‘Why Keir Starmer will need a new identity politics of his own to keep Labour’s winning coalition together’

Sunder Katwala

British voters rarely change their governments at election time. It has happened only three times – 1979, 1997 and 2010 – in half a century. We can be pretty certain of adding 2024 to that list this week.

Nobody around Rishi Sunak believes in miracles enough to imagine a fifth term might begin on Friday. The 2019 general election was hailed as a great ‘realignment’.

Yet the Conservatives who were then dreaming of a new age of political dominance now fear Thursday’s exit poll at 10pm could even herald their worst ever defeat.

The path to power

Keir Starmer’s mission as opposition leader was to provide the quiet antidote to the realignment. Nobody expected him to succeed – though the scale of the assists to Starmer’s project from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss mean he may not get much of the credit.

Starmer’s prize is to secure an unusually broad coalition of support in polarised times.

It is difficult to find any voting demographic at all where Labour does not lead. It will dominate among the young, but leads among older voters too.

Its vote shares across England, Scotland and Wales – and across social classes may be unusually even. The voting gap between majority and minority groups will probably be narrower than ever too. Labour is picking up support where it was weaker, facing more challenge in its urban heartlands.

Such a broad coalition could prove fragile. Those with very different priorities could agree, pre-election, on Starmer’s 2024 proposal that it is “time for change”.

Labour in government

Once Labour faces the pressures of governing, its coalition could fracture on many fronts. That has been the experience of centre-left leaders Olaf Scholz in Germany and Anthony Albanese in Australia. Leaders with a strong interest in the politics of depolarisation have yet to identify the tools to achieve it in office as well as opposition.

Starmer’s priority is growth. The government would like to rebalance the agenda – to move, perhaps, from an age of identity to an age of economics. So Starmer’s instinct may be to see identity as a minefield to avoid, seeking to change the subject, risks leaving a vacuum for others on right and left to fill.

READ MORE: ‘I used to work for Liz Truss. Here’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Labour’

And no government can avoid navigating several key identity issues: immigration and asylum, cohesion and inter-faith relations, extremism and security.

So Starmer does need to engage with these debates, as a bridging voice. His challenge is that, with such a broad voting coalition, it’s a big bridge to build.

Starmer’s identity politics have centred on patriotism. The Union Jack is prominent in the Labour campaign. This is often dismissed as mere gesture politics, to remind people Starmer is not Jeremy Corbyn. Some policy wonks see it as too intangible to be worth investing political capital into it.

What history tells us

Every successful leader of the Labour party has sought to demonstrate a comfort with national flags – and to link that to a state of the nation argument too. Starmer places his own ambition for “a decade of national renewal” in that tradition of the governments of 1945, 1964 and 1997.

His five national missions – economic growth, becoming a climate superpower, renewing the NHS, cutting crime and breaking down barriers to opportunity – are his framework to connect the public narrative, of what his government cares about, with the practical challenges of delivery in office.

Starmer identifies himself not as a storyteller but as a builder and a fixer. He is frustrated that the media culture has not seen his missions as audacious.

His approach reminds me of the theme tune of the BBC television series Why Don’t You? – a staple diet of the school holidays for those of us who grew up in the ‘seventies or ‘eighties: “Why don’t you just switch off your television set – and go out and do something less boring instead?” That could be Starmer’s mission-led agenda in a nutshell – a call to us all to switch off from divisive social media arguments to focus on something more important.

The way forward

The Labour leader is clearest on how he does not want to talk about identity. He will seek to lower the temperature.

A politics that “treads a little lighter on all of our lives,” may bring respite from the exhaustion of permanent cultural conflict. But he acknowledges too that articulating the politics of bringing people together is challenging – “harder to express, less colourful, fewer clicks on social media” – demanding of citizens that they too respect the different views of others.

That is a sensible starting point, but he will need a more proactive approach too. Rather than hoping to duck tensions over identity, the new government needs effective strategies to defuse them, showing how this can be a practical agenda, not merely a rhetorical aspiration.

READ MORE: ‘This election, apathy is Labour’s biggest obstacle to victory in Scotland’

In a new chapter for the paperback edition of my book How to be a patriot, I set out how a new government could put an inclusive patriotism into practice.

So much policy engagement with issues of identity has been crisis-driven over the decades – from 9/11 and 7/7 to the Covid pandemic. But it is sustained engagement that sows the seeds of the resilience we need in flashpoint moments.

A politics of mutual respect – where we acknowledge our differences and work on what we share in common – requires an active effort to strengthen connections across society and reduce the social distance between people from different backgrounds in our plural, diverse democracy.

Starmer will need an identity politics of his own. Bridging our divides should be a core foundation of his decade of national renewal.

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Read more of our 2024 general election coverage:

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Brighton Pavilion: As Starmer visits, can Labour win the Greens’ one seat?

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