Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Much has been said of late about Keir Starmer’s move to make Labour more patriotic. As is now common with Labour, reactions have been quite decisive. One of the more compelling arguments in favour of the move is that it will disable the Conservatives from using patriotism themselves as an electoral weapon. Essentially, the idea is that by claiming that Labour are the true patriots, they can then turn around to the Tories’ giving business contracts to close friends and relatives, to show that they do not have any real solidarity with their fellow citizens. As it stands, it is a compelling idea.
But the argument has an unspoken second part to it. Turning patriotism back on the Tories to attack their cronyism, incompetence, and miserliness, is also essentially an attack on all the businesses who have made a profit out of catastrophe (of course, this is not an attack on small, failing businesses). However, he does not seem to connect firmly enough Labour’s new-found patriotism with the fact that the rich are only getting richer.
There’s a reason for this: Labour’s re-vamped pro-business position. Starmer cannot attack business owners (who are generally richer than those they employ) for hoarding a large portion of the nation’s wealth when they are envisioned to revitalise Britain’s economy. Patriotism taps into community positivity that may rally the economy, and a business owner may be more inclined to vote Labour when it distances itself from anti-business sentiment that is generally popular on the left. But then all of Labour’s work would be undone by calling out the profiteers and presumably taxing them more.
It appears then that Labour’s new position is full of contradictions. Starmer seems to make a point about equality, but equality of what? Wealth? How then can this be squared with a pro-business line that is about profit? In Labour’s new motto: “Secure our economy. Protect our NHS. Rebuild our country”, the economy comes first. Is this idea a disguised use of the famous trickle-down theory wherein, if we sort out the rich, then their wealth will percolate down to the lower-level earners? But this idea of a trickle-down, positive-sum-gain is shown to be evidently false by the numbers of homeless people passed by each day. So, what then is really ‘ours’ in the coming new normal?
The anxiety is that Labour’s patriotism entails re-embracing the full-blooded neoliberalism of the New Labour glory days, back in a time when voters looked from Labour to Tory, and it was impossible to say which was which. Indeed, Starmer’s idea of a British Recovery Bond is modelled on a Tory thinktank idea for a ‘northern recovery bond’. Labour’s patriotism is in danger of making Labour look like little Tories again and, if their patriotism comes off as insincere, they will remain looking like a failing business pumping out cheap ads to lull a few stray customers to vote for them.
Labour must therefore reinvent a new national image, one which combines their patriotism with genuine social change. A social change which, ironically, might begin to sound like ‘For the Many, Not the Few’.