Four years ago this month, I was travelling down to Dover with my then boss Keir Starmer to film Question Time. The process for prepping politicians for one of Britain’s longstanding political programmes is well rehearsed in Westminster. Party headquarters will send over a hundred-page document with all the “lines to take” about ourselves, our opponents and a tranche of obscure policies. Ministers and shadow ministers will then hunker down with their advisers for a few hours in the preceding days to hone the arguments (and decide how best to react if someone in the audience starts booing).
Dover’s Question Time was meant to be a Brexit special, which, for the shadow Brexit secretary, should have been relatively straightforward. However, 10 days earlier, everything changed. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in Salisbury. The pages of notes written up about the advantages of Labour’s post-Brexit customs union versus the Conservative’s customs partnership became redundant. Everything was now about where Labour stood on an act of foreign aggression.
As a former director of public prosecutions, Keir was well versed in matters of national security and, as a human rights lawyer, he had represented Alexander Litvinenko’s wife, Marina, in her case against the Russian state. Having listened to the various statements by the prime minister, Keir was firm on where he wanted to stand. Russia should be condemned for its involvement and we should fully back the action being taken by the government. No ifs, no buts.
And yet, on the train journey down – with barely any warning – an article by the then leader Jeremy Corbyn dropped. It was a painful read. Eight-hundred words, but no condemnation of Russia for the attack.
I remember my stomach sinking. How on earth can we defend this? I handed Keir my phone, told him to read the article and then asked for “a few minutes of silence and reflection” before deciding what to do. When we got off the train, his view hadn’t changed. He turned up, contradicted Corbyn, condemned Russia “without reservation”, backed the government and demanded strong action. It’s worth noting that Keir was not alone in taking this position. The then shadow foreign and defence secretaries, Emily Thornberry and Nia Griffith, took the same stance, as did many other Labour MPs.
It’s often underestimated how damaging that moment was for Labour. At best the response was confused, at worst it appeared ambivalent about terrorism on British soil. It fed into a narrative with voters that, when it came to our nation’s security, Labour was soft, and an even deeper sense that we were no longer a party that would stand up for Britain.
Changing that perception has been a fundamental part of Keir’s mission since he became leader two years ago. When he spoke of “a new leadership” in the summer of 2020, it was a message of change backed up with action.
If Labour was to be a patriotic party again, then it had to be proud to stand with our nation’s flag. Despite how flippantly some people treated this at the time, I never needed a focus group to tell me that the candidate for the UK’s next prime minister should deliver speeches with the union jack behind him. To voters, the flag represents the country that political parties should aspire to serve – and protect. Google any political leader around the world – Joe Biden in the US, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Olaf Scholz in Germany – and they stand with the flag of their respective nation. The Labour party should be no different.
If Labour was to be trusted with our nation’s security again, then it had to bring clarity where previously there had been ambiguity. That included reaffirming our commitment to Nato – an institution that we helped to create in the aftermath of the second world war. And if Labour was to be seen as credible, it had to be decisive – and that is exactly what it has done these past few weeks in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, this isn’t simply about politics for Starmer; it comes from a deeper set of principles. I was his director of communications for four years. I lost count of the number of times he spoke publicly and privately of his admiration for our security services, and how he had seen first-hand the work they did to keep our country safe. When he says the government should change approach, he means it. And when he says Labour needs to change, he means it too.
Foreign policy did not ultimately decide the 2019 election result, nor do I think it will ultimately decide 2024. I still believe the charge that the Conservatives are a low-growth, high-tax party will be a potent attack line – especially if Labour can demonstrate that it is the party to get Britain’s economy growing again. However, by restoring his party’s stance on security and patriotism, Starmer can go a long way towards showing Labour is once again a government-in-waiting.