Keir Starmer: We cannot allow politics to become a truth-free zone
The shadow minister says Labour must start talking honestly about immigration in the EU debate
It must be galling for an opposition frontbencher to look across the chamber at a government tearing itself apart and feel nothing but dread.
Labour hearts should swell at the sight, as increasingly vicious blue on blue attacks hand them enough ammunition to fill every campaign poster and party election broadcast for the next four years.
Conservative MPs speak of David Cameron and George Osborne as deceitful, undemocratic elites. Ministers accuse their own government of failing on everything from immigration to school places to low pay. And what of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel – three Tories almost certain to play a leading role in any post-referendum Cabinet? Even former prime minister John Major knows the NHS is about as safe in their hands as “a pet hamster would be with a hungry python”.
But as Keir Starmer sits down with The House to discuss the state of the campaign, he’s clear he’s not enjoying this one bit. “We’re descending into a proxy vote on the leadership and the direction of travel of the Tory party,” he sighs. “This is big politics. It’s really fundamental stuff, and it’s going to affect the next generation and the generation after that. We can’t allow it to become a fight for the soul of the Tories.”
As the personal insults and the hyperbole of the debate become more and more unchecked, Starmer has been left unimpressed. And on no topic is the campaign becoming more heated than immigration.
The issue dominated this week’s prime-time ‘debate’ between Nigel Farage and the prime minister, and the Leave campaign believe they have found their opponents’ weak spot.
But while Labour’s shadow immigration minister says he is “the first to acknowledge that there are real concerns about free movement”, he accuses Vote Leave of a cynical attempt to “exploit” the issue, and shut down a debate that they are losing.
“The Leave campaign is going heavily on migration because most of the arguments they’ve been putting forward have been shot down by anybody with any knowledge or experience,” he says, adding that the recent rhetoric on migration bears “a very loose relationship with the truth”.
“There’s a development in politics that we have to be really careful of, which is allowing politics to become a sort of truth-free zone – this sense that it doesn’t really matter if you’re telling the truth, that it doesn’t really matter if you say one thing one day and another thing the next day. Some of this is happening I’m afraid in the camp that want to leave the EU.
“We must be really careful. Let’s have a hard debate. But we mustn’t allow that to enter our politics. It really matters actually whether people are being honest about the facts when they present their arguments. It really matters. And if we get casual about that we’ll lose something in politics forever.”
Even the most optimistic Conservatives accept that their party’s EU troubles are going to endure well beyond June 23rd. But the long term repercussions of these last few weeks will no doubt engulf the Labour party, too.
The most senior Labour Brexiteer, Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart, has warned the party’s stance on the referendum is the “biggest recruiting agent for Ukip” imaginable, amid fears Nigel Farage will seek to capitalise on anxiety over immigration and challenge Labour’s traditional dominance in working class communities across the midlands and the north. Stuart’s colleague Frank Field backed her warning, describing the party’s pro-Remain campaign as “the second-longest suicide note in Labour’s history”.
Starmer is more aware than anyone that Labour have a fight on their hands. The former director of public prosecutions has spent the past three months travelling to every corner of the country on an immigration ‘listening tour’, hearing the views of businesses, locals, unions and migrants themselves.
His full findings will be published in a report over the summer, but for now he’s clear his party faces a real challenge, “referendum or not”, to win round voters who feel Labour no longer understands them.
“What we’re picking up as we go around the country is the public – rightly or wrongly, and in a sense it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong – think that Labour doesn’t want to talk to them about immigration. They think we don’t want to hear what they’ve got to say,” he explains.
“There’s a perception that Labour has walked past a problem, walked round a problem, rather than confronted a problem. And we’ve got to confront it. I think you should walk towards a challenge, rather than away from a challenge.”
The Conservatives may have been bruised by their broken pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”, but it’s Labour that still finds itself uncomfortably vulnerable on the issue. Margaret Beckett’s report into the 2015 election cited a “failure to convince” voters on immigration as one of the four key reasons behind the defeat, and last month another post-mortem by Jon Cruddas and the Fabian Society warned that, among socially conservative voters, Labour has become “a toxic brand”, perceived as a party “that supports an ‘open door’ approach”.
“I don’t think we’ve been confident enough,” Starmer continues. “We have absolutely got to break that and to make it clear that we are engaging, we will engage, and that the answer to people who express concerns on immigration is not ‘you’re wrong’, it’s actually to start a conversation and understand what the real cause of the concern is.”
For some, that concern may be about public services or employment. But he says Labour must also find a way to address people’s fears over identity and community at a much more intuitive level. “It may be the area that that Labour hasn’t spoken about – what sort of community and society do we want to live in? What do we expect of those of us that are here, when other people arrive? What do we expect of people who arrive? That’s a debate that Labour hasn’t had for many years.”
