UK Politics

Labour and its patriotic predicament

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The Labour Party leadership has had something of an embarrassing time in the last month. With opinion polls slowly showing better performance since Keir Starmer became leader, Labour’s statistical fortunes are now faltering again and the party’s recent patriotic turn has been revealed to be the brainchild of the party’s branding agency. Barely a year into his leadership, these new roadblocks are causing some to question whether Starmer is the man for the job.

The leak from the party branding agency alone shouldn’t be seen as anything particularly shocking. Ever since Margaret Thatcher began consulting with advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi for her 1979 general election campaign, the world of politics has been increasingly dominated by public relations firms, advertising companies and branding agencies.

Lamentable as it is, the influence of PR companies over political parties shouldn’t be news to anybody at this point. However, to certain elements inside the Labour Party, this revelation makes perfect ammunition for factional warfare. The Corbynite left of the party have no doubt taken this to reinforce what they already thought about Starmer – that he’s some kind of right-wing Blairite stooge in the pocket of corporations.

The section of the Labour Party which like to see themselves as the only real socialists in the world are responding with characteristic calmness, with Clive Lewis denouncing the emphasis on patriotism as “fatherlandism” on Twitter. This is laughable to pretty much anybody in the general public or from any other political party, but those of us who are in the Labour Party know quite well that Lewis represents the views of a significant chunk of the party on this topic. This kind of view of patriotism is ubiquitous on the Corbynite left of the party, and reasonably common in a diluted form on the more moderate “soft left” of the party.

There are a bizarre number of members, generally young, highly ideological in rhetorical style, who genuinely use phrases like “the butchers’ apron” to describe the Union Jack, or who first think of colonialism, plunder and evil when they see the flag. It’s no secret to anybody at all that the British Empire did horrible things around the world, and this alone is not an argument as to why Labour should shy away from the flag.

Those who do think that Labour’s patriotic imaging is a mistake tend to ignore the fact that broadly speaking, most people in the UK are in some way proud of being British. As a YouGov poll has shown, 67% of British people are “very proud” or “fairly proud” of being British. Unless you’re trying very hard to find reasons to despise the general public, this clearly shouldn’t be taken to mean that 67% of people think that Britain was actually pleasant towards the Irish and that we should embark on some kind of Reconquista in South Asia.

With this in mind, anyone with any decision-making power in the Labour Party would do well to ignore any criticism of the party’s emphasis on patriotism from the usual suspects. Equally, the leadership team should be under no illusion that looking patriotic alone is enough to rescue the party.

On the rare occasions where the Labour Party has won elections before, it has always had its economic program dressed in patriotic garb. Whatever ideological position members of the party may hold, it’s political common sense that the public aren’t going to vote for a party they see is in some way opposed to, embarrassed or disgusted by the country they are seeking to govern.

This was made obvious by Labour’s performance in 2019 – overwhelmingly defeated under the auspices of a leader who had to spend years justifying his associations with the likes of Hamas and the IRA. Whatever may be the case regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with terrorist groups who dislike Britain, it seems obvious that the prevalence of these facts allowed a narrative to be built that Corbyn wasn’t patriotic enough and was even a national security threat.

Issues like this are fundamental, being proud of the country you want to govern and wanting to stick up for its national security are taken as givens, not as topics for debate, and not fulfilling basic requirements on that front will cripple a party’s chance for success, no matter how radical and popular its economic programme.

The state of affairs in the Labour Party at the moment is obviously far from ideal. The leadership team under Keir Starmer seem convinced so far that proposing uninspiring policies and giving them a patriotic flair, such as the British Recovery Bonds, is sufficient to revive the party’s chances.

Whatever policies the party comes out with, dressing them in the Union Jack alone is not the electoral silver bullet some may think it is.

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