worrying denial of social injustice and racial equality, Labour is not just turning its back on BAME voters but is abandoning everything that the left should be standing for. Whilst it may prove electorally successful in the short term, there is a growing youth electorate in Britain who are identifying with issues of injustice and racial inequality; they will be turned off by a Labour party shifting increasingly to the right. For a leader who talks about looking to the future, his plans seem to be looking much further into the past.
Skinner, G., Mortimore, R. & Spielman , D., 2019. How Britain voted in the 2019 election, London : Ipsos MORI . Available from: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/how-britain-voted-2019-election