A number of Labour MPs, including Cruddas and former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, have warned that if the party is to successfully kick-start a debate on identity and community, it is also going to have to ask some tough questions about its relationship with ‘Englishness’. Labour must “shed its metropolitan squeamishness about England”, Hunt recently wrote, as he called on the party to embrace ideas including an English Labour and an English Parliament.
But Starmer takes a different view. While he admits the party has a lot to do to re-engage with voters who feel the party does not represent them, he also fears that ultimately a “narrow” debate focused on Englishness risks misdiagnosing – and underestimating – Labour’s real problem.
“I don’t think we have an English problem. I think we’ve got a problem that is bound up with vision and a project for the future,” he explains. “There’s this discussion about Englishness etc. But it would be a big mistake to think that Labour’s losses recently are attributable to one small bit of our policy or outlook. Actually it’s something much more profound than that.
“Immigration is part of that debate, but it’s only one part of that debate. I think Labour has lost its confidence recently and what we’ve not been able to do is to craft a bold, radical and ambitious project for the future. A project that people want to be part of. That is the most pressing thing for the Labour party.”
Starmer believes the financial crisis of the last few years has reshaped politics in ways Labour is yet to fully come to terms with. “We went through the worst crisis since the 1930s. How we emerged from that, how we reshaped everything after that, was critically important. That is all now happening without Labour’s fingerprints on it,” he says. “There’s been a failure of political parties to fill that vacuum with a project that actually speaks to people about the future.”
Starmer has remained loyal to the leadership since Corbyn’s election, but the former DPP is not afraid to speak frankly about where he thinks his party is going wrong. “We are not clear enough about what we think the 2020s and 2030s are going to look like, what the challenges are going to be, and why voting Labour in 2020 is going to make a big difference to people’s lives,” he says.
He says he accepts that the electorate is ready to vote for “radical change”, but adds that “they need to know that we’ve got a vision that corresponds with what they want out of their lives”. “Most people have a pretty good idea of what they want for themselves, for their family, for their communities. And we have to put forward a vision that chimes with their vision,” he says.
“If you don’t capture the ambition of the people who are going to be voting in 2020 then you’re not going to win that election.
“You won’t find the answers to tomorrow’s questions in yesterday’s answers, in recrafting, reinventing, old ways of thinking, old theories, that are not relevant to the project ahead.”
He continues: “Do we need a radical look at ourselves and rethink? Yes we do. But I’m absolutely clear that that rethink has to be one that starts with the 2020s and 2030s and doesn’t start with a backwards look.
“If we start from there, if we recognise that, then we’re taking a step in the right direction. Are we doing that at the moment? No, we haven’t got that far.
“We have to accept that’s the task on the table. And we’ve got a lot of work to do between now and 2020 if we’re to get from where we are to where we need to be, with a project that’s going to actually appeal to sufficient numbers to get us in to power.”
Despite his call to leave the past behind, Starmer is acutely aware that there are a number of old wounds in the party that are likely to be re-opened in the coming weeks. The Chilcot report into the Iraq War will be published on the 6th July, and around the same time the Conservative government is expected to bring forward a vote on replacing Britain’s Trident nuclear weapon programme – two issues which a divided Labour party will have to navigate with caution.
“We have to be one step ahead on this,” Starmer warns. “If David Cameron wins the referendum – and I really hope he does – then in order to take the focus off his own deeply divided party he will deliberately put on the table things which he thinks will divide the Labour party. And he’ll do it fast.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if within hours of the announcement of the referendum he doesn’t put Trident up for a vote and make a big deal about Chilcot. Politically and tactically that’s exactly where he will go, and we must anticipate that. We as a party need to start thinking through how we’re going to handle those issues, and not wait till he does it before we respond.”
He says the enmity within his party has been calmed in recent months, and he does not anticipate a return to the “open hostility” seen over winter. “I think most people have worked out that slugging it out in public is not something that appeals either to our members or to the public,” he says.
But in a warning to his colleagues, he makes clear that such unity can’t come at the expense of open debate – and of taking the hard decisions needed to get the party back in to power. “There’s no point just being united in opposition. And we’re not going to get out of opposition unless we have a radical, ambitious, bold project and capture the imagination and ambitions of the next generation.”
Starmer’s first year in parliament, he adds, has left him feeling both “privileged” at the opportunity to help his constituents and “deeply frustrated” at his inability to do so effectively from the opposition benches.
“If we’re in opposition we’re not the decision-makers,” he says. “For five years as director of public prosecutions people put problems on my desk that I had to solve. Whether they’re not so big problems, big problems or really big problems, they came thick and fast and my job was to do something about it and change things for the better.
“So my ambition is Labour in power making decisions. If we’re not in power we’re not changing things. And we need to repeat that to ourselves in the mirror every morning.”
Picture by: John Stillwell/PA Archive/Press Association Images
This article first appeared in the House magazine.