Wrapped up in the Union Jack: Starmer’s Patriotic Turn

Eunice Goes

Keir Starmer aims to wrap Labour’s priorities in the Union Jack. Photo: YouTube.

The recently leaked document about Labour’s new focus on ‘patriotism and flag’ has generated a fair amount of heat within the party. While voices from Labour’s progressive wing have cried ‘betrayal’, the party’s centrist voices have defended Starmer’s patriotic turn. But this debate misses one important point. It’s not the Labour leader’s patriotic turn per se that is problematic. What is problematic is that his brand of patriotism does not sit easily with the party’s values.

Starmer’s ‘patriotic turn’, which has been visible since the early days of his leadership, aims to make Labour a party of government. His roadmap to electoral victory relies mostly on winning back the support of older and more socially conservative voters from the so-called ‘Red Wall’. To win their support, the Labour leader seems determined to dissociate himself from the allegedly unpatriotic views of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

In Beyond the Red Wall, the pollster Deborah Mattinson vividly describes the public perception of Corbyn’s tendency ‘to stick up for people who are the enemies of Britain rather than our friends’. Similarly, Lord Ashcroft’s report into Labour’s defeat shows that some voters felt that Corbyn wanted ‘to disarm the country’, was ‘anti-Royal’ and ‘refused to sing the national anthem’.

Starmer’s patriotism has been tailored to change voters’ perceptions precisely in these areas while maintaining Labour’s core supporters on board. As such, it has several components—an ‘old’ element that draws on Labour’s traditional patriotic narratives; a ‘blue and borrowed’ component that draws on a conservative iconography of patriotism; and a ‘new’ component that looks vaguely towards the future.

Something Old

The ‘old’ component of Starmer’s patriotism follows a well-known formula which was used by Labour leaders like Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Ed Miliband. This formula seeks to portray Labour as the truly national party that represents the whole of the country. But while his predecessors extolled the virtues of Labour’s cross-class appeal, Starmer’s brand of patriotism seeks to respond to the country’s new cleavages which are formed along generational lines. Instead of talking about class, the Labour leader offers a cross-generational agenda that will deliver ‘the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old’.

Something Borrowed and Blue…

But Starmer’s unifying narrative has been diluted by the endorsement of some conservative patriotic iconography, namely references to national security, the armed forces, and the monarchy. Though the emphasis on security is astute—because it enables him to present his more radical ideas in reassuring language—there are elements of that narrative that do not sit comfortably with Labour traditions. As Ben Jackson explains, a  patriotism that is compatible with socialism is one that instead of privileging imperial glory or the monarchy, highlights ‘the growth of liberty, democratic government and social justice as the most important British traditions’.

Tellingly, Starmer has neglected the traditions of what Emily Robinson calls radical nostalgia, which are the touchstones of progressive patriotism. Though he has described the foundation of the NHS, the Equal Pay Act, and campaigns for social justice in Scotland as proud moments in Labour’s history, his references to the iconography of radical nostalgia tend to be timid and rare.

By contrast, his focus on NATO, veterans and uniforms challenges the traditions of progressive patriotism and the party’s ideological commitment to peace. Similarly, Starmer’s deliberate reference to the monarchy and the values it inspires does not sit easily with the traditions of radical dissent that had shaped progressive patriotism. By choosing to describe, in his party speech, the moment he received his knighthood in Buckingham Palace he suggested his sense of civic duty and obligation towards the monarchy and respect for rank and authority, which fit more comfortably in a conservative conception of patriotism.

Similarly, Starmer’s take on patriotism has been timid on its celebration of Britain’s ethnic diversity. At a time when racial and ethnic inequalities are so salient in national and international debates, Starmer has downplayed Labour’s association with campaigns for racial equality. During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, he ‘took the knee’ in solidarity with anti-racist campaigners, but he did not join them in denouncing police violence against ethnic minorities or offered a critical assessment of Britain’s imperial and slave-owning past.

Even on the controversies surrounding last year’s Last Night of the Proms, Starmer said that he supported the decision to perform songs like ‘Rule, Britannia!’ though he added that ‘enjoying patriotic songs should not be a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it’. Needless to say, these nuanced and occasionally ambiguous stances have not gone unnoticed by many younger voters, on whose support Starmer also depends to win the next election.

…And Something New

In a message that seemed to target Labour traditionalists, he used his party conference speech to present a forward-looking vision that deliberately rejected nostalgia. In this speech he said that the Labour leaders who had won elections and transformed Britain had looked ‘to the future’. Like them, he was ‘not the sort of Leader who wants to turn the clock back’.

Instead of nostalgia, Starmer offers his younger supporters a vague futuristic modernity. As he put in his conference speech, his agenda ‘won’t sound like anything you’ve heard before. It will sound like the future arriving’. Starmer’s vision of the future is one ends the ‘structural flaws in our economy’, ‘understands the need for an economy that heals the climate crisis’, ‘cherishes diversity and takes pride in a society where everyone belongs’.

Starmer’s attempt to wrap the party into the Union Jack seeks to build a cross-generational coalition of supporters, who as the three components suggest, cherish different values. The problem is that at the moment these components are not in harmony.

If Starmer is serious about turning Labour into a party that represents the whole of the United Kingdom he should tone down the Royal blue, and use a futuristic neon thread to stitch into his narrative the stories of radical dissent that define progressive patriotism, together with references to character traits such as gentleness, and respect for the Constitution, which, in the words of George Orwell defined ‘English civilisation’. The result may not be coherent or totally harmonious, but if the stitching is artful it may (just about) fly.

Eunice Goes is Professor of Politics at Richmond University.

A longer version of this article will appear in the next issue of Renewal.