On the night of the last UK general election, I was sitting in a pub in North London, on the edge of Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency. It was a cold evening and the clientele were all gingerly nursing foaming pints of Polish lager. At my table, some friends and acquaintances were chatting buoyantly. Most were expecting a coalition government at worst, and thought the Labour Party was in with a strong chance of getting into Number 10. I was less sure. I had voted Labour reluctantly. I didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn, or what he represented politically. I didn’t like his sluggishness on Labour antisemitism, I didn’t like aspects of his voting record and I didn’t like how he had made Labour into a party that championed minority issues at the expense of old Labour values. But this wasn’t why I felt uneasy. I felt uneasy because I knew the Labour Party would take a hiding that night, allowing Boris Johnson to sweep sanctimoniously into an easy majority.
When the exit polls came in, my fears were confirmed: Labour had lost sixty seats and the Tories were on track for victory. Nobody seemed to understand why this had happened. “I just find it so depressing that so many people think Boris is a better, kinder person than Jeremy Corbyn,” someone lamented. Although I pretended that I was surprised at the results, I knew why Labour had performed so poorly.
In the days that followed, Labour’s defeat was widely attributed to issues beyond its leader’s control. Some blamed Labour’s lack of clarity on Brexit, a poor election strategy and a manifesto overloaded with extraneous policies. The Labour leader claimed, ridiculously, that, although Labour had lost the election, they had won the argument. Some claimed that the right-wing media’s fixation on Corbyn’s pro-Hamas and pro-IRA apologetics and his alleged history of antisemitism had poisoned public opinion. There may be some truth to this. After all, the right-wing press always did their best to slander Jeremy Corbyn after even the slightest slip up. But Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat occurred for a much more fundamental reason, something that is not encapsulated by any single policy or badly formulated remark. Jeremy Corbyn lost because the public knew he valued ideology over country and politics over patriotism.
This has always been the case. The examples of Corbyn’s counter-patriotism range from the symbolic to the dangerous. When Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands, Jeremy Corbyn did not support sending troops to return the Falklands to British control. Instead, he advocated “a long-term negotiated settlement” with Argentina—then under a brutal military dictatorship. More bizarrely still, he speculated that the Falklands War was a Thatcherite plot, engineered to divert attention from domestic issues. This was a peculiar position to take, given his lifelong commitment to anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. Strategically insignificant though the Falkland Islands are, surely Britain did the right thing in challenging a politically expedient attempt by a military dictator to invade a long-held British overseas territory? In this instance, though, Corbyn chose pacifism over anti-fascism and inaction over the Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination.
But Corbyn’s opposition to western foreign policy goes a great deal further than that. In 1999, when the people of Kosovo were threatened with eradication by Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslav military, Britain and NATO intervened. Although the official death toll of Kosovar Albanians murdered by Milošević is a subject of contention, it is certain that many thousands were killed, displaced and had their human rights violated. Furthermore, the Kosovar Albanian population was specifically targeted as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign, allegedly called Operation Horseshoe and intended to neutralize the entire Kosovar-Albanian population. In 2004, Jeremy Corbyn signed an early day parliamentary motion praising John Pilger’s column in the New Statesman that claimed that the genocide in Kosovo had “never really existed.” This is perhaps the most shameful political position Corbyn has ever taken. Even as Kosovar Albanians being massacred and thrown into mass graves, being seen to oppose western intervention was more important to Corbyn than taking action against a genocidal regime.
What kind of message did Corbyn’s positions on these conflicts send to the electorate? Aside from revealing jarring inconsistencies in Corbyn’s own values, his attitude towards UK foreign policy shows how little faith he has in Britain’s ability to be a global power. This has caused irreparable damage to the Labour Party’s ties to the both the public and the armed forces, and a great many Labour voters (myself included) thought twice about voting for Corbyn, on account of his anti-western, counter-patriotic politics. Corbyn’s apathetic attitude towards UK foreign policy also reveals a broader problem with Corbyn’s idea of Britain. For him, the UK is—and should be—a declining world power, incapable of doing any good in the world. It is inconceivable that anyone could win an election on such a basis. It would be as improbable as Harold Shipman being appointed Health Secretary.
