Labour’s Dangerous Drift to the Right

Trying to rebound after painful losses, the British party appears to be courting conservative and white voters—and losing its core principles in the process.

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, delivers a virtual speech on his party’s vision for the country’s economic future at Labour headquarters in central London on Feb. 18.
Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, delivers a virtual speech on his party’s vision for the country’s economic future at Labour headquarters in central London on Feb. 18. Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

If you heard a political leader talking up family values, you’d probably assume the person speaking was a conservative. Especially in the United States and United Kingdom, the term has long been associated with right-wing promotion of a traditional family structure. It was understandable, then, that when British opposition leader Keir Starmer promised Labour would become “the party of the family” in his column for a prominent conservative-leaning newspaper, it raised the eyebrows of many supporters.

Wes Streeting, a member of Starmer’s shadow cabinet, did go on to clarify that Labour’s definition of family “absolutely includes the LGBT+ community,” but this isn’t the first time new Labour Party leadership has adopted messaging familiar to the right. Soon after Starmer took over Labour’s reins in 2020, he faced accusations of unilaterally changing the party’s stance on Kashmir, drawing the ire of many activists and supporters, including Seema Chandwani, vice chair of the Labour Party’s London arm, who tweeted against it and urged Labour members of Parliament to speak out.

At issue was an apparent reversal on a 2019 resolution, in which Labour had described Kashmir as a disputed territory and advocated for the people of Kashmir to be given the right of self-determination in accordance with United Nations resolutions. The party had also condemned the “enforced disappearance of civilians, the state-endorsed sexual violence of women by armed forces and the overall prevalence of human rights violations in the region.”

However, by April 2020, in a move seen as an attempt to woo voters of Indian heritage in Britain, many of whom have been supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right government, Starmer appeared to dismiss the human rights abuses going on in Kashmir as “constitutional issues” and called it a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. More than 100 British mosques and community centers wrote to express their “utter shock” at this development and accused the party of taking the Muslim vote for granted.

Tensions likewise rose in June 2020 when Starmer seemingly dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment,” describing its political aim of defunding the police as “nonsense.” Black Lives Matter U.K. responded on its official Twitter account by criticizing his record as a public prosecutor and by labeling him “a cop in an expensive suit.” The episode was jarring. Not only is Starmer head of the United Kingdom’s largest anti-racist political party, his strong support for the police came at a time when the Black community was still reeling from the news that Metropolitan police officers had taken selfies with the bodies of two murdered Black women.

No one really expected Starmer to speak out in favor of defunding the police—after all, the slogan is divisive even among voters who are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement—but surely such a sensitive issue warranted a more diplomatic response. Starmer is an astute politician, one who is also a Queen’s Counsel, so he understands the importance of choosing his words carefully. And he likely realizes that calls to defund the police aren’t about something as simplistic as abolishing the police force but actually entail divesting resources from policing to give more to services like mental health, social housing, and education.

Thus, it’s hard to argue that his decision not to mince words was anything other than a deliberate attempt to pander to white voters—liberal and conservative—who deny evidence of centuries of oppression and marginalization of people of color. The dog whistle was heard by the likes of right-wing politician and prominent Trump supporter Nigel Farage, who enthusiastically endorsed and retweeted the message.

To his credit, Starmer came out and clarified that when he said “moment,” he meant “defining moment” and called his party anti-racist even as it was accused of being the opposite. However, his statement came several days after the initial interview aired and after a backlash from some of his own members of Parliament and his party.

The United Kingdom, much like the rest of the world, is finally confronting racism and inequality in its society, an effort further complicated by the country’s colonialist past. One would assume that after the conservative-led government’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of people of color at a disproportionate level, and its role in the Windrush scandal, when Black citizens of the United Kingdom were wrongly deported from the country, Labour would step up and assert moral leadership. But still reeling from one of the worst election defeats in recent memory, in which the party lost much of its white working-class support in the north of the country, the top brass decided to take a different route.

When protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement brought down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, for example, Starmer said it was “completely wrong” to have done so. He stated that while the monument should never have existed in the first place, it should have been “brought down properly, with consent,” perhaps forgetting that campaigners have been trying to do just that for years without any success. Meanwhile, when far-right protesters making Nazi salutes descended upon the nation’s capital last year in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Starmer was heavily criticized for not calling them racist, when even Prime Minister Boris Johnson managed to do so.

Starmer has an uphill battle on his hands as he rebuilds the party.

Starmer has an uphill battle on his hands as he rebuilds the party, especially in the northern areas of the country, which are socioeconomically disadvantaged compared to much of the South. There, older, socially conservative white working-class voters who supported Brexit are a key demographic in numerous constituencies. But many of the leadership’s responses to recent events have left Black and other marginalized members questioning their place in the party and voicing strong concerns about the direction it is headed.

Take, for example, Labour announcing its support for 10-year jail sentences for anyone who vandalizes a war memorial, which was rightly criticized by many on the left as giving in to right-wing populism. Or Starmer’s aversion to decriminalizing cannabis, even though Black and other minority Londoners are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be arrested for possession despite similar rates of usage. It is worth remembering that when former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton tried to out “law and order” the parties “of law and order”—the Tories and the Republicans respectively—their rhetoric and policies—such as the Prevent strategy in the U.K. and the 1994 crime bill in the United States—primarily harmed minority communities through overpolicing, demonization, and mass incarceration.

Under former Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, Labour had moved away from such politics of triangulation, mended bridges with many communities of color, and attracted hundreds of thousands of new members with radical, progressive policies. But by the 2019 general election, it had lost the support of much of the white working-class vote in its traditional northern heartlands who didn’t believe that Corbyn’s Labour represented their interests and values anymore. It’s hard not to argue that the white working-class voters in the North punished Corbyn for threatening the traditional political hierarchy that places appealing to the needs and concerns of white citizens over immigrants and people of color.

His support for the second referendum—which he was pressured into by party activists and members of Parliament—was also seen as a betrayal by voters who wanted to leave the European Union. Of the 54 seats that the Conservatives won from Labour, 52 were in areas that voted for Brexit. Doubling down on flags and patriotism that appeals to social conservatives might well be a ploy to distract from Starmer’s key role in Labour adopting its disastrous second referendum stance.

No wonder that—already disheartened by perceived indifference after several high-ranking, anti-Corbyn party officials allegedly made racist, Islamophobic, and derogatory comments in a leaked report—there has been widespread coverage of large numbers of minority voters leaving the party. In fact, it is becoming harder each day to argue that Labour isn’t just banking on voters from these communities having nowhere else to turn.

Labour now faces a dilemma that the Democrats in the United States have long struggled with, and they must be mindful not to repeat their mistakes. In trying to reach out to the (white) working-class voters they have lost, it is important they do not take the voters of color that have supported them through thick and thin for granted.

For this to happen, Starmer has to abandon his unnecessary war with the left wing of his party and embrace the transformative and inclusive vision put forth by previous Labour leadership—whose front bench he was a part of. Corbyn recognized that the current system was leading to huge inequalities and worked on bringing communities together to secure a better future instead of pitting them against one another. That was part of what drew minority voters to him. Where he failed was credibly communicating this vision to the wider electorate. Instead of choosing the easy option, the country would be better served if Starmer decided to take on that challenge.

Mohammad Zaheer is a journalist and political commentator.

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