The last refuge of a scoundrel will never be fertile territory for the left, writes Sean Ledwith
At a time when a horrifically incompetent Tory government has presided over the avoidable deaths of over 100,000 people, a strategy commissioned by Keir Starmer has concluded what Labour really needs right now is a dress code and more flags. The report leaked to The Guardian yesterday has not yet had the definitive stamp of approval from the Starmer team but is consistent with the rightward direction of travel the current leader has adopted since replacing Corbyn last year.
The report is couched in the type of managerial spin that characterised New Labour’s infatuation with a corporate identity during the Blair years. Party members are advised that:
Belonging needs to be reinforced through all messengers… communicating Labour’s respect and commitment for the country can represent a change in the party’s body language…The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.
The so-called brand experts from the Republic marketing agency hired by the Starmer leadership claim that this red-white-and-blue-washing of the party’s image will help it recapture the critical Red Wall seats snatched from Labour heartlands in the 2019 election: "The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment."
The party hierarchy has moved quickly to distance itself from fully embracing the report, aware that significant numbers of the membership will be repelled by a jingoistic tone that does little more than imitate the language of the Tory right and Ukip. Clive Lewis, one of Labour’s BAME MPs, rightly commented:
The Tory party has absorbed Ukip and now Labour appears to be absorbing the language and symbols of the Tory party. It’s not patriotism; it’s Fatherland-ism. There’s a better way to build social cohesion than moving down the track of the nativist right.
Last month, Starmer appeared in a party political broadcast that demonstrated he might not accept the letter of the report but he will certainly be embracing its spirit. The speech was full of the sort of overblown patriotic bluster that Boris Johnson usually specialises in:
I know the British people will rise to the challenge. Because this has been a time of national solidarity and heroism. We’ve seen extraordinary achievements from British science, British business, research and manufacturing. We’ve seen the best of the British people in the most difficult times.
This was followed last Sunday with an op-ed in the Daily Mail in which he opposed the unions and proclaimed that he "share(s) the Government’s ambition to make it a national mission to reopen our schools" under a headline calling Britain the "envy of the world".
We have been here before with Starmer’s risible wrapping himself in the Union Jack ploy. At his speech to conference last year, he could barely contain his patriotic zeal:
I ask you take another look at Labour. We’re under new leadership. We love this country as you do. This is the country I grew up in and it’s the country I will grow old in. And I want it to be the country I know it can be.
Recently it has become virtually impossible to see Starmer on the news without the now obligatory Union flag propped up in the background. Behind the rhetorical and visual flourishes, the real agenda of this reheated patriotism is to distance the party from the principled anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics of the Corbyn era and to reassure the UK ruling class that their power and wealth will be secure in the unlikely event of a Starmer government.
The Labour leader is also sending out a coded message to the Biden administration that Labour under his leadership can be counted on to approve any reckless American imperial adventures that might be undertaken in the future. The billionaire bloodsuckers of the armaments industry likewise can sleep soundly at night knowing the UK will continue to be a leading exporter of high-tech death and destruction.
Tried and failed
Starmer’s rebranding whizzkids might think they are onto a winner but this strategy has been tried by previous Labour leaders with unimpressive results. Michael Foot backed Thatcher’s 1982 invasion of the Falklands and was trounced in the following election. Gordon Brown proclaimed "British Jobs for British Workers" but never won an election as leader. Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour fizzled out at the 2015 election.
Aside from these historic failures, Starmer’s patriot games will go down like a lead balloon in Scotland where support for the union is crumbling fast. They are also jarringly out of sync with the anti-colonial and multicultural dynamic generated by last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, particularly among young people.
Starmer’s supposedly forensic skills have failed to land a punch on Johnson and allowed the Tories to get away with the worst peacetime disaster of the modern era. Every day we have to endure the spectacle of a Tory politician popping up with the Union flag in the background to justify why they have let tens of thousands of British people die needlessly during the pandemic. This sickening hypocrisy is not something Labour should be seeking to emulate.
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