How does Labour plan to win back the Red Wall? A leaked internal Labour strategy document gives one answer: it says the party must make 'use of the flag'. This sounds like a sensible way to woo those voters put off by Jeremy Corbyn. But the deranged backlash from some Labour activists suggests that not everyone agrees. It also shows why the party is doomed to fail in its bit to change its image for the better.
Labour activists took to social media yesterday to decry Keir Starmer on the strategy, asking why the Labour leader is risking alienating so many of his party’s core support. That just mentioning the Union flag in a positive light could actually alienate these supporters tells you everything you need to know about why the Labour party can’t win general elections any longer.
The leaked strategy document was based on the results of focus groups, many of them conducted with ex-Labour voters who had switched to the Tories in 2019. The report itself demonstrates the deep problems Labour have with this part of the electorate; those with a cavalier attitude about how easy it will be for Labour to win back Red Wall seats should have a good look. As one of the ex-Labour voters put it:
‘They (Labour) are the voice of the students. They have left real people, taxpayers behind’.
Some of those on Labour's left can’t seem to grasp a simple point: if you want to convince the people of a country to let you be their political leaders, you have to, at the very least, demonstrate you are passionate about that country. Leftish parties in France and the US understand this; their leaders have no problem with being visibly patriotic.
Yet here in Britain, Labour activists complain about Starmer 'moving to the right' with all of his 'patriotism', instead of asking why feeling this way about your own country was apparently allowed to become the preserve of the right in the first place. Why can’t Labour make life better for the poor and love the country those poor people live in at the same time? In fact, caring about the country would actually help this mission along a fair bit.
Labour activists like to invoke the ‘Spirit of ‘45’ a great deal. Well, Clement Attlee was unashamed in his love for Great Britain. He would be horrified at the prospect of a Labour party nervous about the mere sight of the Union flag. One of the cornerstones of the Labour breakthrough at the end of the Second World War – which finally allowed it to replace the Liberals as the main centre-left party – was that the electorate had no doubt about the party's patriotism. If Labour activists want to stir up a little 1945 magic, they need to understand this.
If this dislike of the Union flag was just about internationalism, the rejection of the symbols of the nation state, this would still be a huge problem for Labour – yet it is even worse than that. If you’re a Labour activist, ask yourself why you’re happy with seeing the Palestinian flag waved at Labour conference but think the leader of your party standing in front of his and your own country’s flag is unacceptable. Not liking flags is one thing; specifically not liking the Union flag is a problem of a different order.
At the end of 2020, I was at a virtual Christmas party. It was populated with people mostly on the left, including many Labour supporters. Discussion soon turned to a simple question: 'What is your favourite country?' As people openly discussed the possibilities, I asked, 'Can we pick Great Britain?' This got a huge laugh, so ridiculous seeming was my question. But why?
Labour activists wonder why in the midst of a pandemic that feels mishandled, with all of Boris Johnson and his cabinet’s various blunders in the last year, Labour can’t get ahead in the polls. This is the reason. Voters cling to the Tories because, at the very least, they are not ashamed of feeling patriotic. It’s a low bar that Labour have continuously allowed them to clear for last few general elections in a row.
Labour's plan to focus on the flag is spot on. After all, unless Labour can convince voters that the party loves the United Kingdom – that its politicians care more about the West Country than the West Bank – they will have no hope of winning a general election ever again.