Nathen Allen is a Young Voices UK contributor and the chairman of the London Universities Conservatives.
It’s odd, somehow, to hear a Labour leader talking up Britain and its institutions so far from a general election. Paying tribute to the late Duke of Edinburgh, Keir Starmer described the monarchy as “the one institution for which the faith of the British people has never faltered.” He may have stopped short of an explicit endorsement of the monarchy, but Starmer is engaged in a concerted effort to make his party seem inviting to British patriots once again.
Before Starmer, every five years or so, Labour would rediscover that actually liking the country you want to lead is electorally useful. It’s as if Newton had only ever remembered the concept of gravity every time he accidentally dropped a Golden Delicious. But, apparently, the obvious and repetitive nature of it all isn’t going to stop Starmer from trying his damndest to establish Labour as a patriotic alternative to the Conservative party. Of course, it’s far too late for him—and Labour itself— to realise this.
Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was constantly accused of hating Britain. He refused to sing the national anthem. He allegedly sympathised with terrorists. There were even fears he would hand over the Falklands to Argentina. So it‘s not surprising that Starmer is looking to rebrand Labour—but his efforts to make his party seem more patriotic are doomed to fail.
Take his recent campaign to make Labour comfortable displaying the Union Jack, for example—a small first step. It was a disaster. The Welsh Labour Health Minister decried the idea of “Tory flag-waving” and a Labour staffer even suggested it would lead to a similar event to the storming of the US Capitol Building in Britain. This belief that waving the flag is to be a Tory is one the Conservative party will surely be happy to monopolise in the mind of the electorate.
The problem Labour continues to misunderstand is that voters aren’t stupid. We know that if you have to force yourself to feel comfortable displaying the flag of your country, then you can’t reasonably be expected to uphold the other more complex cultural institutions in Britain. And those are institutions Brits make clear—time and again—that they care about.
Furthermore, Starmer shows no action on the Union – he’s consistently passive on the issue. Contrast that with the positive and public effort the Conservatives are making with recent announcements in the defence review to procure technology and equipment from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (as well as new plans by the Government to boost transport connections across the UK). Even during the period when Starmer has had ample opportunity to fight against what many have viewed as Conservative threats to the union, he has failed.
During the controversy over the Northern Ireland Protocol, he simply fell flat. He has completely failed to position himself as a viable unionist alternative to the Tories in Scotland, an area once famous as a Labour heartland and one where current polling has suggested a growing unionist majority in an independence referendum. Of course, that’s where the Tories, not Labour, will take the lead.
Even in London, Sadiq Khan is attempting to create a commission to target “controversial” historical statues. Despite the wide opposition to this move throughout the country, with 79 per cent of people believing we shouldn’t attempt to rewrite history and 69 per cent saying they are proud of UK history overall, Labour cannot pretend that actions of those like Khan are separate from Starmer’s leadership.
As mayor of the nation’s capital, Khan’s actions threaten monuments and symbolism in a national consciousness in ways other regional politicians simply can’t. They will and they have affected the image of the Labour party throughout the country, tainting it with a further image of hating the nation and its history. Starmer could, as party leader, attempt to reel in Khan, but as a man famous for indecision, it seems obvious he won’t. And even then, the damage Khan has wrought is already burnt into the public mind.
Here’s the problem undergirding it all: Many Labour politicians, rather than accept what the people of Britain believe, would rather engage in a student-style debate over social theory.
As Baroness Chakrabarti recently put it, Labour should be trying to “change the narrative” on patriotism. It’s a condescending statement, implying the average voter loves their country for the wrong reasons. But it’s indicative of a deeper truth about the Labour party: It simply cannot accept it has to be representative of what voters want, because the majority of its beliefs are fundamentally in opposition to how the average Briton outside London sees the world.
To paraphrase Orwell’s famous line, the Labour Party might be the only place where politicians hate their own nationality. They’re constantly trying to create new, unwanted ideas of patriotism, just to make it easier on themselves to pretend to be “patriotic.” But it’s clearly a farce.
The numbers make it clear. The Labour Party has been behind in the polls by around 13 points— and that deficit expands to 25 points when it comes to working-class voters. Here’s why. According to YouGov, 88 per cent of Conservative voters describe themselves as patriotic. This number was 61 per cent of the general population, a large voting base Starmer aims to regain from the Tories. It’s exactly why he’ll fail.
The Labour strategist Philip Gould once said after Labour’s defeat during the 1992 election that “Labour lost because it was still the party of the winter of discontent”. For the lost Labour seats of the Red Wall, Labour is simply still the party of Britain-bashing and university Marxists—Starmer can’t change that, no matter how hard he tries.