Since Harold Wilson stood down as Prime Minister 45 years ago, there have been 11 general elections contested by seven different Labour leaders. Of those, only Tony Blair has managed to win, which he did three times in a row. The roll call of the defeated reads Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock (twice), Brown, Miliband and Corbyn (twice).
As Alastair Campbell noted in a recent column for the New European, Labour’s record over the time span is lost, lost, lost, lost, Blair, Blair, Blair, lost, lost, lost, lost. Yet still we political commentators invite you to suspend your disbelief and suppose Labour is in the running. And still it is the Labour party’s activist membership that does this most readily.
Rather than ask themselves what it was about Blair which made him the singular exception, they send their latest standard-bearer for socialism out onto the field of battle to be pulverised anew.
That Keir Rodney Starmer has no chance of winning a parliamentary majority and very little even of being Prime Minister in a ‘rainbow coalition’ of leftish parties should be so obvious as to lead every Labour member to desist from any behaviour that will make his task more difficult. Instead, this week large numbers of them in effect banned him from even pretending to be electable. The form this prohibition took was the outright rejection of a suggestion that it might be a good idea for Labour spokespeople to dress smartly and be seen alongside the Union flag and in the company of veterans.
In an internal report on how Labour could hope to start wooing voters in ‘foundation constituencies’ (the new jargon being used to described lost red wall seats), it was suggested that senior Labourites should embrace ‘the use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc [to] give voters a sense of authentic values alignment’.
Starmer himself has been doing this stuff for months. In his Labour conference speech in September he spoke of how going to Buckingham Palace to be awarded a knighthood had given his parents ‘one of the proudest moments of their lives’. Back in June he ensured Labour put out strong messages in support of Armed Forces Day. More recently he has had the Union flag in the backdrop when recording set-piece broadcasts. And he is always the smartest dressed man at PMQs.
Yet the very idea that other MPs should adopt the same modus operandi has ignited fury. The left-winger Clive Lewis even claimed: ‘It’s not patriotism, it’s Fatherlandism. There’s a better way to build social cohesion than moving down the track of the nativist right.' The Guardian, which broke the story, also published a comment piece on the leaked plans that used a very telling headline and containing multiple truths: ‘Keir Starmer’s patriotic act risks turning off his core Labour voters.’
For starters, the paper is right that the sort of people who consider the Union flag a ‘butcher’s apron’ and can think of little worse than association with armed forces veterans are indeed the party’s core voters these days.
And they are almost entirely unwilling to compromise on those attitudes to facilitate the chasing of votes. As the former shadow cabinet member Richard Burgon so comically put it: ‘This is symptomatic of a strategy which goes chasing votes from groups who already have their own party — the Conservative party.’ This defines Starmer’s mission as being to win power without even trying to compete for the support of people who voted Tory in 2019.
But then there is the second telling phrase in that Guardian headline to consider, namely ‘Keir Starmer’s patriotic act’. Because it is an act.
This, after all, was the week when the Guido Fawkes website got hold of video footage showing Starmer boasting about his history of anti-royalist beliefs just three years before he became Director of Public Prosecutions.
Voters in ‘foundation constituencies’ will remember, too, that Starmer’s time leading the CPS did not produce many breakthroughs when it came to protecting vulnerable working-class girls from Pakistani-heritage grooming gangs, as Starmer himself admitted in 2012.
They will also remember how he pledged to honour their pro-Brexit referendum verdict and then connived to subvert it. And how he knelt to Black Lives Matter, whose supporters desecrated the Cenotaph and Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square.
Were Labour activists fixated on winning power rather than pursuing ideological causes then they would see at once the problem with Starmer’s attempted emollience towards alienated socially conservative working-class voters: not that it is worthy of revulsion but that it is wholly inadequate. He is trying to take such voters for fools and they are not fools. Where they demand substance he offers only style. In fact, Starmer is a metropolitan leftist to his fingertips, drawn from the elite legal establishment which constitutes ones of the modern citadels of that tribe.
The veteran Lib Dem statesman Menzies Campbell had a motto when he was prominent in that party alongside Paddy Ashdown: dress right, act left. His insight was that adopting conservative stylistic conventions created a sense of reassurance among right-leaning voters that allowed some radical stances to be taken without scaring them off altogether.
This is all Starmer is trying to do. But what is too much for the big city left and the university seat intelligentsia is woefully inadequate in the patriotic red wall towns. In such circumstances Tony Blair would have gone to war with the left to deliver substantial change, as he did in his time on law and order, defence and economic policies.
But neat little Keir is reduced to the status of Labour’s fully posable action figure who is not even allowed to move his limbs or don parade ground garb. The straitjacket of the modernist left will, in due course, become his funeral shroud. All that will happen first is another giant waste of time.