From LGBTQ+ rights to strikes, Caitlin Barr echoes young people’s frustration with Labour’s leader
“Keir Starmer is a wet wipe” read the iconic gal-dem headline penned by leftist journalist Moya Lothian-Maclean way back in December 2020. The article, published eight months into his leadership of the Labour Party, cited his “cowardice and fence-sitting”, as well as his orders to abstain on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill (dubbed the ‘spy cops’ bill) and the Overseas Operations bill (the ‘torture’ bill), as evidence for the damning description of the ex-director of public prosecutions. It branded Keir Starmer with “overcautiousness to the point of inaction”.
Two and a half years on, many young people would still agree that Keir Starmer is a wet wipe. One young former Labour supporter I spoke to said Starmer “seems to be confused about which side of politics he’s supposed to be on” – hardly the ideal position of a ‘forensic’ leader. He described himself as socialist in 2020, but in 2021 asked: “What does that mean?… The Labour Party is a party that believes that we get the best from each other when we come together, collectively, and ensure that, you know, we give people both opportunity and support as they are needed.”
In 2022, he confirmed that he would no longer be sticking to the ten socialist pledges he made during the 2020 leadership election. So, what does he stand for? Is he just a useless politician, or is there something even more alarming going on? And should young people feel confident that Starmer’s Labour is the same party that many flocked to in 2017 (when Labour returned a 35% advantage over the Conservatives among 18-24s)?
Many young people cite LGBTQ+ issues as key in their decision on which political party to vote for, especially as those aged 16-24 are the most likely to identify under the umbrella (8% of young people surveyed in 2020 identified as either gay or bisexual). Starmer’s approach to the gender reassignment debate seems to have been to ignore the many vocal trans activists and members of his party urging him to back the Gender Recognition Reform bill (which proposed self-identification), tabled by Nicola Sturgeon and passed in Scotland, and to instead focus on the ‘toxic divide’ of the debate and the need to protect ‘women’s rights’. He has committed to modernise the Gender Recognition Act to improve trans rights, but has also said that, “for 99.9% of women, it is completely biological … and, of course, they haven’t got a penis.” This rhetoric and the decision to order Labour to abstain on the bill has been condemned as anti-trans. In a promotional video posted just before the Easter weekend, Starmer met with members of Hillsong Church, who many pointed out have faced accusations of sending members to conversion therapy. If young people care about LGBTQ+ – and particularly trans – rights, Keir Starmer’s Labour is proving it is not the party for them.
For a generation emerging into a labour market rife with inequality, exploitation, uninspiring wages and real terms pay cuts, unions are increasingly important. Young people have turned out in droves on picket lines, whether as workers themselves or in support of striking comrades (for example, students supporting their university lecturers during recent UCU strikes). It would be natural to think that the leader of the Labour Party, a party founded on the principles of trades unions, would make sure to assert his support for striking workers – but Keir Starmer has done quite the opposite. He expressed “disappointment” at striking teachers, banned MPs from joining picket lines (sacking his shadow transport minister for doing so), and expelled the president of trade union Unison, Andrea Egan, from the party for sharing two articles from a Marxist group.
Labour is no longer the party of workers under Keir Starmer. A newly qualified teacher spoke to me of their frustration at his refusal “to pick a side between a government and press that hates the Labour Party and the most active workers movement in a generation”. If Starmer aims to get a decent share of the youth vote at the next elections, he needs to remember that many of those who voted for Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2017 are now in the workforce.
There are so many more issues that Starmer is missing the point on when it comes to retention of young voters in the party. Many young people I know have left the Labour Party, citing Starmer’s treatment of Corbyn and his sheer inability to inspire any feeling or hope in them as voters. Then there’s accusations that he is deliberately pandering to the right in a cynical vote grab. Most of all, though, it seems to be his incompetence in offering any alternative to the Conservatives at a time when the nation is being ravaged by their reforms. Young people are being left feeling like there is no future for them in the Labour Party – but their mistrust may lead to its downfall.