Saturday, April 13

Call him ‘Security’ Starmer – it seems to be the word the Labor leader likes best | Steven Fielding

When voters were asked in February what they thought were the big issues facing Britain, national security did not even make it into the top 10. However, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine and his implied threat of nuclear war, the salience of Britain’s military and intelligence security as a political issue has spiked dramatically. After decades of neglect, Westminster now has a keen interest in Britain’s ability to defend itself. The public now think it the most important issue.

Boris Johnson hopes to exploit the Ukraine crisis by presenting himself as a sober statesman rather than Downing Street’s premier party animal, but Keir Starmer is better placed to take advantage, and he has sought to do so in two obvious ways.

First, to demonstrate Labour’s patriotism to “red wall” voters, he and fellow shadow cabinet ministers have toured born countries bordering Russia, cameras in tow. Second, to entrench his power from him within the party he has isolated those remaining Corbynites still attached to Stop the War.

However, the crisis has allowed Starmer to further associate himself with – and expand the meaning of – his favorite word, one that has defined his leadership since its earliest days: security.

In his first party conference speech as leader, Starmer talked of wanting to create a Britain “that embodies the values ​​I hold dear. Decency, fairness, opportunity, compassion and security”. But of these five, the most important value was safety: “Security for our nation, our families and all of our communities.” In most of his speeches from him since, the word has reappeared in different contexts and with different partners: in January, Labour’s new, if not especially memorable slogan was unveiled as “Security, Prosperity, Respect”.

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In Starmer’s much-mocked and certainly over-long fabian pamphlet, published last autumn, there also lurked his paramount concern for security. Ingovernment, he wrotehe wants to create a Britain, “on solid foundations, with security at home, in the workplace, on the streets and from those who would do us harm… I want Labor to once again be Britain’s bricks and mortar – a symbol of solidity , reliability, shelter and the prospect of building something new and better”.

If this makes Starmer sound conservative that is deliberate, because if he has any hope of forming a government, Labor needs to win back those retired homeowners in former red wall constituencies who have leaked from Labor over many general elections. Even so, this “security” still requires traditional Labor means, such as government planning and intervention in the economy, increasing opportunities for all with the aim of becoming a fairer and more productive society. Starmer’s promise of “security” frames Labour’s comparatively radical “new deal for working people”, one that will increase the minimum wage, ensure all workers’ entitlement to rights such as parental leave, banning “fire and rehire” practices, and making it easier for employees to be represented by a trade union.

For Starmer, then, “security” has long been a key homonym, that is a word with many different meanings and applications, ones the Ukraine crisis has usefully extended into energy policy as well as to a focus on Conservative party funding and Boris Johnson’s friendships with oligarchs who have close links to Putin.

Starmer had not even been elected leader before “boring” Starmer had become a soubriquet of choice among journalists. In his first months in post, many commentators quickly dismissed his leadership as an empty space where ideas should be. Certainly, he has not generated the kind of excitement many Labor members felt for Corbyn’s vow to take on capitalism, or the optimism ex-Labour voters saw in Boris Johnson’s “sunlit uplands”. His promise of “security” is also strikingly different from the pitch made to voters by Harold Wilson in 1963, when he said he would unleash the white heat of the technological revolution, or Tony Blair’s 1997 talk of a dazzling New Britain.

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But does a winning Labor party need such visions? Certainly, while in 1945 Clement Attlee said that Britain needed to face the futureit was a future in which security from ill-health, old age and unemployment was key.

Perhaps the “boring” and “risk-averse” Starmer has actually stumbled on a political trope for our uniquely troubled times? He certainly believes he has – and he seems secure in that belief.

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