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18 March 2021

The real story of Labour’s week is two things that didn’t happen – and why

Keir Starmer can fairly say that he has avoided two difficult battles. He can't truthfully say that it had anything to do with him.

By Stephen Bush

One of the interesting things about this week is that two stories that could have been running sores for the Labour Party weren’t.

The first was the government’s plan to increase the size of its nuclear cap – that is, the number of nuclear warheads it is legally permitted to stockpile. Labour is badly split on the issue of nuclear disarmament and those splits do not cleanly map onto left-right lines, making it fraught for any leader. The second was the Crime and Policing Bill, which in addition to a bunch of popular policies on jail sentences includes a raft of powers which have a particularly iniquitous effect on people from a Gypsy, Roma or Irish Traveller background, and which would sharply limit the right to protest.

In the end, neither story has caused Labour much harm. The party still faces a tough national political picture thanks to the increase in the Conservative government’s fortunes due to the vaccine bounce (though this may also benefit Labour in Scotland due to increased support for unionism, even if it proves temporary). But they are not locked in difficult political battles over crime or the nuclear deterrent.

[See also: After lockdown: why Labour must embrace the politics of adaptation]

However, in neither case could the Labour leadership be said to be the author of its own good fortune. The real story of the nuclear cap is that it is mere accountancy – the government announcing it has plans to increase the size of its permitted nuclear arsenal is not the same as it increasing the size of its actual nuclear arsenal. That announcement looks, to my eyes, to have been a clever (but, it turns out, doomed) attempt to distract from the fact the government’s plans for the future of British foreign policy still include a temporary cut in the foreign aid budget, which a large number of Tory backbenchers deplore, and a close trading relationship with China, which a large number of Tory backbenchers also deplore. Those rows have distracted from the headlines the government will have wanted about them “increasing” the size of the nuclear arsenal (which, as I say, it is far from clear that the government is willing to spend the money to do).

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As far as the Crime and Policing Bill, Labour now have a good soundbite, that the bill does more to protect statues than women, and a good quote from the government’s own victims commissioner, that cuts to criminal justice spending means that we are facing the “decriminalisation of rape” in the United Kingdom. While the Labour leadership can fairly argue they have done more to make hay while the sun shines, ultimately, they have been the beneficiary of a change in circumstances, due to the prominence in Westminster of issues such as violence against women. This has left Conservative MPs, not Labour ones, in a difficult position as far as the arguments around the bill are concerned.  

[See also: Leader: Lost Labour]

The difficult reality for Labour, however, is that these deficiencies in the Crime and Policing Bill are not new: Labour could and should have pointed out that the bill did more to protect statues than women earlier. What both these rows have in common is they are ones that are only solved by finding ways to reframe the question. The Conservatives say that the nuclear arsenal issue is about a strong defence but it is actually about the old political trick of making announcements you don’t have to pay for; the Conservatives say that their bill is about being tough on crime, but it actually does more to protect statues than women, and so on – rather than avoiding the issue.

Since the 2017 general election, Labour’s big strategic idea has been to swerve culture war issues and pivot to economic ones. It may be true that having a leader who is more popular than Jeremy Corbyn and who is seen as more sincere when talking about patriotism and the value of policing is enough to make this approach work. But Labour may well be better off finding ways to reframe these issues, rather than simply avoiding them. 

[See also: Why being boring might be an advantage for Keir Starmer]