The Labour Party’s patriotic act is dangerous

The Labour Party’s patriotic act is dangerous
The display of patriotism at the opening of Labour’s conference has more sinister undertones, explains Hamza Ali Shah, who argues that Starmer’s brand of Britishness is reminiscent of the Tories and Blairism.
7 min read
28 Sep, 2022
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pays tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II on the first day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool, UK. [GETTY]

The start of the Labour Party conference was marked by a rendition of the national anthem – the first time in recent history the anthem has been sung at the party’s annual event.

Labour leader Keir Starmer opened with a tribute to the late Queen, under a banner of her image and a Union Jack background. He told attendees in his speech, “it still feels impossible to imagine a Britain without her”, then led a minute’s silence, before members sang God Save the King.

Given Queen Elizabeth II – the UK’s longest serving monarch – recently passed away, it is hardly surprising Labour’s conference led with a celebration of her legacy. Especially given the country has only just emerged from a period of national mourning.

''Observers might point out that the Labour playbook on patriotism differs from the Conservative one. But a cursory glance at the history closer to home uncovers the same discouraging pattern. Former Labour leaders Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair all won elections and proudly waved the Union Jack. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s first speech in parliament after becoming prime minister in 2007 emphasised the theme of ‘reinvigorating Britishness’.''

However, there is also a deeper political meaning behind the party’s decisions.

It was reported just days before conference that there would be an emphasis on the national anthem. Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, speaking to the Telegraph, urged Labour members to get involved, insisting on the importance of demonstrating patriotism following the passing of Queen. Starmer closed the conference as he started it, declaring the time is right for “Britain to stand tall again” and that Labour would always put country first, party second.

It's also not necessarily a new approach. A leaked document in 2021 revealed a fresh Labour strategy to ‘make use of the union flag’ and change the party’s ‘body language’ as part of a radical rebranding to parade the party’s patriotism.

Not long-ago it emerged that former prime minister Boris Johnson’s government spent more than £163,000 on union flags in just under two years, to flaunt their patriotic credentials. That coupled with voters in focus groups previously saying of Johnson “whatever you think of him, country comes first with him”, and considering he bulldozed Labour in the 2019 general election to win an unprecedented majority, it’s hard to argue against the delicate success of ferocious flag-waving as an electorally seductive tool.

But the hijacked perception of the flag and what it means to be British comprises less a proud sense of belonging and more an exclusionary tendency synonymous with the demonising of communities.

Priti Patel’s tenure as home secretary exemplified this. She often spoke of her ‘deeply held British values’ whilst concurrently engineering remorseless policies, including deporting migrants to Rwanda. The government she served in, elected to ‘Get Brexit Done,’ mulled over charging migrants more to use the NHS and stripping people of colour of their citizenship without warning, all in a bid to establish British sovereignty.

Observers might point out that the Labour playbook on patriotism differs from the Conservative one. But a cursory glance at the history closer to home uncovers the same discouraging pattern. Former Labour leaders Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair all won elections and proudly waved the Union Jack. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s first speech in parliament after becoming prime minister in 2007 emphasised the theme of ‘reinvigorating Britishness’.

However, in reclaiming the British flag and the sense of pride, sinister and ugly undertones were detectable. Mr Brown in the 2007 Labour Party conference pledged to create ‘British jobs for British workers’. For context, that precise slogan has been employed in the past by fascist political movements like the British National Party (BNP) and the National Front in their anti-immigrant campaigns.

Such repellent rhetoric cloaked as patriotism was not confined to Brown’s premiership, however. Under Tony Blair, as Labour contested the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election in 2004, the party issued a leaflet with the slogan ‘Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers.’

So, when Starmer stood in front of party members at Labour’s conference positioning himself as the heir to Blair, it was perhaps not just a calculated pitch to voters but an inadvertent admission of precisely what Labour’s patriotic act entails.

Indeed, it was not long ago Labour were attacking the Conservatives for ‘comprehensively failing’ to reduce migrant Channel crossings. Rather than focus on the government’s inhumane denial of asylum, the party instead found fault with the inefficiency of the operation. Ostensibly, that sentiment appears to have intensified, not waned; a key point in Starmer’s closing speech was the pledge to ‘control immigration’.

Walking and talking like the right for a party with roots at the other end of the political spectrum runs the risk of adopting the right’s modus operandi too. In fact, the Labour Party’s loyalty to the flag has coincided with the consolidation of a hostile environment in the party for minority communities.

The Forde Report, which detailed the bullying, harassment, sexism and racism within the Labour Party was recently released, uncovering the party’s ‘hierarchy of racism and discrimination’. One councillor of Jamaican heritage, who stepped down, wrote in her resignation letter: ‘I have endured more racism and bullying in my five years in the Labour party than the rest of my life combined.’

A British Kashmiri Muslim councillor also stood down from the party after experiencing Islamophobia within her local party. She recalls seeing a Whatsapp group with messages exchanged between local party officers where they routinely attacked Muslims. Such experiences corroborate the findings of the Labour Muslim Network: Muslims overwhelmingly don’t think Keir Starmer has handled Islamophobia in the party, nor do they feel represented.

This unfavourable treatment is not limited to just party councillors or members. Apsana Begum, Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse and domestic abuse survivor, was signed off work sick following a sustained campaign of misogynistic abuse and harassment from both her ex-husband and her constituency Labour party (CLP). When a domestic violence advocate warned the Labour leader that Ms Begum was unsafe in the party, Starmer did nothing.

Ms Begum says the reason for the inaction is clear: “I’m being targeted by the Labour party  because of my politics, because I’m a Muslim woman of Bangladeshi origin”.


As Labour conference drew to a close, sections of the press and conference delegates were collectively applauding the party’s patriotic drive. Just hours later, the final episode in a 3-part AlJazeera investigation aired, laying bare the extent of the structural racism that has spread unfettered in the party. Included were revelations of the party using racial profiling to highlight those who would be a ‘problem’.

That it was shown on the same day Labour supposedly found their ‘winning position’ was appropriate, for it served as reminder about who the party is willing to trample over in a bid to prove its Great British capabilities, and obtain power.

Given the latest polls show the opposition party are 17 points ahead of the Conservatives, in what is the party’s biggest lead in two decades, that power is certainly within reach.

But at what cost?

In 2019, 64% of black and minority ethnic communities voted for Labour, and 87% of the Muslim community in 2017. That is undeniably a loyal bloc of voters who see their natural political home as the Labour Party. Rather than recognise its indebtedness to those communities, the party is seemingly content with throwing them to the wolves.

The consequences of this continued approach would be profound. At best, it will mean swathes of voters will be politically homeless. At worst, it will leave them as sacrificial policy pawns, expendable in the eyes of yet another ruling party clarifying its patriotic vision.

Should Keir Starmer’s Labour Party occupy Downing Street by virtue of weaponising nationalism? Many will celebrate a new dawn, for others, it will represent the latest chapter of the same exhausting struggle.

Hamza Ali Shah is a British Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London.

Follow him on Twitter: @Hamza_a96

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.