Starmer’s (Un)Balancing Act

DAVID CONNOLLY reviews the Labour leadership’s response to recent controversies at the Proms and with the Overseas Operations Bill and wonders whether Keir Starmer is trying to ride two horses at the same time.

In the end the BBC, with its new Director General, gave way to the demand that the lyrics of ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ should be sung in the Royal Albert Hall on the last night of the Proms. As a result, the supremely ironic words, ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ were heard loud and clear across the land.

This is the latest spat in the escalating ‘culture wars’ largely imported from American politics and now being pursued with increasing urgency by the Johnson government, when it isn’t checking lorry permits on the Surrey / Kent border of course.

I may have missed something but in this attack on “extremist, virtue-signalling…. Metropolitan left wing politically correct drivel which is so prevalent at the BBC” (Philip Davies MP), Labour kept its head down to avoid any collateral damage, even if Neil Coyle MP did let fly with a memorable if unrepeatable tweet about the Tories.

It was right that a significant part of Keir Starmer’s speech at Labour’s virtual conference was aimed at former Labour voters in the so-called red wall seats. According to Josiah Mortimer at Left Foot Forward his address made 26 mentions of the word ‘country’ including two ‘my country’-s and two ‘best country’-s, in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn who tended to talk about ‘our society’ or ‘the country’, a different emphasis.

In his trenchant criticism of the government’s chaotic handling of the pandemic, ‘if you neglect public services, you won’t be ready when a crisis comes’, Starmer again targeted the woeful leadership of Boris Johnson with lawyerly accuracy. ‘He’s just not serious. He’s not up to the job’ is a critique that finds a growing support in the country at large.

That said, the framing of Starmer’s challenge to the Labour Party itself is very questionable. Referring to the election defeat last December he suggested that the party got what it deserved. And he went further, saying, “You don’t look at the electorate and ask them: ‘What were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask: ‘What were we doing?’”

But in my view both questions are valid and indeed necessary. A period of self-examination by all sides of the party is no bad thing but we also need to better understand and, where necessary, constructively challenge the thinking of former supporters and having met many of them on the doorstep in the campaign I know how difficult and challenging this can be.

The systematic undermining of the Corbyn leadership by both internal and external opponents combined with the organisational and political shortcomings of the leadership itself are well documented and are rightly the subject of continued debate.

But to imply, consciously or otherwise, that the ideas that led traditional Labour voters to fall for Johnson’s dubious charms (and that includes some members of my extended family) are in some way sacrosanct backs Labour into a political cul-de-sac, passively accepting the limitations of working-class conservatism.

War crimes and loopholes

Which brings us to the leadership’s recent decision to abstain on the Second Reading of the Overseas Operations (Service Personal and Veterans) Bill which, according to the Law Society, includes a:

  • statutory presumption against prosecution of current or former personnel for alleged offences committed in the course of duty more than five years ago
  • requirement that any prosecution brought more than five years after the event must have the attorney general’s consent to proceed
  • ‘longstop’ to prevent claimants bringing human rights or civil litigation claims for personal injury or death more than six years after the event
  • duty for the secretary of state to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) ahead of military operations abroad

To quote Apsana Begum, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse, “A war crime doesn’t stop being a war crime after five years. We should be holding our armed forces to the highest standards, not creating loopholes for atrocities – that’s why I voted against the Overseas Operations Bill.”

It’s worth reading the debate on this subject in the House of Commons in which John Healey, Shadow Defence Spokesperson gave a very good speech the logic of which would suggest a vote against the Bill.

And also, City of Durham MP Mary Foy’s statement giving an explanation of why all bar 18 members of the PLP abstained in the vote on the Second Reading.

Three Parliamentary Private Secretaries were judged to have ‘resigned’ for not following the whip and according to the Guardian the decision to abstain was ‘finely balanced’.

My concern is that part of that ‘balance’ was the fear of alienating red wall voters who made no secret of their scorn for Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged lack of ‘patriotism’ and it therefore represents a conscious signal to them that the new Labour leadership shares a good deal of their conventional view of what it means to be ‘patriotic’, which always runs the risk of lapsing into an uncritical view of our imperial past and support for the armed forces whatever they do.

Quite how this approach would fit with Starmer’s conference commitment to ‘the eradication of structural racism’ as ‘a defining cause for the next Labour government’ in the context of all the contemporary and historical issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement is a mute point.

Polly Toynbee has argued that Labour needs to appropriate its own form of social patriotism without the mindless waving of flags, ‘a collective impulse to protect us from predators of all kinds’, by focussing on high food and environmental standards, a fully funded NHS, a proper social care system, making sure every child is fed, opposing housing evictions, rebuilding council services, and all the other social programmes so desperately needed.

I have no doubt that Starmer is in favour all these things but with the abstention on the Overseas Services Bill on 23 September our concern has to be that he thinks he can ride the two horses of nationalistic and social patriotism at the same time.

Perhaps he can but there will be a deep political price to pay if Labour is tempted to wrap itself in the Union Jack, join the Promenaders and sing those anachronistic songs that should have been deleted from the national repertoire a long time ago.


See also: ‘Why the Left Should be Starmer’s Critical Friends’, by David Connolly.