The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, chose Armed Forces Day last week to launch a “Labour friends of the armed forces” programme, promising “an exciting new dialogue with forces communities”. Since his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, appeared to view the existence of Britain’s military capacity as a kind of stain on his conscience, Starmer’s gesture was intended as further evidence of a break with the far left.
On this issue, however, he is also reaching out to part of the population whose support is essential if Labour is ever to regain power. This is the bloc of working-class voters in northern and Midlands seats formerly known as the “red wall”.
A large number of them renounced their tribal political loyalties to vote Tory at last year’s general election because they felt Labour no longer represented the values that were most important to them. Principal among these are patriotism, the defence of the nation and support for the military.
Obviously, other people are patriotic too. But among the working-class communities from which the armed forces draw most of their recruits, attachment to the nation and its historic culture and values gives their lives meaning in ways unfamiliar to those who think of themselves as cosmopolitan citizens of the world.
Which is why so many of them were such passionate Brexiteers. Many voted Conservative because they thought Corbyn was an ideological ally of foreign tyrants and terrorists who threatened Britain’s security.
But does Starmer’s initiative amount to anything more than a charm offensive? After all, the progressives’ default position is not military action to defend their country but pacifism.
So Starmer needs to divest his party not just of the Corbynistas but of the agenda of the progressive middle class who now control it. He has his work cut out and, in this, is likely to fail.
But then, if the working class conclude along with others that Boris Johnson failed to make the right calls during the coronavirus crisis and needlessly compromised their health while destroying their livelihoods, the new blue wall may turn red again regardless of the hole in Labour’s heart.
To access my Times column (£), please click here.