Keep up to date with the Parliament as Avin presents her narrative on the turmoltous world of British politics in her column, Beyond the Benches, where she’ll explore the twists and turns of our government.
When surrounded by those safe green benches in Parliament, Sir Keir Starmer’s intentions are clear. For weeks now PMQs have gone the same way: the Leader of the Opposition will take the moral high ground in a bid to present himself as level-headed by criticising Boris Johnson’s government for either risking public safety or depriving children of an education or anything that would display him as defender of the people. But outside Westminster, he’s not so transparent.
In winning the Labour leadership contest in April this year, Starmer’s aims were set from the start. “I will bring our party together”, he said in his victory speech, a political necessity following the growing factionalism that developed under the authority of Jeremy Corbyn. But his themes of unity were by no means limited to that of the Party. The 2019 election painted the map blue with Tory constituencies as Labour suffered the historic defeat of a 59-seat reduction in the 2019 election. Such a loss in voter confidence requires some sort of drastic action. Yet, this action would go on to engulf the entirety of his work as Leader thus far, as winning back those seats has shown to be his solution in finally gaining a red government. In an attempt to widen his ‘relatability’, he even managed to gain a regular phone-in slot on LBC Radio- an opportunity to show a more right-leaning audience that a Labour leader can be reasonable too . And the YouGov polls are certainly smiling, as Starmer’s strategy is constantly gaining him more points to level with Johnson.
But at what cost? In a bid to be seen more favourably by those more centre-right, Starmer risks isolating many Labour followers, perhaps breaking his own promise of destroying factionalism. This has been no more evident than in recent discussions of race following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movements which ensued. One such cornerstone event is the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, which had the nation divided. For some Labour MPs like Dawn Butler and Nadia Whittome the event was a cause for celebration as the moment signified a historic self-reflection of Britain’s long history of racism. But as the right-wing mobilised in revolt, many statements in opposition emerged, as led by the Tory government- and to stick to his plan, on one of his LBC slots, Starmer joined them.
But Colston wasn’t the only monument to cause divisions, with Labour recently defending Priti Patel’s plan to jail protesters for vandalising war memorials. Given that the ‘vandalism’ at hand is Black Lives Matter graffiti, Starmer seeks once again to isolate his PoC followers in criminalising calls for change. This is only worsened when this time considering his inactions. Following a leaked report only days after Starmer had been elected, the racism rife within the Party had finally been openly exposed, and yet while the papers named and shamed, not one person was suspended.
In considering all of this, it can only be concluded that Starmer’s priorities lay with recruiting lost Labour voters. Perhaps he thought he could turn to the Right, as Left voters have practically nowhere else to go. If so, he severely miscalculated. Just last week a Huffpost piece found that Labour was losing Black members over allegations of anti-Black racism. While this could have been the realisation he needed for change, his solution instead was to issue a diversity audit. If Starmer has proven anything, it’s that he cannot appeal both to the Right and the Left. Yet, witnessing his neglect of a crackdown on racism makes clear which he deems more important.
And so, as many a leader have discovered before him, Sir Keir Starmer has been faced with the reality that you simply cannot have your cake and eat it, at least when it comes to Labour unity. In his fruitless attempt to appeal to wider audiences, Starmer has created a hostile environment for the Party’s PoC followers, excluding the very people his Labour had promised to protect decades ago.
Avin Houro is a second year historian at QMUL, with a particular interest exploring and covering the politics of our isles.
-Photo by Rwendland on WikiMedia Commons-