Open Letter to Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition

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Keir Starmer – Leader of HM’s Opposition – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dear Keir,

I am 81. I have always voted Labour, or – since I now live in a Conservative/LibDem marginal – LibDem. I was a strong Remainer. My career has been mainly in public service here and abroad in the environmental sector. Now you know “where I come from”.

The Conservative Party has morphed from a centre right party into the English National Party.  The name has not changed but its core philosophy has altered fundamentally. I get the impression that the Labour Party has not realised the full significance of this. And perhaps the English have been slow to see it – but it is very apparent to people living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

One thing ought to be clear: the Labour Party cannot be a second English National Party. Waving union flags and beating jingoistic drums (albeit more softly) will never convince those who want the true thing and will embarrass and alienate those who find this kind of gesture nationalism offensive. And yet the government has been able to define this as the playing field upon which you feel you are required to operate.

Stand back and see what is happening to our politics. The government has attacked key institutions and processes that might stand in its way by illegally proroguing Parliament, breaking international law and aiming to roll back judicial review. It is threatening to restrict the rights of democratic protest. It wishes to make it more difficult for marginalised groups to vote (c.f. the Republican Party). It intimidates and undermines the independence of the BBC (as if it did not already have overwhelming and largely uncritical support from the MSM). It is ready to provoke a series of skirmishes in the ‘woke wars’ designed to keep alive the “anti-elite” resentment that played so well for Johnson et al in 2016 and 2019. It is happy to project a mildly delinquent image of the UK on the international stage in the name of sovereignty.

Many see this as the first steps towards a very British kind of fascism, or at least a drift towards a Hungary-style, one-party state. Even if you are reluctant to describe what is happening in those terms, it is clearly a deliberate and sustained assault on many of our tolerant traditions and democratic ways of working. And it is also an attempt to create the conditions in which lies, distortion and corruption go unchallenged and where our leaders use every device to avoid accountability (for COVID errors, for personal failings and policy disasters too numerous to list).

This is not politics as usual, nor can it be addressed through politics as normal.  Given how our electoral system works, the Labour Party can only win power if it responds to the current crisis for British democracy by adopting a radically different way of working which completely re-sets the political landscape. In short, it needs to be bold in a way that it has – sadly – not so far shown an appetite for.

To grasp the political initiative, the  Labour Party should declare that it believes  there is now an unprecedented threat to our democracy which calls for unprecedented measures by all who value our democratic traditions: and that you are therefore inviting all other opposition parties – the Greens, the LibDems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Alliance Party, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party – to join Labour in forming an Alliance for Progressive Democracy, to confront the slide into narrow English nationalism.

Such an alliance, would be confined to democracy-related issues and would be an arrangement for the rest of this Parliament only. Basically, it would be a time-limited political truce – rather like the war-time coalition – with three specific aims:

  • to join together to confront the Government at every turn in Parliament, in the courts and in other ways when it threatens democratic institutions and processes. It won’t stop it, but it will make the progress of legislation more difficult and controversial.
  • to raise public awareness of the threats to our democracy so that it is talked about and properly covered in the MSM and on the BBC. Brexit taught us two things: a matter of marginal interest to most people before 2016 was skilfully manipulated into becoming the defining issue and fault line in UK politics; and not all politics is about bread-and-butter issues. Why wouldn’t a rallying call to ‘Defend our Democracy – there’s your three word slogan – achieve comparable success?
  • to discuss and seek agreement on the elements of constitutional change we want to see in the UK so that democracy is made safe in future. This may be no more than reaching agreement before the next election on the need for a Royal Commission on a written constitution and on a few principles for a new voting system based on Proportional Representation (PR) rather than First Past the Post (FPTP). Obviously, the pressure for a Scottish referendum will greatly complicate matters, but that is no reason not to explore the common ground with as many of the parties to the alliance as possible.

Just think how such an initiative by this group of parties might alter the political landscape. You would be setting the agenda, not following that of the government. The government would be faced with a combined opposition that would represent 57% of the 2019 vote. Public opinion would be awakened to the real threat to our rights and privileges. Many voters would respond positively to the unusual sight of parties working together. Millions, young people especially, who feel politically homeless at present would have a cause to rally to. And the ground could be laid for a winning alliance at the 2024 election.

Perhaps it is naïve to hope for a bold cross-party initiative like this, but I believe that politics as usual is not up the task of defending democracy against the threats it now faces and that it falls to the party you lead to show a different way forward.

Yours etc.

Adrian Phillips

Ed: Adrian is chair of Cheltenham for Europe.

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