9 June 2020

If he wants electoral success, Starmer must prepare to crack the whip


The online response to Sir Keir Starmer’s comments on the weekend’s events – during which a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and dumped in Bristol harbour by protesters – was deeply informative.

Even before the Labour leader’s first of his planned monthly appearances on LBC Radio, the party’s response to the events in Bristol, as well as to the unpleasant scenes of riots and attacks on police officers and their horses, seemed pretty well established. In LabourList’s Monday morning email, Elliott Chappell criticised Boris Johnson for only mentioning the violence (rather than the wider cause of anti-racism) and described the toppling of the Colston statue as “iconic”.

Meanwhile the reaction from Labour MPs was either one of tactical silence or of robust support for the events in Bristol – Nadia Whittome, the MP for Nottingham East, tweeted: “I celebrate these acts of resistance.”

And then Starmer spoke. And his words were not welcomed by many on the left. “It was completely wrong to pull a statue down like that, but stepping back, that statue should have been taken down a long time ago,” he said.

Cue much rending of garments and placing of ash on heads. This is a familiar conflict, one that has defined the relationship between leader and party for more than a hundred years. But unhappiness at Starmer goes beyond the traditional contrariness of the Corbynite hard left; the Black Lives Matter movement, and the demonstrations they organise, are seen as part of mainstream Labour support and the party’s elected representatives go to great lengths to ensure their own members and voters know of their sympathy for the anti-racist cause. Starmer would not distance himself from that either.

But there is another tradition among the left for self-sabotage, and it is this which Starmer recognises as a genuine threat to the party’s chances of presenting an electable face to the voters. Setting aside the inadvisability of holding mass demos during a lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19, the weekend’s events across the country could have been seen as a positive act of solidarity for the plight of the victims of racism across the world, but particularly in the United States.

Instead, a minority of participants chose, inevitably, to bring the rest of their fellow demonstrators into disrepute by attacking police officers and defacing statues and monuments. They would have known that such actions would distract from the core message of Black Lives Matter, but that matters little to people for whom virtue signalling alone just isn’t enough.

The problem these narcissistic vandals have is that Starmer knows his history. Previous Labour leaders have seen their electoral prospects sink without trace because of their movement’s tolerance for street violence and their own attempts to obfuscate about it. Neil Kinnock’s chances of becoming prime minister were shattered less than a year after becoming party leader, when Arthur Scargill led the National Union of Mineworkers out on strike and proceeded to use violent intimidation to deter others from continuing to work. The Labour Party at the time managed to convince itself that it could not avoid showing solidarity with the miners, which meant holding its fire when it came to criticising picket line violence.

Voters, even those with some sympathy for the miners’ plight, watched nightly TV reports of pitch battles between police and pickets and waited for Kinnock to take a stand against the violence. He didn’t – at least, not soon enough and not with any conviction.

Six years later, as a previous generation of “Toytown Trots” (as Kinnock himself described them) turned central London into a warzone during the protests against the Conservative government’s poll tax, the Labour leader found his voice, condemning the violence in unambiguous terms: policy change happened democratically through elections, not through mob rule.

But it was already much too late. When the electorate makes up its mind about a politician, it rarely changes it, except in a negative direction. Kinnock’s equivocation during the 1984/85 dispute left an indelible impression.

If posts on Twitter were representative of the views of the great British public, the conclusion would be that Starmer’s opposition to policy being made at the end of a pitchfork was desperately unpopular. Fortunately for him, Twitter and everything said on it is unimportant. Undoubtedly he is aware of this. And he has already learned the most difficult lesson that any Leader of the Opposition can learn: that the reason winning elections from opposition is difficult is because of the compromises and concessions you have to make. The difficulty is not in selling those compromises to the electorate, but to his own party.

Some of Starmer’s critics are behaving as if the electorate, having rejected Labour last year in the most brutal way imaginable, is now ready to come round and ask the party for its forgiveness. They think this because the kind of people who can justify chucking a flare under the hooves of a police horse is also the kind of person whose hatred of the Conservative Party is so blinding and all-consuming that it prevents him from understanding why his neighbours and friends voted for them.

For Labour to win in 2023, it has to change and become a vehicle that ordinary voters – in other words, those who were disgusted by the scenes of violence, law-breaking and vandalism at the weekend – can trust to be in government. That means a direction of travel that is, in general terms, rightwards (though it speaks to a fundamental problem with the Labour brand that rejection of mob violence is automatically seen as a rightwing or Conservative principle). Britain didn’t vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives because they thought Jeremy Corbyn was too rightwing.

Taking a stand against breaking the law is an obvious one for a man who aspires to lead the government and who is himself a distinguished lawyer and a former Director of Public Prosecutions. It would have been utterly ruinous for him to have dissembled over the issue of the weekend’s violence.

Given the reaction he must have known would come, his words were brave. But in the first few months of his leadership, he is in a strong enough position to weather the storm. The challenge he now faces is what to do about those Labour MPs – including prominent frontbenchers – who have made clear by their public statements that they do not share Starmer’s distaste for mob rule.

Words are all very well and are a good start. But unless he cracks the whip in his parliamentary party, he risks going down the same road travelled by Kinnock. And that’s not a road that leads to Downing Street.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.