A leaked internal policy note this week showed Labour’s plans to overtake the Conservatives and win the next election through a patriotic rebrand: using the Union flag, veterans, and dressing smartly.
Predictably, this was met with a howl of derision from swathes of the party, as well as the usual suspects on Twitter. Clive Lewis dismissed “phoney flag waving” as the path back to victory, and Richard Burgon criticised a strategy of pursuing Tory voters (apparently expecting to win election with only Labour supporters) .
Although Leader Keir Starmer’s office pointed out that the policy note came not from the party and wasn’t official policy, they did not distance themselves from the ideas it contained. With four successive election defeats, it shouldn’t be surprising that Labour are on the hunt for a change. This change is more about presentation than substantive policy: demonstrating shared values, adopting a different body language and changing communications strategy.
Divides in the Labour Party are nothing new, and this one has been as unsurprising as the last. Whilst one faction of the party is convinced that this is a sop to nativism and the worst sort of nationalism, the other sees a realistic opportunity to undo the damage of the Corbyn years, and recapture working class Red Wall seats.
A patriotic Labour is nothing new: Clement Attlee and Tony Blair both found electoral success in using the flag. However, much more work needs to be done to get Starmer into No 10, and the internecine warfare that has blossomed up from this debate belies how crucial the issue really is.
The next election still likely three years out, and this rebrand can only really be one element of a pathway to victory for Labour. Much depends, for instance, on how the Government handles the rollout of vaccines and economic fallout of Covid. Labour will not be able to beat the Tories by changing the header images on their websites to Union flags alone, but will need a compelling case for their election. This will mean both a serious and popular policy programme, and also leadership that voters see as a government-in-waiting. Support for Starmer has plateaued in recent weeks, but he continues to enjoy a polling rating higher than previous Leaders of the Opposition, and considering the Party’s low water mark when he took over last year, rumours of his demise seem premature.
In what seems like a lifetime ago five years ago this month, in February 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron needled Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance and obvious aversion to patriotism. He memorably advised Corbyn to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem“. The Labour Party of 2021 are doing just that.