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9 June 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:40am

Why Keir Starmer can afford to disappoint Labour’s left over Colston’s statue

The Labour leader has the freedom to stray from the left in pursuit of the centre ground and the voters his party has lost.  

By Ailbhe Rea

There are mixed opinions in Labour land following Keir Starmer’s first LBC radio phone-in show, in which he said it was “completely wrong” to tear down the statue of Edward Colston in Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol on Sunday. He said the statue should have been taken down long ago, with consent, and put in a museum.

Starmer’s approach has disappointed MPs and activists on the left of the party, who would have liked to see unequivocal support for the tearing down of a statue of a slave trader during anti-racism protests, and the Labour leader’s full backing of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Nobody supports criminal damage,” the former shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said in the Commons yesterday. “But we need to be careful not to sound as if we care more about the vandalism than the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.” It is a public expression of what many MPs on the Labour left have been saying privately.

But others in the party think Starmer successfully negotiated a tricky issue for Labour’s electoral coalition: while many Labour voters are fully behind the Black Lives Matter protests and want a leader who reflects that view, many other Labour voters, particularly in the heartlands where Labour lost seats in the last general election, want a party leader who is tough on law and order. The Guardian quotes one “Red Wall” Labour MP who is pleased with Starmer’s approach to the issue: “[D]ivisions on issues like Brexit, law and order, immigration and so on – these do become our test points. I thought Keir navigated that very well.” 

The difference of opinion reveals what one can expect to be a theme of the coming years of Starmer leadership: the Labour left being unhappy with what they perceive as “triangulating” on certain matters, while the soft left and the right of the party argue that that would be an ineffective way of communicating with the electorate as a whole.

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Some of the discontent, I think, comes from a sense that Starmer hasn’t said what he really feels on the issue of the Colston statue; that he must privately, like many Labour MPs, be totally fine with the way the statue was removed, but be unwilling to say so publicly. In fact, I think it is much more likely, given what we know of him as a politician and an ex-barrister, and as someone who favours due process, that this simply is his real opinion of the matter.   

Whether Starmer is betraying his true feelings to say something electorally shrewd, or whether he simply doesn’t share the view of the left of his party, it is a taste of things to come for those on the Labour left, both MPs and activists. The unfortunate reality for these people is that Starmer has very little incentive to keep them happy on every issue: even if he isn’t as strong on certain issues as they would like, they have nowhere to go. As MPs, they are few in number, and as a chunk of the electorate, they are still unlikely to vote for anyone except Labour in a general election. Starmer can afford to stray far from the left of his party in pursuit of the centre ground and the voters Labour has lost, without shedding many votes to the left.

But it is worth noting the potential for Labour’s relationship with black voters and members to become a huge issue for Starmer down the line. While Labour has barely begun to heal the wounds of anti-Jewish racism, the leaked Labour report, containing allegations of racism towards black female MPs, has opened up a conversation about how black and minority ethnicity MPs and members are treated within Labour. Some black members have decided to leave the party, as Nadine White at HuffPost has reported, and there is a huge amount of untapped hurt on this issue. 

The feelings on both forms of racism within Labour are raw and cut to very deep divisions within the party. Everyone fears a “hierarchy of racism” within Labour, while different factions privately believe one or the other to be a more burning issue at present. This could become one of the most delicate issues Starmer has to address in his leadership, as another form of racism within Labour comes to the fore, within the wider context of the international Black Lives Matter movement.  

This Wednesday 10 June, Britain editor Anoosh Chakelian will chair a webinar on the human rights implications of the Coronavirus Act. Joining her will be Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, and human rights lawyer Adam Wagner. You can register here.  

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