Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Trust by the electorate of a political party boils down to a belief about whether someone feels you represent them, their family and their community at an underlying level. The trust in Labour that had existed for a century across many parts of the North of England and the Midlands had been stretched under the latter years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Under Jeremy Corbyn, it finally snapped.
The explanations of why that trust ended – a break that led to the metamorphosis of the ‘Red Wall’ into the ‘Blue Barricade’ (as it’s now known in Westminster) – are many, but the main reason is that traditional Labour voters, over time, stopped seeing the people who they’d elected as representing them.
It’s true to say that this shift took place over years – even decades – but it was seen most clearly of all by Labour’s rejection of Brexit in last year’s general election because Labour finally said what many had suspected: that it knew better than its own voters.
Keir Starmer’s push for a second referendum on EU membership was fundamental to that. Yes, Corbyn was a major issue – but he had been for many two years before, too. The cold, hard difference between 2017 and 2019 was Labour’s position on Brexit, and that the electorate saw, from 2017, that Corbyn might get in and implement it.
The party’s second referendum Brexit position was taken because the Labour higher echelons in London thought, as they had done for many years (and did in Scotland previously), that they could take what was then the Red Wall for granted, and pursue a policy that was anathema to their own traditional voters.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that we see Starmer, the man behind the policy that did the most damage to Labour in 2019, writing in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph that we need to stop “banging on about Brexit.” For the London Labour Party, the core of the woketerati establishment, it’s a typically upper middle-class response of “Don’t talk about it and hope it goes away” approach. Starmer clearly sees both those who voted for Brexit and the entire concept of Brexit as a vulgar embarrassment to be ignored.
But it’s not just on Brexit that he is ensuring his party stays silent. Can you remember a good point that he’s made at Prime Minister’s Questions? One that really stuck with you? Or even one of those jibes that reveal something deeper? I’m struggling.
Does Labour have even one policy idea that has managed to emerge in the first five months of his leadership? It’s been 150 days, and he’s still leaving the public guessing. Even Labour’s forays into opposition to the Government quickly come unstuck as soon as you ask: “so what would you do instead?” Journalists don’t even need to ask the “How would you pay for it?” question.
Starmer doesn’t want to get into Brexit: in fact, he’d literally rather not talk about it – or anything else, for that matter. He has been struck dumb on the biggest foreign and economic policy issue ofour time. Which is hardly surprising – as the performance of Louise Haigh, Labour’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, on Sophie Ridge on Sunday yesterday showed.
It’s easy to criticise, but if you literally don’t have a policy you end up by inventing one and, in doing so on the hoof. Labour’s problem is that this means capitulating to EU demands on state aid, fishing and the integrity of the United Kingdom.
I can understand why Labour is burnt. They tried to stand for a policy – one on a second referendum, as designed by Starmer – and people didn’t like it. The problem that he now faces is that if you stand for nothing, you therefore fall (or at least kneel) for any passing fad. And that will soon start to show in the further undermining of trust – which is the one factor that Starmer needs, above anything, to rebuild if he is to be in with a shot of being able to win back the Blue Barricade.
For us Conservatives, trust cuts the other way. We must, as the Prime Minister said, repay the trust placed in us by the British people when they voted for us, particularly in the communities where, like mine, they took a leap of faith for the first time ever. That means standing up for our communities and what they voted for: control of our own money, borders, and laws. It also means delivering, over time and methodically, on the levelling up agenda.
If Labour isn’t prepared to have a policy on Brexit, or tax and spend, or education, or health, or social care – even in the broadest terms then – electorally at least – Starmer will end up being Continuity Corbyn. Or perhaps worse.
The volte face that Labour is currently trying to manage as an opposition in seeking to defend a Withdrawal Agreement that it opposed is farcical. Starmer needs to decide which voters he wants to trust him. In doing so, he’ll be able to look to build a case. I remember the days of the ‘quiet man’ in opposition, and it’s pretty clear to me that the ‘silent knight’ politics he’s adopted won’t withstand the struggles of the next few months – never mind years.