This week, the Home Office’s plan to deport 50 convicted criminals to Jamaica for violent, sexual or drug offences was disrupted after a campaign by Labour MPs.
Two days before the flight was scheduled to take off, Clive Lewis wrote to Priti Patel to demand she “cancel the planned deportation of up to 50 Black British residents” adding that deportations “epitomise the Government’s continued ‘Hostile Environment’ agenda”, and that “[t]ackling institutionalised racism starts one step at a time.”
Nearly 70 mostly Labour MPs signed Lewis’s letter, including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell Lloyd Russell-Moyle, and celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Thandie Newton wrote to airlines asking them not to carry out the Home Office’s orders. After a series of legal challenges, 30 criminals were taken off the flight, including a rapist and a London murderer.
Where was Keir Starmer in all this? Many noticed that he was not one of the signatories on the letter, nor was his deputy Angela Rayner, suggesting they disapprove of Lewis’s intervention (which, ironically, challenged a policy set by the last Labour government). But he has done nothing to indicate an opinion either way. Perhaps he thinks, like the Covid tiers, he can abstain his way out of the matter.
The incident raises questions about Starmer’s leadership, not least because of the degree of influence opposition backbenchers now have over Home Office policy. It is unusual for them to write these sorts of letters without the backing of shadow cabinet ministers. Notably, 12 other frontbenchers did not sign. So who is in charge?
Labour’s National Executive Committee even appeared to tell Starmer and Rayner off for not signing the letter, writing: “we are alarmed that there has been no comment from you both in response to the deportation flight scheduled for 2nd December… we request that you make a decisive and compassionate intervention.”
In his Labour Party Conference speech, Starmer famously promised “This is a party under new leadership”. He was keen to project the sense that he would bring the various factions of Labour together, though recent events are yet more evidence of how difficult that goal is, with Corbyn and McDonnell calling the shots elsewhere.
The bigger question, of course, is what this means for Starmer’s future policies. Many will remember him promising at his party’s conference “never again will Labour go into an election not being trust on national security”. But his refusal to comment, let alone act, on a matter involving murderers, rapists and violent criminals is hardly going to reassure many voters.
Part of the reason Starmer is reportedly quiet on some issues is down to advice from Joe Biden’s campaign team, which has instructed him not to get involved in “culture war issues”. But this mindset seems to have gradually extended to all manner of political policy. Often people think Starmer is calculated in his political moves, but too much fence sitting does not a Prime Minister make.
After Labour’s disastrous performance at the last General Election, Keir Starmer was keen to put the Corbyn years behind him at the party’s conference today. He gave one of the most passionate speeches of his career, telling voters that “[t]his party is under new leadership.”
It had been carefully constructed, and tried to address many of the reasons why Labour lost, as well as giving Starmer some much-needed personality. At one point he commented that “while Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists”. He later attacked the Tories on Covid-19 and social care, the latter of which the Labour leader said was a “disgrace to a rich nation”.
Starmer reinforced his commitment to “root out the antisemitism that has infected” Labour and repeatedly spoke about “security”, in yet another attempt to reverse Corbynism. No doubt many voters will still remember the former leader failing to condemn Russia after it launched a chemical attack on Britain, among other events, and Starmer knows he has a lot to do – to prove that Labour can protect the country.
This is why patriotism was such a dominant feature of Starmer’s speech. He talked about “the country I love”; his desire for Britain to be “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”, and how he’s “hugely ambitious for this country”.
But will this do the trick? Much of the reaction – on Twitter, at least – was incredibly optimistic about Starmer, partly spurred by recent polling on Labour – which shows the party closing in on Conservatives.
Even so, it’ll take a lot more than overuse of the word “country” to convince the electorate, particularly in the Red Wall, that Labour is now patriotic. The biggest reason for this is Brexit, in which voters expected all politicians to stick up for Britain – and instead found Starmer and others pushing for a second referendum.
Today he promised that Labour “is not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe” – and it’s no wonder he wants to move on, given his previous actions. During the speech he discussed “decency” and “fairness”, but 17.4 million people will be wondering where these traits were when he, and other MPs, tried to overturn their vote.
Furthermore, Starmer’s speech lacked substance. Though he has promised new leadership for the party, it’s not obvious what this looks like in policy terms, although he promised Labour’s manifesto “will sound like the future arriving” (whatever that means). Without more concrete proposals, and given the continued factionalism of Labour, many will simply think it sounds like more of the same.