Since becoming Labour leader, Keir Starmer has single-mindedly been trying to persuade red wall voters that Labour is ‘patriotic’, just like them. He thereby hopes to clear away those cultural barriers that have arisen between Labour in the north and midlands where voting for the party used to be almost instinctive. As he said in his first leader’s speech back in September, Starmer wants red wall voters to ‘take another look’ at Labour now it is under his leadership: he wants to show them that it is no longer the party of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.
But many in his party don’t like what Starmer is doing, because a significant number of Labour members — being middle class and university-educated — are not just like red wall voters. At the moment the party is arguing over Starmer’s use of the Union flag but this is a disagreement that goes deeper than which adornment the Labour leader should stand next to when making a speech. It is, for some Labour members, an existential matter.
If the recent past is any guide, Starmer will have an uphill battle to persuade members of the virtues of his strategy. For, even before Corbyn became leader, Labour members were arguing, not over a flag, but a mug.
During his ill-fated leadership, Ed Miliband struggled with the same issue now faced by Starmer: once habitual Labour voters in what used to be called the ‘traditional’ working-class were drifting into the hands of Ukip. The ostensible reason was immigration, then seen by 45 per cent of voters as the most important issue facing Britain. But beneath that was the sense — especially in those parts of England yet to be described as the ‘red wall’ — that Labour no longer represented ordinary working people.