In a parallel or future world – one in which all our national crises were still in train, but we had a government focused on solving problems rather than firefighting the consequences of its own incompetence and enriching itself – what would be different?
Would we be back on speaking terms with the EU, and trying to reverse some of the financial pain Brexit has caused? Would we reconsider freedom of movement to ease the labour shortage? Would we stop trying to send refugees to Rwanda and erase that awful stain on the national character? Would we at least recognise that a pay rise to bust inflation isn’t the first step to anarchy, and anything less is a pay cut? Would we recognise that going on strike is a powerful collective act, not a needless inconvenience caused by pests?
The Labour leader would prefer not to say. Although as it emerged at the weekend that Keir Starmer’s forthcoming speech on immigration will rule out freedom of movement, maybe it’s less depressing when he can’t decide. But it is all pretty depressing.
Anyone who thinks they can explain the party’s general timidity on this issue by analysing this leader, with this team, in this context, has a very short memory. Labour has a rich history of rolling over, especially on issues of race, immigration and asylum. It was Tony Blair who barred asylum seekers from working and created a cycle of destitution that persists. Who could forget Ed Miliband’s “controls on immigration” mug (certainly not me, as I still own one. I use it to drink bitter herbs, while doing incantations), or Harriet Harman’s decision to ask Labour MPs to abstain on welfare cuts, while furiously castigating Tory welfare cuts? Who could forget Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” in 2007, a phrase lifted straight from the National Front, which he always claimed never to regret, and yet we all knew was miles away from what he believed? Even Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, who were initially so good at tackling rightwing narratives head-on, faltered on the immigration bill in 2019, whipping their MPs to abstain before a backbench rebellion forced them to oppose it.
People often blame Labour’s focus-group culture for its failure to fully oppose xenophobia. The mainly unspoken assumption is that regular British people, from the “red wall” to “Waitrose woman”, are fundamentally a bit racist – nothing wild, mind, just enough to frighten them off any politician who has any fundamental and unyielding anti-racist values. In fact, I think the exact opposite is true: every poll on everything, from voting intentions to word clouds, suggests that people are crying out to hear some real values. Even if they don’t agree with them, they would prefer to hear someone say them out loud. That’s what they mean when they call Starmer “boring” – they don’t mean, “Wouldn’t it be great if he was a bit sillier, and got stuck on a zip-line, or had some interesting hobby, like ballroom dancing?” They mean, “Tell us what you actually stand for.”
I don’t even think focus groups are the problem. A more fundamental assumption has been dogging the party for decades: that if you appease the rightwing press enough, dodge the thornier issues carefully and skirt round ideological differences, it won’t come after you, and it will give your programme a fair hearing. The opposite is true and, after all this time, for any politician not to have noticed that is unforgivable.
If a leader fails to oppose xenophobic policy ideas, the press will merely find a front-bench colleague who does, then make hay over the party’s “divisions”. Or it will dig out his previous speeches, from back when he had a spine, and laugh at the inconsistency. It doesn’t matter how much you roll over to the Mail or the Express – you’ll always be the same old leftie, only now you’re a lying leftie.
There is no sophisticated formula, no elegant alternative to saying who you are.