When Labour MP Neil Coyle took to Twitter for his extraordinary rant against Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brexit voters, he perfectly summed up Keir Starmer’s main problem as Labour party leader: it’s his party.
In purely political terms, Starmer himself has done well, dampening down internal Labour party dramas, showing himself as relatively normal and clawing his way to level-pegging in the polls after a summer of Covid chaos for the Government. However Coyle’s outburst – for which he has since said sorry – shows the danger his MPs and activists pose to his ambitions when it comes to the politics of identity – of aligning to certain types of people over others.
As leader of this ravaged, interest group-dominated, bureaucratic nightmare of a party, Starmer cannot completely avoid these muddy waters. His flip-flopping on Black Lives Matter is one example of this. One minute he was taking the knee to the activists, the next he was backtracking to call BLM merely a ‘moment’ and distancing himself from their revolutionary agenda. After a ticking-off from black Labour MPs and activists, he turned once more, telling black journalists, with some adroit lawyerly footwork, 'This is not a moment for not standing with the Black Lives Matter movement' and later promising to take unconscious bias training.
Starmer has taken further flak from MPs and activists as part of continuing recriminations over perceived anti-Corbyn bias and the sympathetic treatment of anti-Semitism complaints. New MP and Corbyn loyalist Claudia Webbe has referred to how 'black members are saying they don’t feel safe and welcome in our party' and others have complained of racism and sexism by party staff and even fellow MPs, albeit while revealing few details. Starmer has met several times with representatives of the BAME staff network to hear complaints and receive demands.
By coming out in favour of all-BAME shortlists for candidate selection during his election campaign, Starmer has largely headed off the pressure. However these instances show the reality for any Labour leader: of continually having to make concessions to representatives of favoured identity groups. This in turn means further embedding identity politics within the Labour party through positive discrimination regimes.
Check out the Labour party rule book and you will find an organisation that is now largely structured and run along identity lines. Within its 156 pages (a big increase from 91 in 2017), the 2020 version has 104 mentions of ‘BAME’ alone (up from 41 in 2017), setting out reserved positions and representative structures at all levels of party activity. However, this pales into comparison to the 180 mentions of ‘women’ (up from 139 in 2017) plus 49 for ‘woman’ and 40 for ‘gender’.
Positive discrimination has played a major role in getting some Labour MPs to where they are now, helping to prefigure how they approach politics, foregrounding their approach to social justice. What's more, the systems of favouritism that pervade the party depend on ideas of systemic disadvantage and discrimination, which have helped create a systemic grievance culture, firmly establishing sexism and racism denunciations as a tool of power.
This is what the Labour party is now – and it’s almost the polar opposite of the sort of politics needed to win back voters in the former Labour Red Wall. As Steve Rayson describes it in The Fall of the Red Wall, these 41 seats are 'culturally conservative, older, and disproportionately white with strong English identities'. Demographically, they have a lot in common with seats that tend to vote Conservative, but with an added sense of abandonment growing towards the Labour party.
Note how Coyle’s grovelling apology for his tweet included the phrase ‘As a patriot’ and you will get an impression of how Labour spinners are trying to win these seats back.
But here lies Starmer’s big problem. He doesn’t want to alienate the activists and potentially the BAME voters they claim to represent, now a vital Labour voting bloc. However he knows that to win an election he needs to regain voters in the former Red Wall where kowtowing to radical identity activism goes down like a bag of sick.
The identity politics required to please each group is almost opposite: more positive discrimination for one and an emphasis on patriotism and solidarity for the other. Yet the organisation of the party means that Labour is becoming inexorably more attached to the former group and disengaged from the latter.
However hard Starmer’s spinners try to minimise this stuff, social media, the Brexit-related views of ‘moderate’ MPs like Coyle and the ‘silence is violence’ attitude of new activist-MPs mean they are up against it.
Like many of us, Red Wall voters may come to like Starmer personally, but they will surely have their reasons for abandoning the party confirmed time and time again.