Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Labour is suffering an identity crisis. After a cataclysmic showing at last year’s snap general election, which saw their campaign marred by Brexit and anti-Semitism thanks to the blundering leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Keir Starmer slipped into the vacant premiership with the onerous job of holding Boris Johnson’s to account and making Labour electable again.
Whilst it is too early predicting how good of a job his shadow cabinet has done (given we are amid a deadly pandemic), it is safe to say, with assurances, that Starmer has had a relatively easy ride. As the BBC’s Andrew Marr pointed out to shadow justice secretary David Lammy on Sunday, Labour is merely acting as political “commentators” and are there to highlight the Conservative’s ineffective response to COVID-19.
That is, until the re-emergence of #BlackLivesMatter after the tragic killing of George Floyd in America. It has exacerbated in widespread demonstrations that have resulted in acts of protest, such as the defacing of a statue in Bristol of the 18th-century slave-trading philanthropist Edward Colston. Commentators, predominantly from the ideological left, saw this move as a reaction to the city council’s ineffectiveness to listen to the strenuous campaign to remove the figure from public viewing, as well as systemic racism in Britain today.
But what was Starmer’s response? The Holborn and St Pancras MP told LBC that Colston “should have been taken down a long, long time ago” (he later posted on social media with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner taking the knee). However, Starmer said that it should have been enacted “properly, with consent”. His thoughts left many in his camp uneased on Twitter, as well as in the House of Commons.
This small incident is exactly the sort of dilemma that Labour must, and are having to, come to terms with. Starmer’s measurability – as well as shifting the party to the centre ground – may be part of the solution to their incapability at the polls, particularly in regaining trust with many of its core base that broke tradition and voted Tory (and who disapprove of the recent acts by civic activists, as a recent YouGov poll showed).
Although Labour has been assured of support from the expanding demographic of young, tolerant, liberal degree-holders, the numbers are insufficient to win nationally in the foreseeable future. Starmer and co need the ‘Red Wall’ because it is an idealistic fallacy that Labour would romp to victory with seats in London and university towns. Moreover, the party is still losing ground in Scotland and Wales.
Where voters see divisions on law and order – which directly link to statue toppling and the behaviour of protesters at large gatherings – among other issues, Labour will see these as test points to branch out to ‘cross-pressured’ voters who not only want economic reform but who are also longing for cultural security. It is a difficult balancing act: Labour needs Hackney as much as they need Bolsover.
Events like these will test the fragility of the voter coalition. If Starmer can mitigate this overlap – and realise that these two groups coincide in their everyday lived experiences, such as concern over the precariousness of their living conditions and a feeling of having lost one’s voice in public discourse – then the (incompetent) incumbent Tory government should take note and worry for what may await them in the near-future.