Sir Keir Starmer has been widely criticised for his ambitions to make the Labour Party more patriotic, however such ridicule is misguided. A report from The Guardian has highlighted that Starmer wants to make “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”, as he seeks to redefine what people have come to expect from Labour. While it’s quite different to the ideology of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer is simply trying to work with what he has.
The nation’s thirst for Brexit was no fluke, as indicated with Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in the 2019 General Election. Brexit symbolised the power of populism within the United Kingdom; it was motivated by an opposition to immigration and a desire for Britain to stand apart from other European countries. This political decision gathered a lot of support from traditional Labour voters and, as a result, Labour’s flimsy position on Brexit was the final nail in the coffin of Corbyn. But Brexit was just the tip of the iceberg for the party’s failures.
Many traditional Labour voters are from working-class backgrounds. Those people had been forgotten about in December 2019, with the New Statesman commenting that Jeremy Corbyn was a disaster on the doors; one person labelled him a “communist terrorist sympathiser”. Such an accusation shows the power of Corbyn’s demonisation in certain outlets, but it was a microcosm of the way he, and Labour, had been alienated from their main demographic. The terrorist sympathiser link, in particular, goes against all forms of patriotism. Many saw the image as siding with the enemy over the people of Britain. Labour’s confusion on where to go with Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s unelectability, created the perfect early Christmas present for the Conservatives.
David Cameron fell on his sword when he sanctioned the EU Referendum. The Tories made their bed and they had to jump into it, going from progressive, globalist politics to what many would describe as a red, white and blue regression: making Britain poorer and weaker by taking it out of the largest economy in the world. Nonetheless, that many is still a minority with a much larger group of people feeling a sense of power and entitlement through national identity; to snuff the flag is to stick a middle finger up at the common working man and woman.
Starmer, a not-so secret pro-European in recent years, had to bite his tongue and accept Johnson’s Brexit deal. Quite simply, the Conservatives were ready to label any opposers as anti-democratic and anti-British because stereotypes go a long way in today’s political atmosphere.
Corbyn was unelectable because those negative labels stuck. Critics have lamented Starmer for accepting the recent Brexit agreement and not taking every opportunity to bash the Government’s mistakes during this pandemic. However, as a result, Starmer remains a bit of a blank canvas and he will consider that to be a mildly successful standing. The next phase will be to build Labour back from the slumber that he picked them up from. They have to broadly stand for something and it’s tough to look beyond national identity.
Starmer feels that he has to be the antithesis to Corbyn, in order to make Labour electable. Beating Britain’s drum is a good way of pandering back to the voters that they had lost. It’s difficult to slander a party that is pushing for patriotism because that’s exactly what the Government has been doing since 2016. Nonetheless, one assumes that Starmer will seek a more progressive form of patriotism as opposed to the current one at play; a platform to work from instead of a symbol to hide behind.
Similar to America, one cannot fight the right-wing contingent with an equally moderate left-wing alternative – sorry, Bernie! That’s why the Democrats nominated a steady centrist, Joe Biden, to oppose the radical Donald Trump. A sensible candidate that didn’t alienate swathes of the electorate. Starmer might want to ride the wave of the Union Jack but that doesn’t mean he will be replicating the Conservative manifesto. You cannot enforce real change when you are not in power; progression has to build from the centre, not the moderate left.
It’s worth noting that Britain’s national struggle has probably strengthened the feeling of British patriotism. Not since World War II have the British people been forced to suffer such massive amounts of pain and loss. With that comes the feeling of national struggle and the siege mentality that emanates from those tough times.
Starmer was a meticulous lawyer for many years, so he knew how to keep his house in order. Appeasing Labour’s moderate left and converting those from the right is a ridiculously difficult task; those who want a functioning democracy will be hoping that he can find a working solution.
Words by Jonny Bentley
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