At the end of April, when the Conservative poll ratings were higher, Labour’s were lower and his leadership had only recently begun, Keir Starmer went to marginal Bury, and sought to fix his party’s biggest weakness.
“I’m really proud of my country,” he told local voters, adding that “we love the country we live in” – and that the Labour movement and British patriotism were “two sides of the same coin”.
In his methodical, deliberate way, Starmer was moving early to start fixing his party’s biggest vulnerability under his predecessor.
Voters may not have known much about Hamas, Hezbollah and even, in the case of younger ones, the IRA, and not all them can remember the Soviet Union or the Falklands War.
But they sniffed out that Jeremy Corbyn was uneasy with today’s Britain. Perhaps the poisonings in Salisbury, after which he refused to acknowledge Russian culpability, marked a turning-point.
His successor is set on correcting his party’s mistake, and this offers a way into thinking about Black Lives Matter and Britain’s present troubles.
The first point to make about the organisation is that it is very different from Labour – or even a far-left body like the Socialis Workers’ Party. Because it is not a party at all.
Nor is it a campaign – in the sense that Marcus Rashford’s push for children’s meals was, for example. In other words, an enterprise with a clear aim, led by an identifiable person (or persons).
Black Lives Matter has no visible leader or leaders. As irony has it, it is delivering a white supremacist tactic: “leaderless resistance”.
Consequently, it is a kind of rainbow movement in which no-one has any more authority than anyone else. There is a moderate end, represented by the newly toned-down and front-benched David Lammy.
The Shadow Justice Secretary does have policy changes that he wants made, not all of which are very different from those of his opponents, and Andrew Gimson pointed out on this site last week.
Then there is the extreme end – UK Black Lives Matter, for example, with its “commitment to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy”.
This wing may have no spokesman with even a smidgeon of Lammy’s media profile, but it doesn’t need one to force itself on more voters than he will ever reach.
Defacing Churchill’s statue, overthrowing Edward Colston’s, targeting Cecil Rhodes: all this has what the managers of focus groups call “cut through”.
So does the censoring of Gone With The Wind by HBO Max, or the pulling of Little Britain from BBCIPlayer or Netflix, or the RFU reviewing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Now, younger people are unlikely to see Tara, the slave-owning plantation the film, in the same way as older generations. Most people wouldn’t champion Edward Colston. Or laugh now at Desiree DeVere: taste changes.
Nor will your average punter in the provinces believe that Britain’s imperial history was all good with no bad. But this is beside the point.
Which is that people need a basic self-esteem to keep going – the conviction that they and their home and their country are worth valuing, as is its history and culture. This is lowest common denominator patriotism.
Starmer understands this – which is why, when he “took the knee”, he did so in as low-profile a way as possible, for a single photo in the insulated space of his Westminster office, as far away from the streets as he could manage.
He will also appreciate the root cause of the panic that seized a mass of Labour’s front bench MPs in the wake of Priti Patel’s eviscaration of the party in the Commons.
It has got used to treating ethnic minority Britons as though it owned their votes. Conservative politicians like Patel, Kemi Badenoch, and Rishi Sunak are a challenge to its sense of entitlement.
Hence their flustered letter to Patel, seeking to delegitimise her life story. And the Left’s alarm at the emergence of clever, purposeful ethnic minority thinkers and actors who don’t take its line, such as Munira Mirza.
Starmer may also be alert to the risks that the corporates are running by taking up Black Lives Matter, powered by a mix of fear, guilt, shame, decency, greed and that most insidious moral danger of all: following the crowd.
For example, Premiership football may feel today that, by putting the slogan on the back of players’ shirts, it is in tune with the zeitgeist. But what will it do when asked: why so many black players, and so few black managers?
The Labour leader is trying to run with the protesters’ hare while hunting with Bury’s hounds. But political leadership means taking decisions, and his was to take that knee.
We doubt very much whether most voters, especially in the mass of Red Wall seats that the Conservatives swept last December, would be happy doing likewise.
The site wouldn’t quite go so far as to claim that majority opinion would see the gesture as unpatriotic (though we would like to see some polling).
But we know that the vast majority of Britons are proud of their country, and taking the knee suggests to many of them that they shoudn’t be.
However slow Boris Johnson may have been to respond alertly to the defacing of Churchill’s statue, or its boarding-up, he at least has more or less got there, and has had the elemental cunning not to follow Starmer.
Sunak, Patel, Badenoch have all been flinty. So has Dominic Raab. And in the response to his words last week, we saw yet again the cultural divisions that wracked Britain during Brexit.
Much of London and most of provincial Britain are different worlds, and it doesn’t follow that because the Foreign Secretary’s dismissal of taking the knee was slated in the first, it went down badly in the second.
Talking of which, we believe that Ben Bradley, whose 2017 win in Mansfield was a precursor of last year’s sweep through the North and Midlands, has his finger on the pulse.
Bradley resigned from the front bench recently and now has the freedom to speak his mind. He’s been tweeting about everything from Churchill’s statue through white working class education to premiership football.
Are memories really so short? It’s scarcely six months since a general election, for the first time in a modern election in Britain, delivered a result in which culture trumped economics, like the 2016 referendum before it.
It proved that patriotism is a potent electoral force. Britain won’t have changed that much in little more than 24 weeks. To be sure, the Conservatives have work to do when it comes to Covid-19, the economy and “levelling-up”.
As well as in building real diversity in Britain – by which we mean a diversity of views as well as people. For which Mirza is becoming a bit of a poster woman.
The challenges and problems are legion. But at least Johnson hasn’t got to grapple with one that Starmer can’t shake off: the sense that his party doesn’t feel at home in the country that it seeks to govern.