Labour left warns Keir Starmer not to wrap the party in union flag

Report recommends ‘patriotic’ rebranding to win back voters 

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 03 February 2021 17:46 GMT
Hoyle interrupts Boris Johnson as he takes a jab at Starmer

Labour left-wingers have warned Keir Starmer he risks alienating the party’s core supporters if he tries to wrap the party in the union flag.

A leaked report prepared for the party said Labour should “make use of the flag, veterans and dressing smartly” as part of a radical rebranding to win back “red wall” voters who switched to Tories in 2019.

The proposal has sparked alarm on the Labour left, with one MP telling The Independent that it would be a “foolish strategy” unless combined with firm statements of progressive values of inclusivity, while a former member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet said it showed “a paucity of vision” at a time of economic and public health crisis.

Any plan to appeal to patriotic voters risked being undermined by a video unearthed by the Guido Fawkes website, showing Sir Keir saying that he had once wanted to get rid of the monarchy.

The 2005 film of barrister Starmer shows him saying: “I also got made a Queen’s Counsel, which is odd since I often used to propose the abolition of the monarchy.”

At Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Boris Johnson tried to capitalise on quotes in the leaked report from voters who said Sir Keir was “sitting on the fence”.

But he was slapped down by the speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who told him to stick to answering MPs’ questions.

The report, obtained by The Guardian, was drawn up for the party by an external agency which conducted focus groups “from Watford to Grimsby” last autumn to find out how voters view Labour under Sir Keir.

Recommending an embrace of patriotic symbols, it said: “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.”

Richard Burgon, who served as shadow justice secretary under Mr Corbyn, told The Independent: “In the biggest public health and economic crisis for 100 years, is this the best the party can do? I don’t think it is. It suggests a paucity of ideas. People want us to believe in something.”

He added: “There is a real danger that the Labour leadership thinks it can take the votes of those who backed Labour in 2017 and 2019 for granted, that it can take the votes of young people and black and minority ethnic communities for granted, and go chasing the votes of people who may well prefer a real Conservative Party.”

Clive Lewis, a former soldier and one of Labour’s leading ethnic minority MPs, said: “The Tory party has absorbed Ukip and now Labour appears to be absorbing the language and symbols of the Tory party.

“It’s not patriotism; it’s Fatherland-ism. There’s a better way to build social cohesion than moving down the track of the nativist right.”

And Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle told The Independent: “There is nothing wrong with showing that you are comfortable with the symbols of your country. But if you do it by just waving the flag, our core supporters, who are young, liberal, EU-supporting, will get confused about the message you are trying to send.

“All these things are fine, but if they don’t come with a sense of values and a recognition that we are have to appeal to people from both sides, it is a foolish strategy.”

A Labour spokesperson stressed that the report was produced by an outside organisation and was not party policy.

“We will write our own strategy and that will be a strategy focused entirely on how do we restore trust and how do we win in 2024,” he said.

The spokesperson shrugged off the 2005 video, saying: “It’s a 15-year-old interview about what Keir said 15 years before that. We all reflect on what we said when we were in our 20s.” Starmer “believes in the monarchy” and sees himself as a proud patriot, said the spokesperson.

“The union flag represents the country that Labour wants to govern and the country that Keir wants to be prime minister of,” he added. “Labour believes in a better future for our county, and Keir wants to become prime minister and we want a Labour government because we want a better country. That’s patriotism.”

Some centrist Labour MPs said it was right for the party to show pride in the union flag.

Frontbencher Toby Perkins said: “There is a broad coalition of voters we need to win and pride in our flag is a good but not sufficient step.

“The revulsion to our flag of some on the left is revealing.”

And Neil Coyle tweeted a photo of himself in a union flag face-covering made by a company in his Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency. Mr Coyle told The Independent: “If people are afraid of our flag, that’s very worrying.

“We should be proud of our flag and our country. That doesn’t mean ignoring the problems of our country, it means focusing on them and working to improve things. That’s why the Labour Party exists.”

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