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9 March 2022

Societies move left in times of war, so will this be Keir Starmer’s moment?

Tin-eared Tories are misjudging the national mood on Ukrainian visas, granting Labour an opportunity.

By Andrew Marr

Across Poland, they are rearranging bedrooms and stocking up cupboards with good things to eat. In German rail stations, crowds stand beside their cars and camper vans, holding up signs offering a place to stay for as long as it takes. In France, refugee centres have been opened and the whole country seems to be opening its heart.

But Britain has a refugee system that, for those in Calais and Poland, is chaotic, hostile and mean. The Home Office, the most unimaginative, sluggardly department of state, is cooperating with the FCO, itself gutted by resignations and low morale, to make the lives of fleeing, terrified people just a little bit more complicated and depressing.

And none of this is happening by accident. A harsher borders regime was always central to Brexit. Do ministers still think that, below the surface of support for Ukrainians, people here fundamentally don’t want any more of “them”? There are complaints that the more warm-hearted (EU) Irish system endangers Britain because of the common travel area. I say again, this is how it’s meant to be.

Across real Britain, meanwhile, there are collection centres raising medical supplies, food, blankets and funds – £100m so far – to help Ukraine. Everywhere, people have lifted their eyes and rolled up their sleeves. Liberal Britain feels let down by official Britain (and that goes for the stubby, five-foot-something-long fragment of liberal Britain writing this column). David Miliband says that, looking at the visa scheme, he feels ashamed to be British.

There are real problems for the Conservatives here. Misjudging the national mood, tin-eared ministers are leaving behind their party’s better instincts – including all those of the local association and church members who stuff envelopes and keep communities going.

Weirdly, I think even Boris Johnson is unsure about the refugee issue. Consider how frequently he uses the word “generous” about his government’s own ungenerous schemes. Generous is poppycock. Intellectually, it’s an acrid compound of marsh gas and night soil. He must know that. And yet observing his agonised expression, I think Johnson, endlessly tugged between his historic liberalism and his current political cynicism, desperately wants it to be true.

This piece is not, readers will be heartily relieved to hear, about Boris Johnson. The opposition is in a strong position and is getting stronger. But it faces huge perils ahead. The row over Ukrainian visas helps explain why.

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Keir Starmer has enjoyed his most successful months so far. First in the Commons exchanges over partygate and then, since the war has started, he has been virtually pitch-perfect – forensic without being jeering; critical, but not coarse; patriotic, but without bombast. If he’s the hangman of Tory fortune, he is calmly paying out the rope.

The Labour polling position has weakened very slightly recently, but has been remarkably stable. In a fair world, Starmer would be enjoying a virtuous circle of improving credibility, self-confidence and political popularity.

[see also: Has the Ukraine crisis saved Boris Johnson?]

He would note, no doubt, that semi-wartime conditions tend to move societies leftwards. That happened for Lloyd George and William Beveridge. There is nothing surprising about this. When societies re-organise and rearm for conflict, the state becomes more powerful. At the same time, the need to share a common burden requires a more generous (that word again) provision across society.

War also generally divides the left, from Common Wealth in the 1940s to Stop the War in our time. Russia’s brutal assault on an entirely peaceful neighbour has produced much wider unity. There are a few old Stalinist apologists for Putin around, but not many.

Sure, demonstrations include some signs demanding “Nato troops out”. But it is a bit of a puzzle where they are supposed to be “out” of. Poland? Estonia? Should they be handed back to Putin’s dictatorial influence?

In general Starmer has enjoyed a freer hand than recent Labour leaders to establish himself as a mainstream British patriot, and he is doing so with vigour. He uses the Union flag in broadcasts. He channels earlier leaders who had seen military service and directly appealed to working-class patriotism – Major Denis Healey and Lieutenant James Callaghan RN perhaps most obviously. And in a fair world, this would greatly help him in what he calls his laser-like focus on winning back lost Red Wall seats.

But this isn’t a fair world. The economic crunch that is coming because of the war may well be huge. Senior Tories talk privately about a horrendous recession. As I’ve argued here before, this creates serious problems for the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak: on 7 March Michael Gove more or less told me new support was being prepared by the Treasury. But how Sunak is going to afford that, plus much higher defence spending, without changing his attitude to borrowing is unclear.

The problem for Labour, and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats, is this: will voters desperately worried about whether they can pay the bills turn at an election to a party still associated in most minds with higher taxes? The Tories’ National Insurance increase is deeply unpopular. But Labour would one day face precisely the same dilemmas. Energy windfall taxes are a perfectly good idea but only last for so long.

In other words, a higher-spending, higher-taxing age doesn’t necessarily benefit the left challenger. And this is true, with knobs on, for energy policy. Johnson is shifting towards more nuclear and more oil and gas extraction. This is going to infuriate Extinction Rebellion and the wider green movement. But the problem is going to be greater on the left than on the right, which is already gleeful about abandoning net zero and pushing towards fracking.

And so, back to where we started, with the treatment of refugees. Behind this lies Brexit. Thus far, Starmer has been steely in refusing to reopen the Europe question – not simply refusing to countenance returning to the EU, which is probably common sense right now, but also declining to publicly contemplate a new trade deal or a refreshed strategic relationship with the visibly reviving bloc. “On Europe, there is just no sign of buyer’s remorse among voters yet,” says a senior Starmerite.

But that leaves Labour offering what exactly? A better deal with a Biden or, perhaps, a Donald Trump America? Would Labour find bold, exciting new international trade deals that have somehow escaped the attention of the Tories? Would Labour run a kinder, more sensitive Brexit relationship with the EU? That is, today, what Labour promises. It’s hooey: Brexit is about law and regulation, not about whether British ministers simper. It’s about fact, not character. Without answering these questions, Labour’s advance will stall.

Much of the above also applies to the SNP. How does Nicola Sturgeon respond to the new energy security agenda? Does she reverse what she had been saying about the North Sea? And if she does not, how will Scottish voters feel?

Then there is the existential question of Russia unleashed and aggressive. Let me put this delicately. Is the Scottish independence referendum promised for next year well timed, just as the West is coming together and rethinking its security? The SNP is in government with the Scottish Greens, who are firmly against Nato. The fate of Britain’s nuclear submarines would be central in any referendum campaign, which in turn will depend on floating voters, with the Ukraine war fresh in their minds.

Throughout British politics, the kaleidoscope is being shaken. All the patterns are shifting. We just have to keep our fingers crossed that nobody drops the damn thing.

[see also: Authoritarianism is the reason for Russia’s struggles in Ukraine]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror