Keir Starmer's conference speech in Doncaster isn't convincing anybody, writes John Westmoreland after speaking to people in the area
Keir Starmer came to Doncaster to make his leader’s speech to the Labour Party for a reason. Doncaster has nearly always been a solidly Labour town. The Labour Party has dominated local government here for well over a century, although Doncaster did once elect a far-right English Democrat, Peter Davies, as mayor. And last December the unthinkable happened when the Don Valley constituency returned a Conservative MP to Westminster, although Labour retained Doncaster North and Doncaster Central with massively reduced majorities. Doncaster is, therefore, a ‘red wall’ seat - still winnable for Labour if the party learns from its mistakes last time.
Starmer is in tune with the right wing consensus that Corbyn was too left wing and out of touch with working class voters, plus numerous contentions about Corbyn’s personal qualities, his alleged antisemitism and so on. But all this flies in the face of the fact that it was, without a shadow of a doubt, Brexit that sank Labour. Corbyn’s position of accepting the referendum, and fighting for an exit from the EU with social and economic justice at its core, was a winner in 2017. But by 2019 his leadership had been undermined from within Labour by MPs calling for a second referendum. And Starmer was one of them.
So Starmer’s speech was an attempt to win back Labour voters. “A New Leadership”, and, “We hear you” are the trite slogans that Labour thinks will reconnect them to Doncaster’s working class base. The people we spoke to are not so sure.
Tosh McDonald is a Labour councillor, a former president of Aslef, and a regular speaker at demonstrations. Tosh has campaigned for better democracy in Labour, and has challenged the ‘we hear you’ slogan. “He [Starmer] didn’t even have the courtesy to let us know he was coming to Doncaster. Of course the mayor knew, but the new museum he spoke from is in my constituency and they kept me away. Is that listening? When I saw the picture of him walking through Doncaster with Ruth Smeeth, it made me angry. This is the right in Labour attacking Jeremy Corbyn and trying to destroy his legacy.”
Linda Walker is a nurse who sees the consequences of Tory austerity on a regular basis. “I listened to Starmer’s speech and I saw another Tony Blair. Spouting about patriotism and a country we will enjoy living in is not just Tory bullshit, it is blindness to what is really happening.”
Lani Ball, another Labour councillor, said “He is not listening to us. He says he wants to overcome the divisions in our communities, but what is dividing our communities? It is a lack of basic resources. I’m talking about adequate wages, benefits, access to housing. This is where racism gets in and widens divisions creating real tensions. Lack of resources pitches workers against each other. If Doncaster is going to come together as a working class town again it will be through solidarity and community spirit, not through marginalising people.”
This raises the question of whether Starmer will succeed in gaining the trust of working class voters.
Linda was adamant. “I think working class people see him as a phoney. The Labour Party think we are stupid. I personally voted Remain, but I supported the result of the referendum. Then I watched my party tear itself apart. I think most people in Doncaster remember Keir Starmer calling for a second referendum, and now he wants to listen to us? It doesn’t make sense to me. Why wasn’t he listening when people voted to leave the EU?”
Tosh made a related point: “The media and those like Starmer who wanted a second referendum insulted Leave voters. They said we were motivated by racism, that we were all little Englanders. And this is how Starmer is treating us now. He thinks if he waves a Union Jack he is winning us over. It is more patronising nonsense.”
Lani brought the discussion back to the threat of racism. “I am worried about the rise of racism. What strikes me about Starmer is that he is supposed to be slick and savvy, but his speech was so crude and clumsy. If you get into flag waving when immigrants and refugees are under attack you give cover to the racists. If you try to make patriotism the basis of your politics you are playing into the hands of the Tories and the right.”
Ditching Corbyn and burying the memory of him is a bigger task for the Labour Party than they think.
Tosh is bitter about the PLP stabbing Corbyn in the back, and he wants to stay in Labour to defend key policy decisions made at the last Labour conference. “We have to be clear that apart from the Socialist Campaign Group, all the PLP are backing Starmer. They never tire in supporting the bloody Tories. And that means giving up on policies that working class voters support. For example, Starmer wants to walk back the promise to tax the top five per cent. We have to fight to keep Labour’s policies on social and economic justice.”
Linda expressed her frustration that Labour has cosied up to the Tories instead of fighting them. “I was gobsmacked when I listened to Ed Miliband destroy Johnson at PMQs. I thought how easy it looked to take that incompetent idiot down. The Tories are there to be taken, and when I listen to Starmer I feel tormented. The working class needs a party that will fight for them, but Labour is more interested in witch hunting socialists than organising them to take on Johnson. I am a lifelong anti-racist, and like so many others I have been accused of antisemitism – because I dared to criticise Margaret Hodge. But to be honest it is the younger generation I feel sorry for. Jeremy gave young people the hope that things would be better, and Starmer has just kicked all that idealism into touch. We need a party with some inspiration and big ideas.”
The conclusion from this discussion is that Starmer’s patriotism is a gift to the right, it will not win over working class voters and may well stoke racism. Devoid of any understanding that capitalism needs to be confronted in order to win reforms, Labour looks set to go on being the loyal opposition that the Tories love. Doncaster Peoples Assembly is having a demonstration on October 17 that will offer a lot more than Sir Keir’s vacuity: We Won’t Pay for the Crisis. The Government Has Failed Us.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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