When Starmer was first elected leader of the Labour Party, the libertarian commentariat rejoiced: finally, an exacting, methodological needle to prick Johnson’s pomposity. His early PMQs had a laser-like focus – the perfect antidote to the braggadocious Boris. And yet now it seems the tide has turned. His failure to call for Matt Hancock’s resignation and his lobbying against corporation tax rises has led to the widespread condemnation of ‘Captain Hindsight’. We are a nation confused.
It seems to me the arguments against Starmer are wide of the mark. Just because he has yet to invent some new social democratic philosophy, he is subjected to slander. Blair had his infamous ‘Third Way’, Wilson had his ‘soft left’ – at least for the time, and Attlee had the postwar socialist dream. Callaghan had the winter of discontent. Why are we coerced into thinking that Starmer needs some new philosophy to be a credible leader?
Our current prime minister is a man who disparaged Obama for his ‘part-Kenyan’ ancestry, called black people ‘picaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, compared Muslim women wearing the hijab to ‘letterboxes’, and described gay men as ‘tank-topped bumboys’. Our current home secretary is a woman who keeps asylum seekers in overcrowded army barracks (four hundred men in a 28-bed dormitory) in the middle of a pandemic. Adnan Elbi, a thirty-year old Syrian refugee, committed suicide in McLays Guest House last year, his inadequate and insulting asylum-seeker housing. He had survived torture in Libya, his father had been killed by ISIL, his mother was gravely ill, his brother had been kidnapped, and his wife wasn’t able to join him in the UK. Compassion is needed to help people such as Elbi, not the tender grasp of Priti Patel. Surely a respected lawyer like Starmer represents a credible opposition to this Brexit-riddled, covid-coughing government?
Whatever the reason for the failure of the left, broadly speaking, it is wise to learn from the opposition. The Conservative project, from its roots in the heirs of Whigs and Tories who came together under Pitt the Younger, has always been about defending core values from the excesses of liberalism. These values, of course, have changed since the 1830s, but the rhetoric remains the same: reassurance that those in charge will defend those values. It’s remarkable how well it has worked. Underestimating the opposition has always been a trait of the left and Starmer should not make the same mistake. He needs a strong argument to gain power: the government’s weakness finds him one. He does not need to invent a new social democratic theory.
The Conservatives predicate their politics on culture wars. Little else unites their voters. Starmer needs to send out a strong message: he will defend the core values of compassion, tolerance, social mobility. It is clear we need to be protected from the excesses of Conservatism.
Image: Thomas Hobbes via Flickr