LABOUR leader Sir Keir Starmer’s much-hyped ‘landmark’ speech yesterday, grandly entitled A New Chapter for Britain, seems to have united the commentariat in feeling that it was rather featureless. Attacking the government is the job of the Leader of the Opposition, so that can be discounted, especially when Sir Keir did not land any punches. The policies he produced were all suggested by a Conservative-supporting think tank, or had already been announced by David Cameron’s coalition government in 2012. That’s two Prime Ministers ago.
So what was significant about the speech if not the content? It could be the visuals.
The video had a lengthy pause at the start, the text on the screen announcing that ‘The Stream will start shortly’. But what was that in the background? Yes, it was the Union Flag, albeit out of focus. When Sir Keir started speaking, he was standing in front of this out-of-focus flag. When the Q&A portion started, there was a proper union flag draped on a flagpole in the corner of the set. The flag, unlike its blurred counterpart, had been out of shot for the entirety of the speech. However the visuals were clear.
There is a section of the Labour Party, a very large section, who seem to get visibly nauseous every time they see the Union Flag displayed, as if their ideological beliefs include a form of aversion therapy against this image. When news leaked that a focus group had told Labour it should be more patriotic, or at the very least just not neutral or negative over our national symbols, institutions, history and heritage, there was an outcry from the comrades, not least Labour’s own officials, as if this concept was both alien and repugnant, and they made their feelings known very quickly in articles and comments online.
Sir Keir seems to have adopted the policy of not expelling the left-wingers, but to position the party in such a way that they leave of their own accord rather than have to put up with what they regard as an emetic image. However, this does seem to be a passive, non-confrontational approach to take against extremists who live and breathe confrontation.
Embracing the flag is a new front in Sir Keir’s rather quiet war on the left of the Labour Party. The main front has at its sharp point the court case mounted by Jeremy Corbyn (yes, him again, sorry, readers) to secure his readmission to the Parliamentary Labour Party, the only part of the Labour Party of which Sir Keir is actually the leader, the remainder being run by the politburo-style National Executive Committee.
Perhaps Sir Keir is phasing in the Union Flag as a backdrop. In coming months, the flag will come into sharper and sharper focus. Labour activists will be forced to choose between denouncing the flag in a way that will damage Labour’s electoral chances or keeping quiet and letting Sir Keir’s team rebuild the party’s support in the country. It might come as a surprise to Labour’s members, but the party was set up to win elections, which will always involve compromise with the electorate. Most Labour activists do not believe in that compromise, believing that the voters have to come around to Labour’s thinking rather than Labour meeting the voters even half way.
But all this internal manoeuvring conceals a rather inconvenient truth about Labour, which is that the party gets into power only when the public tire of the Conservative Party after over a decade of government, or if they are too young to remember the last Labour government and want something new and different from the same old faces and language. Labour also get in only when the Conservatives really, really mess up. In other words, Labour do not really get into power on their own merits, and this is true even with Tony Blair as leader, whose achievement was not winning in 1997, but winning in 2001 and 2005 as well. Post-Brexit, Labour is once again betting on the Conservative party failing in much the same way as they gambled under Ed Miliband.
Sir Keir’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that he seems to have no chance of gaining any Scottish seats from the SNP, as the National Scottishist Party has replaced Labour as the anti-Tory refuge north of the border. And this is a special worry because wrapping himself in the Union Flag, as Sir Keir is clearly now doing, will never entice a Bravehearter to any form of socialism.
If there is any discernible strategy in Sir Keir’s leadership, it is his trying to bite out, with the least amount of effort, all the electorally hostile elements of the hard left that infested the party under his disastrous predecessor to avoid a vote-losing civil war. Rather than steel teeth, Sir Keir seems to be gumming his way through the problem while the discoloured choppers soak in Steradent on the bedside table.
Labour has now slightly over four years, but most likely just three, to demonstrate it is a credible alternative government. At present, it does not even seem to be a credible party.