READERS HAVE BEEN ASKING about that Labour Party broadcast, infamous less for Keir Starmer’s words (nothing special) than for its mise-en-scène: the Union Jack hanging “innocently” in the background. This all follows a leaked review of Labour’s post-Corbyn image, recommending that the party regain trust via the “use of the [Union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.
It’s worth taking a step back and reviewing why we find this troubling. In some other country at some other time, this could all be dismissed as carping. The left, theoretically, does need to fight for political control at a national level. Like it or not, the UK remains our national unit. True, it’s never good tactics to enter a bidding war with the right-wing on flag-waving, because you will always lose that game. But – theoretically – there is no inherent problem with a little national symbolism in the pursuit of power.
Yet Starmer finds himself in a predicament. In the Blair/Brown years, Labour waved the Union Jack at every opportunity precisely to compensate for pursuing an agenda of turbo-charged globalisation. The result was branding campaigns such as “Cool Britannia”. Or military invasions, pursued for cosmopolitan ends (“humanitarianism”), while mobilising the rhetoric of national unity (how dare you criticise the invasions while our boys are in the theatre of combat). Or talk of open borders, punctuated by smears aimed at “bogus asylum seekers”.
The above coincided with unparalleled electoral success. So many of Labour’s centrist parliamentarians would like to believe they could ditch Corbynism entirely and return to those glory years. Wave the Union flag enough, say the optimists, and perhaps we can even bamboozle voters into rejoining the EU. It worked before! But there are three reasons why this no longer works, and why Starmer’s rebranding exercise has gone the way of Consignia or New Coke.
Problem number one is a crisis of Britain’s world role. This began with the catastrophe of Iraq (and the less heralded disasters in Afghanistan and Libya). It has accelerated with Brexit. Labour’s mode of “internationalism”, premised on throwing the UK’s weight around in global affairs, ran aground of the wider crisis of neoliberalism. The flag’s instrumental purpose, unifying the nation around all these international adventures, is thus redundant.
Problem number two is that many voters are increasingly cynical of flag waving. Ed Miliband, rehashing the distinctions staked out by Orwell, leapt to Starmer’s defence: he was no nasty nationalist but rather a progressive people’s patriot, with the Union Jack representing our heroic sacrifices during the pandemic…However, younger audiences, newly conscious of the history of racism and Empire, see through these old tricks.
When critics demanded that Corbyn should “be more patriotic”, they meant, quite explicitly, that he should embrace flag, monarchy, a national security state and a pro-American foreign policy. In other words, they were not calling for him to express a simple love of place and people (Orwell’s “patriotism”), but rather to embrace the practices, rituals and symbols of state power (Orwell’s “nationalism”). Corbyn commanded a younger audience because he refused to play those games – for his troubles, he finds himself effectively expelled.
Problem three is a crisis of the UK constitution. All the earlier Union Jackery was premised on Scotland swallowing its pride, doing its duty and delivering the Gordon Browns, Alastair Darlings, John Reids, Jim Murphys, and Douglas Alexanders of the world to their parliamentary seats. Nowadays, waving the Union flag just makes Nicola Sturgeon’s government look competent, cosmopolitan and in-touch with voter sentiment by comparison. In Scottish terms, it’s an own goal.
In my own experience, the people most aggravated by Starmer’s propaganda have been Scottish voters who want to be unionists. In all innocence, they cannot conceive why Labour’s “sensible” new leader would do something that can only inflame a Scottish backlash. But Labour’s crisis isn’t simple. Their addiction to the status quo despite a yawning democratic deficit has cost them voters across their heartlands. Winning them back will come at costs: and perhaps Scottish Labour’s vanity of being an electable party is considered a price worth paying.