Fri. Jan 21st, 2022


Sir Tony Blair, as he is now royally appointed, has a dictum to win elections. Before Labor can get any kind of audience from British voters, two (fairly low) bars must be passed: the party must rely on security, and it must apparently like the country it wants to govern. Over the past decade that has marinated in opposition, it has failed on both.

Labour’s former prime minister is still despised by some of the party and the wider public – more than half a million people have a petition asks that his knighthood be revoked – but his textbook on how to win elections is reopened. In post-Brexit Britain, where identity is strong, the party’s challenges to patriotism are more critical than ever.

The former leader’s influence on another knight, Sir Keir Starmer, is quite clear. In a hopeful speech on Tuesday, the opposition leader attempted to “celebrate the country in which we live”. Straight from Blair’s playbook, he checked the names of the Queen, football, the Commonwealth and the BBC – talking about “security” all the time. The only thing missing was a direct reference to The Beatles.

Starmer used patriotism as an impetus for change. Referring to Clement Attlee’s 1945 election triumph, he argued: “I do not think you are ceasing to be a patriot because you realize that your country has flaws. On the contrary, the reason why we in this party want to rectify those shortcomings is precisely because we are patriotic. ” He also referred to Harold Wilson, Labor’s only other former election-winning prime minister, as a forerunner of the reform of society.

Out of tone, Starmer’s party increasingly looks like New Labor Mark 2. Some of the most notable appointments in its new front-line team – shadow health secretary Wes Streeting and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson – embrace the term “Blairite”. And it is these figures that the Conservatives are most concerned about. “West is the one to watch. I can see why Keir put him in such a prominent role, ”one Tory official remarked.

Lord Peter Mandelson, a key figure of the New Labor era, obviously welcomes this shift, but warns Starmer to go beyond carrying himself in a Union Jack. “He must be clear that he wants his patriotism not to be judged by the number of flags he stands for, but by what he really feels about the country, the British values ​​in which he believes and what he will really do to the country better, ”he says.

Mandelson is right that Starmer may be relying too much on saccharine rhetoric. At times, he seemed to be talking about Hugh Grant’s character. Love Actually, where the fictional prime minister praises everything Brits up to David Beckham’s left foot. Starmer’s intellectual framework of security – economic, national or environmentally friendly – is a compelling one, but is currently vague about any details.

In addition to talking about how much he loves Britain, Starmer’s 2022 mission should be to define what Labor wants to do. It can not be to return to a center of politics that no longer exists, or to oppose whatever Prime Minister Boris Johnson does for the sake of it. Labor can comfort that it has moved forward in the polls, but much of it is due to the unpopularity of the government. If Johnson’s venture to avoid further Covid restrictions pays off, the Tories expect to move back to the lead.

However, Starmer’s biggest challenge is his party. Last year, 61 percent of the general public describe themselves as patriotic, but 44 percent of Labor voters did so versus 88 percent of Tory voters.

Despite all his realignment hopes, a ghost still haunts Starmer. He was asked on Tuesday why he chose not to refer to Jeremy Corbyn, his left-wing predecessor, who lost two general elections but remains very close to the party’s hearts. “I’ve always quoted Attlee, Wilson and Blair, precisely because they won,” he remarked briefly.

With Corbyn no longer a Labor MP and with no prospect of returning to the group, Starmer tries to draw a line under his era. Fifteen years after Blair left office, Labor accepts what his governments have achieved – a sure sign that the party may become serious about winning elections again.

sebastian.payne@ft.com



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