Keir Starmer, in sharp contrast, represents the possibility of a return to a Labour Party that supports the values, institutions and capability of the country, while adhering to the original Labour values. Indeed, as leader, Starmer has already set about repairing some of the damage, by reinvigorating the Friends of the Forces scheme. He has commented, “I am proud of my country and proud of those who serve it … I want to open up Labour again to our Armed Forces, their families and veterans across our country. ”It is difficult to imagine Jeremy Corbyn extending the hand of friendship to the armed forces like this.
Few candidates could better qualified to be prime minister than Keir Starmer. Steeped in the Labour tradition, Starmer is the son of a toolmaker and a nurse. When he left university, he became a barrister and, in 2008, rose to the most senior legal role in the country: Director of Public Prosecutions. Starmer’s competence shows most impressively during Prime Minister’s Question Time, in which he often bests the pseudo-Churchillian rhetoric of Boris Johnson with his measured, lawyerly cross-examinations.
But there are some within Labour who accuse Starmer of being a Blairite—the stick with which Momentum types always try to beat any moderate Labour leader capable of winning a general election. Starmer’s political commitments and ideas, however, clearly adhere to Labour’s core ideals. He favours increasing taxation on those in the top earning brackets, ending tax avoidance schemes, increasing funding for public services and defending workers’ rights. Why then, is he so disparaged by his own side?
The resentment is not about policy. It’s about Starmer’s attitude towards Britain—that is, what kind of country he thinks Britain should be. In his speech to the 2021 Fabian conference, Starmer said:
First, Labour’s foreign policy will always be rooted in our values. We’re proudly patriotic. And we’re proudly internationalist too. I believe that after a decade of global retreat, Britain needs to be a far stronger and more confident voice on the international stage … I believe Britain can—and must—be a moral force for good in the world.
It is in remarks such as this that the distinction between Starmer and Corbyn is particularly obvious. Starmer believes that Britain stands for a particular set of values, values that are worth defending, both at home and abroad. By contrast, Corbyn and many of his followers appear to see Britain as little more than an area of land on which a population resides, devoid of inherent political, cultural or moral values. True, Corbyn is for equality—a noble ideal. But economic and social equality is not the only thing that matters to ordinary people. Tradition matters. Culture matters. And, to the vast majority of people in Britain, patriotism matters. What Keir Starmer represents is not a return to the years of Blair. He represents a return to a Labour party that can faithfully back Britain’s values and institutions on the world stage.
Patriotism means different things to different people, of course. Misguided patriotism, tinged with ethnic nationalism and race-based politics, can have disastrous consequences. Ethnic nationalism contradicts the essence of what Britain has always been about. In the wake of empire, Britain is—and should be—a multiracial country. As George Orwell remarks in Notes on Nationalism:
Nationalism should not be confused with patriotism … By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive … A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.
For Orwell, patriotism is defined by the desire to preserve the good in one’s country, but not to the detriment of others. Nationalists are fanatics—“unshakeably certain of being in the right”—who pursue dominion and superiority at all costs, whereas patriots merely wish to preserve cultures, traditions and institutions—but not at the cost of morality or truth.
Starmer needs to demonstrate that the Labour party can stand up for Britain and its way of life, while rejecting strident, chest-beating nationalists. A resurgence of patriotism is not only possible for Labour, but would be greatly beneficial to the country—as long as it strives to include the whole of society and maintains a critical attitude towards Britain’s history.
Although this approach to politics has undergone a recent decline within Labour’s ranks, there are still a great many MPs and peers who can help Starmer return the party to its patriotic roots. Dan Jarvis, Stella Creasy and Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, for example, are all immensely well qualified and committed to a more moderate and electable Labour party. Chakrabarti has commented: “I personally have no problem calling myself a patriot … I am a universalist, an internationalist, a human rights activist, but I also understand that people are rooted in place, language, culture and stories.”
She is right. Patriotism is the story people tell themselves that reminds them of who they are and what their country stands for. Doubtless, some aspects of British patriotism are contradictory, fallacious and downright peculiar, but even so, where would we be without it?
In order to win an election, Keir Starmer must convince the electorate that patriotism matters to the Labour party. If he fails and a Momentum candidate wins the next leadership election, it won’t just mean another beating at the next general election. It will mean the negation of the Labour party as a viable political force.