As leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has had a fiendishly difficult balance to strike in responding to the death of the Queen. Huge moments of national importance such as this require leaders to voice the public mood. But as well as speaking for the country when such seismic events unfold, political leaders also have to guide their own party through the turbulence that follows.
And when it comes to an institution such as the royal family, this job is tougher for progressives than it is conservatives. Retaining an unelected head of state, for some on both the left and right, is symbolic of oppressive and outdated traditions, privilege and inequality. Nevertheless, you are more likely to find a progressive in the Labour Party sceptical about monarchy, even if the vast majority have no interest in ripping up the constitution. In contrast, preserving the norm is part of the Conservative Party’s DNA.
Few could look at the pictures of the Queen’s first audience with the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, and fail to recognise the former’s dedication to public service – not least because she died later that week. Elizabeth II is the only monarch most people in Britain have ever known, and she represented the values many in this country hold dear.
Paying tribute to her life came naturally to Starmer. Before politics he was head of the Crown Prosecution Service, so he is no stranger to set-piece speeches. “She did not simply reign over us, she lived alongside us,” Starmer told the Commons last week. Truss’s robotic address about how the Queen “met more people than any other monarch in our history” in comparison, left many cold.
Labour, of course, has had many leaders who were dedicated monarchists – such as Clement Attlee, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson, whom the Queen famously had a great affection for. Far from being incompatible, their socialist ideals were inextricably linked with their patriotism.
But not everyone on the left feels this way. And even those who do not consider themselves anti-royalists have concerns about civil liberties after the small number of arrests of anti-monarchy protesters. The campaign group Liberty is among those who have expressed alarm, not least as police have new powers to curb peaceful protests.
Some Labour MPs might well want to comment on these events. But the Labour leader’s office issued guidance that told MPs not to post anything on social media other than tributes, and warned them to stick to a funeral-style dress code if invited to any events. MPs were also told not to agree to any interviews with journalists. One Labour MP said: “I think MPs are slightly tired of Loto [leader of the opposition] diktats. Everyone understands what respect is.” Another said it was “right and proper” that MPs were given something to adhere to, for fear many could misjudge the public mood.
The nation is still in shock, and perhaps denial, that Britain has reached the end of an era. There may be further stages of grief to come as politics looks ahead to the coronation of King Charles III – which may coincide with a post-Covid recession and all the turmoil an economic downturn brings.
Starmer’s response, therefore, when asked about protesters, was a wise one. He said people “must be entitled to express their different views”, while urging the public to behave “in the spirit of respect”.
Despite Twitter trends, abolishing the monarchy is unlikely to be on the agenda for the Labour Party any time soon – it simply isn’t popular with enough voters. But other reforms could appeal. Abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a senate of the nations and regions is a more plausible proposition. The policy is backed by the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, for example, and has wider public support. At the same time, Labour’s conference next week will be dominated by calls for electoral reform, and the replacement of the current first-past-the-post voting system with proportional representation.
It is probably too early to tell where a post-Brexit, post-Elizabethan Britain will land on the question of big reforms such as these. But if this period of mourning and reflection on the Queen’s contribution does lead to some rethinking, Starmer’s thoughtful public statements and careful party management will have put Labour in pole position to fulfil those demands.