Trevor Fisher tracked down the Labour leader in Stoke to hear a lacklustre personal appeal
Policy and electioneering are reviving with less than two years to the next election, and the mix is starting to become problematic. Some of the problems were illustrated at the end of March. Keir Starmer came to Stoke-on-Trent on 23 March to present the mission on public security – crime and law and order – at an event carefully stage managed in Port Vale Football Club.
Thirteen years of Tory rule has left policing and public order in an appalling state, as the crisis in the Metropolitan Police shows. But an urban centre like Stoke has serious problems, and I hoped Starmer would show some awareness of this, as the Guardian claims he has made seven visits to the city. However, it was clear that the event was going to be an event for London media, and the 400 or so Labour members were merely window dressing. Only journalists asked questions.
Yvette Cooper was also present and was used for a five-minute introduction, which was a complete waste of her time. This showed the approach was top-down leader politics, less Labourism than Starmerism. Despite the statement that “[t]his is our mission. Labour will make Britain’s streets safe,” the party was largely absent. I have the official transcript of his statement, and the personal pronouns – I, my – appeared 63 times; collective pronouns – we, our – only a fraction of this number. The question arising was: is Starmer a team player?
Still worse, like Neil Kinnock in 1990, he believes the opinion polls. Starmer said, “Mark my words, a Labour government is coming – and we will bring forward a proper victims’ law.” Labour will struggle to achieve a majority – and this event showed no sign that Labour’s leadership has grasped the nettle of an effective approach to building support.
Any credible election strategy has to be backed up by clear thinking, and as Starmer himself said, “I accept that… the police force has been failed by the Government, but there must always be a plan.”
So, what is the plan? Starmer identified four “clear, measurable goals”, namely to:
- “restore confidence in every police force to its highest ever level;
- halve incidents of knife crime;
- reverse the collapse in the proportion of crime solved;
- halve the levels of violence against women and girls.”
Starmer admitted that the ambition of these goals “should invite a sharp intake of breath”. For this listener, the goals simply demanded a strategy and statement of priorities. The only measurable goal was the commitment to “get 13,000 extra police on our streets”. And 13,000 is not going to be enough. As the Commissioner of the Met is making clear, the quality of too many officers is unacceptably bad. A massive clear-out is needed, so the recruitment has to be MORE than 13,000 and of a higher quality. New wine cannot go in the old bottles of current practices.
The changes cannot be achieved by a personal crusade. It is worrying that Starmer said in Stoke, “This mission – crime and justice – is my life’s work. I’ve made it central to my Labour Party.” The Labour Party does not belong to any individual. It would be disastrous if the political struggle became a personal conflict with Rishi Sunak. Yet this is now a grave danger.
The attacks on Sunak launched by Labour before Easter, accusing him personally of Tory failures on law and order, were unacceptable. The first ad relied on statistics going back to 2010, when Sunak was not an MP and Starmer was at the DPP, yet criticism did not stop a second personal attack the following day. As John McDonnell wrote, “This is not the sort of politics a Labour Party, confident of its own values and preparing to govern, should be engaged in.” Yet his appeal for it to be withdrawn was ignored.
There were moments in March when Starmer opened the door to a progressive approach which could derail Sunak, notably when he touched on the failure of the Tories to experience the violence and insecurity of areas they do not live in. But there was not enough that was clearly progressive. The poll lead is in danger of slipping, as in 1990-92 when Neil Kinnock slid from leading Thatcher to failing to defeat John Major. The appeal to a limited number of Red Wall voters – Port Vale in Stoke is the heartland of Jonathan Gullis, a dangerously reactionary Tory MP – is too limited, and nothing that was said in Burslem effectively targeted even this limited audience.
With the attack ad strategy clearly threatening a move towards gutter politics, which the Tories will always outflank Labour in doing, this ‘mission statement’ offered little to challenge the Tories. Perhaps this was why attack ads were adopted. Whoever is devising this strategy needs to be discovered; and if this is the approach on crime and justice, how is Starmer doing on the other four missions?