David Rose

Starmer’s biggest political task is to bury the British populists

Despite Labour’s landslide, Muslim and Reform populists eroded its core vote – and may imperil it


Sir Keir Starmer and his wife Lady Victoria have the keys to Downing St - yet still face challenges from extremists

July 05, 2024 15:05

I wanted Labour to win this general election. The Tories forfeited their right to govern a long time ago – before the surreal fever dream that was the Liz Truss interregnum; before Partygate and their corrupt and vastly expensive response to the Covid pandemic; and before the slow-motion train wreck that was their handling of Brexit.

In my opinion, the rot and incompetence set in under the coalition led by David Cameron, with the mindless austerity imposed by his chancellor, George Osborne. Far too many of the cuts saved pitifully small sums of money while inflicting incalculable damage on what were once high-quality public services.

To cite one among many examples: the dissolution of the world-leading Forensic Science Service in 2012 saved some £20 million a year, but made an enormous, negative impact on the ability of the police to investigate serious crime. Think about that the next time you read about the surge in knife murders, or the abysmal, declining conviction rate for rape.

Like many millions of voters, I believed the country needed change, but the manner in which it has been achieved fills me with foreboding.

Yes, Sir Keir Starmer has won his projected landslide, but with just 35 per cent of the popular vote, six points less than that won by Jeremy Corbyn when he lost to Theresa May in 2017.

Meanwhile, the new government takes office beset by two very different species of populist: Reform UK, led by the narcissistic nationalist Nigel Farage, who has finally become an MP at his eighth attempt, and the victorious independents supported by The Muslim Vote (TMV), a deeply radical organisation whose leaders include several avowed apologists for the terrorist massacre of October 7.

Both made deep inroads into Labour’s core, heartland vote. Reform may have won only four seats, but its 15 per cent share of the vote was two points ahead of the Liberal Democrats’, who nevertheless managed to acquire 71 seats, the best performance by a third party since 1923, when the Liberals led by David Lloyd George won 158. Against the background of Labour’s disproportionate victory, Reform’s disappointment can only undermine faith in the first-past-the-post electoral system that has historically granted Britain stable governments while preventing extremists from gaining power. Farage is certain to use his considerable rhetorical gifts to exploit this, and may thus erode the sense of legitimacy Labour needs to function effectively in government.

Reform came second in dozens of constituencies, especially in the deprived “red wall” regions that fleetingly went Tory in 2019. This is still some distance from Farage’s express wish to become leader of the main opposition party by the time of the next general election in 2029. But with the Conservatives in such a crushed and weakened state, it would not be wise to rule out some kind of merger or “reverse takeover” should the next Tory leader fail to score well in opinion polls and local elections in the months and years ahead.

My colleague Stephen Pollard has already commented on the JC website on the dangers presented by The Muslim Vote and the successes of its favoured candidates. Having helped to unseat two shadow cabinet ministers, Jon Ashworth and Thangam Debbonaire, and come close also to defeating two further key members of Starmer’s administration, Wes Streeting and Shabana Mahmood, TMV will be well poised to drive home the case for its long list of demands – not only an immediate Gaza ceasefire and an end to arms sales to Israel, but new laws against Islamophobia that may well threaten free speech.

However, I think there is a bigger point to be appreciated, which requires an assessment of the election result as a whole – and this is the source of my foreboding.

Many things have dismayed me since news of the terrible events of October 7 first broke: the simple, bleak and irredeemable horror of what Hamas did; the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis in the ongoing war that still seems unwinnable; the prospects, now looming closer, of a full-scale conflict with Hezbollah in Israel’s north.

I have, of course, also been appalled by the explosion in antisemitic discourse and antisemitic incidents in Britain, and by the continuing failure of some non-Jews I once counted as friends to show the least sign of empathy or understanding of why so many of us feel the way that we do. This, I believe, is the product of an intense, still-deepening polarisation between those who take opposing positions over the war, and has seen extreme, intolerant statements being made by both sides.

As stated above, to date British politics have proven impressively resistant to extremism of all kinds. In the 1930s, while our economy languished in the slump, neither fascism nor Soviet-style Communism got much more than a toehold.

The evidence suggests that Starmer is well-equipped, intellectually and temperamentally, to meet the immense challenges he will face as PM. He is the master of the long game. I have long forgiven him for serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, for, I believe, he accurately calculated that this was a price he had to pay eventually to defeat him and restore decency to the Labour Party. I think he will be a calm, hard-working, pragmatic, and, crucially, moderate prime minister.

Yet while he possesses these qualities, the populists confronting the incoming government are advocates for their opposites, and they will see their path to further power as needing further polarisation, deeper divisions and more intolerance.

Do Starmer and his new government have the strength and ability to resist them? Before too long, we will know.

July 05, 2024 15:05

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