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Starmer’s Labour: How much moral authority are we willing to sacrifice for electoral success?

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

This was originally posted on Fred Garratt-Stanley's blog.

One of the most telling actions of the Labour leader's intentions was in 2020, when he dismissed Black Lives Matter’s central aims as “nonsense”. It exposed a worrying lack of concern for the struggle against structural racism. In light of Starmer's lack of a response to the recently published Forde Report, are Labour in danger of failing black members and supporters?

Sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police in May 2020, global protests against institutional racism separated those who are pro-actively anti-racist from those whose actions are purely performative. Sadly, it would appear that the leader of the UK’s most prominent 'progressive' party belongs to the latter group.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast during that period in 2020, Keir Starmer denounced Black Lives Matter’s central aim of defunding the police as “nonsense”, insensitively bragging “my support for the Police is very, very strong”. A kick in the teeth for black activists whose demands he evidently does not understand, Starmer’s comments betrayed an ignorance which renders his previous support for the movement redundant. Unfortunately, taking a knee in your office and tweeting the #blacklivesmatter hashtag means absolutely nothing when contrasted by such damaging and ill-advised words.

Reflecting a common public reluctance to embrace an admittedly radical-sounding target, Starmer stated “I wouldn’t have any truck with what the organisation is saying about defunding the police or anything else, that’s just nonsense”. Ultimately, no one expected the leader of the UK’s largest political party to wholeheartedly endorse this message, however the manner in which he responded exposes a troubling lack of regard for the political activism and engagement of Black British people. This harsh dismissal exposes Starmer’s failure to acknowledge that the tagline ‘defund the police’ refers not to the development of some anarchic, purge-like dystopia but to the gradual redistribution of government funds into various community support networks better equipped to resolve issues currently mishandled by the police.

Perhaps the most distasteful element of Starmer’s response was his assertion that “the Black Lives Matter movement, or moment if you like… is about reflecting something completely different… reflecting on what happened, dreadfully, in America”. Not only does Starmer reaffirm here the typical British tendency to blindly export issues of racial inequality and violence across the Atlantic, he also reduces a broad mass movement informed and shaped by centuries of racial oppression into a mere “moment”, a supposed trend which will inevitably pass.

What intensifies the wholly unsavoury nature of such discourse is the recognition that it is utterly unnecessary. The Labour leader could easily have distanced himself from the ‘defund the police’ slogan while simultaneously acknowledging and respecting the importance of listening to black voices on this subject, a reality demonstrated by then-Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas Symonds’ contrasting response. On Sophy Ridge’s Sky News show, Symonds unsurprisingly agreed “I don’t want to defund the police”, however his important mitigation that “there is a very deep anger out there and it’s not up to me to start lecturing people on how to express that anger” is a key distinction which highlights the inappropriateness of Starmer’s derisive scoffing cry of “nonsense”. Symonds underlined the ease of sidestepping subscription to all of Black Lives Matter’s aims, while simultaneously expressing understanding and sympathy with the broader movement. In this context, Starmer’s brash, unapologetic attempts to appease the centre-right are unacceptable.

The Holborn & St. Pancras MP’s failure to appropriately engage with the demands and interests of marginalised groups is particularly depressing when juxtaposed with his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Among the many commendable actions Corbyn was ridiculed for by the British media were his countless expressions of solidarity with oppressed people across the world. During his time as leader, the Islington North MP vocally supported Palestinian rights, argued against arms sales to Saudi Arabia, opposed military air strikes in Syria, and continually strengthened his long, robust record of standing up for ethnic minority communities and individuals in the UK. If Starmer’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement is anything to go by, this sense of moral authority established during Corbyn’s leadership is in serious danger of being tarnished, becoming collateral damage in the new leader’s desperate attempts to appease those on the right. Evidently, Labour’s number one priority must be winning power. However, when such disgraceful rightward shifts in discourse are occurred just three months into Starmer’s tenure, it is important to raise the question: how much moral authority are we willing to sacrifice for electoral success?

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