Thursday 4 February 2021

Keir Starmer's Plastic Patriotism

Riffing off Tuesday's meditation on the role of personality in history, there is something about organisations reflecting the character of their leading cadres. On the far left, for example, the didactic and plodding politics of the Militant/Socialist Party tradition bears uncanncy resemblances to dear old Ted, and the recently "retired" eternal general secretary, Peter Taaffe. Similarly the Socialist Workers Party and its relentless bandwagon chasing and abrupt about turns matched the mercurial enthusiasm of its founder, Tony Cliff. We see the same with the Labour Party too. Under Gordon Brown the party took on the aspect of clunking bewilderment. With Ed Miliband it was the well meaning but clueless personnel manager. With Jezza the party took well to compassion, but lacked the pointy elbows and bite required to make this change permanent. And now there is Keir Starmer.

If we look at the sayings and doings of the "SLT", we can watch a new institutional personality in formation. The woodentopped countenance of Keir Starmer is embedding itself in its language, habits, and activity. We have the intolerance and wrong headed attacks on the left that are sure to bite Labour in the bum. You'll recall the consultants were consulted on party structure. And, in another symptom of organised distrust of the membership, now we learn another bunch of "brand managers" were called in last September to advise on political strategy. A standard service for managers of large organisations, embarrassingly cringe for "grown up" politicians.

This is another example of Keir opening up the party's wallet and allowing lawyers and suits to help themselves. Take the content of the leaked strategy presentation, for example. Comms consultancies do not exist to tell their clients hard truths. They have a commercial interest in listening to what the paying customer wants and cooking up whizzbang ideas about how to sell them. Their research then has a validity problem, as anyone with a fuzzy acquaintance with fieldwork methodologies would know. Interviews were undertaken and, what a surprise, the Labour leadership had their prejudices and pre-conceptions about the so-called red wall reflected back at them. A complete waste of money - they could have got the Fabian Society to have done the same for a fraction of the cost. Or even for free given the fundamental symmetry between them.

Okay, so the advice amounts to wear a suit, hang out with veterans, do patriotism. Among those who've tried defending this banality come at it two ways. Either "we have to repair the brand" and "most voters are patriotic, so we look bad if we have a problem with the flag" owes more to marketing than politics. For one, people can read newspapers and online media. If the self-styled strategists and temporarily embarrassed right wing MPs want flag waving for electoral expediency, unbeknownst to themselves they're confirming the Labour-isn't-authentically-patriotic narrative circulating about in realworldland. And second, they completely forget themselves and Labour's recent history. Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband did the whole flag thing, and it got them nowhere. And if you give credence to the anti-patriotic argument under Jeremy Corbyn, ask yourself this question. What harmed Labour's standing in the soft nationalism/patriotic stakes - Corbyn's position on the Salisbury poisonings, which did nothing to impair Labour's polling? Or telling about a third of Labour voters their Brexit vote was wrong and they'd have to vote again? If memory serves, the present Labour leader had something to do with dumping over their patriotic aspirations - a matter of record the Tories won't let their new voters forget, even if Keir signed up to the Monday Club.

The "patriotism deficit" issue is treated by the leadership as a managerial problem and not a political issue, and the result is campaigning reduced to tick box exercises. Putting the Union Jack on mail outs, making sure there's a flag in the corner of party political broadcasts, sitting in the cockpits of jetfighters, and wearing pizza-sized poppies. This is not going to wash with the punters because it completely misunderstands the patriotism of the people they're trying to convince.

The patriotism of most Labour voters and, for that matter, most Tory supporters (working class or not) is actually unshowy, modest, and quiet. It's a structure of feeling and an emotional register that rarely comes out for public display. The football, perhaps. Collective remembrance is another, or passive support of and sympathy for the armed forces when on active service. For most the far right, the ostentatiously nationalistic, the Union Jacked Brexiteers camped outside of parliament, and the people who cover their houses in England flags are vulgar and try too hard. They're seen as braggarts if not bigots. For them, being patriotic is something to shout about. For most, it's a quiet sense of belonging.

This is where Labour's patriotic credentials ultimately lie. Looking at the history of the labour movement in this country, the long struggle and its institutionalisation is partly a struggle for recognition. Reformist as opposed to revolutionary, Labourism has never tried or wished to overthrow the nation in the political imaginary but redefine it in which everyone has its place - a one nationism from below, if you like. Despite the best efforts of the Tories and the Liberals, Labourism sank deep its roots because it rhetorically reconciled community and solidarity with place and nationality. Its patriotism persisted at the level of the everyday, because the movement and the party abided in the everyday. The people were patriotic, and so was their party because they were one and the same.

When Rebecca Long-Bailey talked about progressive patriotism all those moons ago, her using it as shorthand for the ties that bind our communities together was much closer to the historic Labour tradition than either of her opponents. Hence talking up Britishness and posing with tanks won't cut the mustard, let alone gain permission for a hearing among the voters recently lost. What might would be the re-embedding Labour in the communities our consultants say are abandoned by the party by taking up their concerns, standing by workers taking industrial action, and if detailed policy is too early in the electoral cycle, at the very least offer something of a vision of the good life. The problem is the plastic patriotism Keir wants to impose on the party is a substitute for the hard yards of the political work necessary to win, as underlined today by the announcement of the organising unit's abolition.

Labour under Keir Starmer then. Evacuate the politics, get the consultants in, and make insincere appeals to the kinds of patriotism out of step with most former Labour voters. I'd laugh if the consequences for this dismal failure wasn't so damn serious.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Someone said on Twitter that the LabourTogether report had too many hard truths for Starmer and Evans, so they just paid management consultants to soothe their egos instead...

Anonymous said...

Tragedy is watching Paul Mason plug the Keef 'n' Jayda Show. What do MI5 have on the guy?

Jim Denham said...

And yet you, Phil, reckon Ian "white working class" Lavery is OK?

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

I think you meant Salisbury poisonings.

"A quiet sense of belonging" - that's what I used to have, but the referendum result shook me because I realised that I had deluded myself and that those who were trying to use nationalism to divide us had succeeded. Yes, the majority still look down on braggarts and those who wrap themselves in the flag, but this is slowly changing. patriotism has always been used to further ambition, but it seems to have real traction now. Maybe by taking up plastic patriotism this will act to erode the whole idea and in the long term return us to our quiet sense of belonging as the default? We can only hope.

George Carty said...

What harmed Labour's standing in the soft nationalism/patriotic stakes - Corbyn's position on the Salisbury poisonings, which did nothing to impair Labour's polling? Or telling about a third of Labour voters their Brexit vote was wrong and they'd have to vote again?

How much damage will have been done by the mass waving of Palestinian flags that happened at one Labour Party conference? Won't that have convinced a lot of voters that the Labour Party's primary loyalty wasn't to the British working class but to the people of the global South?

Anonymous said...

No George it won't, because us peasants understand about Palestine, same as we did South Africa.

See we're not as thick as you'd like us to be.