What are Labour for?

They are a party who haven’t run official candidates in NI for nearly 60 years. Yet so much of the past century has been influenced by the once mighty Labour party. Sir Keir Starmer is proving more popular in technocratic opinion polls, but will his virtual party leader speech made today filter through into positive headlines for the beleaguered centre-left?

Poly Toynbee has thrown down the gauntlet to her ideological partners, calling on Labour is re-capture a sense of patriotism lost to a narrative dominating Tory party. The much berated historian David Starkey called the Tory victory in December “a victory for patriotism” as the complexity of Brexit and moving beyond it is boiled down to that most English of arguments; “love of one’s country.”

Toynbee seems to have hit a soft spot in Tory ranks:

Johnson needs to keep Brexit alive as it’s all that binds his party together. Ideologically, Tories are split between austerians who regard Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme as socialism, and pragmatists who back it as electoral necessity. Those who whooped with glee at breaking an international treaty are a separate tribe to those who were profoundly shocked at this un-Conservative disrespect for law and order.

With possibly the greatest liberal jurist of the 20th century passing away in the US this week it appears as though cultural warfare is about to be kicked up a notch. Caselaw argued (as an advocate) and set (as a judge) by Ruth Bader Ginsberg have been profound for the quality of life in the US and been the intellectual fuel to socially liberal flames across the English speaking world. Again Toynbee touches on a topic here which labour could capitalise on, its united social liberalism

..And the pandemic reopened another old [Tory] rift: between libertarians who see Covid emergency law as draconian dictatorship, and old conservatives who would regulate to save lives. Unanchored and vacillating, Johnson can’t appease all wings of his fractious, fragmenting party.

As the US supreme court swings right, might we see threats not only to the Human Rights Act but also the Abortion Act of 1967 or to the very principles of social security on which the Labour party was founded? The UK doesn’t follow the American lead on all of these issues, but as the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman admitted when interviewed on US TV, these big cultural debates in America are hugely influential in Europe.

In Scotland, the ground zero for the future of the union, the Labour party are a mere third at Holyrood. The Newsnight policy editor conducted an interview with the little known leader there – Richard Leonard. Instead of building up his party as a force in its once natural electoral territory he is facing an internal leadership challenge. If Labour continue to collapse in Scotland then unionism as a concept will be quickly seen as a ‘Tory only” force. The Lib Dems still have a presence in Scotland but we shan’t talk about Jo Swinson’s seat and with it the hubris of her electoral strategy.

Now almost forgotten to posterity it was actually Gordon Brown who was much credited for restoring balance to the Scottish independence debate back in 2014. The old Cameronite strategy dubbed “project fear” scrapped the pro-union campaign across the line but failed miserably on the 2016 referendum which was of arguably even greater significance to the union as an entity.

So the question for Labour is simple, yet the solution is hard. Continue to foster this path of “patriotism” which uses English nationalist rhetoric to achieve socially progressive ends or really throw themselves into the centre of the debate over the future of the union. Past Labour leaders were enough to pacify and even persuade ‘soft nationalist’ voters away from constitutional change, has Starmer got what it takes to do the same?

Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, Crown Prosecution Service, UK” by Chatham House, London is licensed under CC BY