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Does no one want the Red Wall voters?

Keir Starmer in Hartlepool, 3 April 2023 (Getty Images)

There was outrage in some sections of the Labour party today after its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, praised Satan. Writing in the Mephistophelian Clarion, a publication with a high proportion of readers who are lycanthropes, vampires, imps, goblins and daemons, Sir Keir said that the ‘Prince of Darkness’ had sometimes been ‘mis-understood’ by the left. ‘It seems to me only right that Lucifer should be credited with a very real dynamism and get-up-and-go, as well as for taking a diverse, vibrant and non-judgmental approach to the notion of sin.’

Sir Keir’s unexpected stance was defended by party moderates, one of whom commented: ‘There’s nothing wrong with what Keir wrote. The Labour party should always be a broad church and that means there must be room for Satanists, just as there is room for idiots like Clive Lewis.’ However, it was pointed out that Sir Keir’s praise for Beelzebub in the Mephistophelian Clarion directly contradicted his comments made during an interview yesterday published in the Prolapsed Altar Boy, a magazine for ageing Roman Catholics. On this occasion when asked about the Devil, Starmer replied: ‘You know, the infernal one is not really my cup of tea at all and I blame him for an awful lot of wickedness in the world. If pressed, I would probably say that he was quite evil.’

Starmer’s praise of Thatcher will go down like a cup of lightly chilled puke with voters in the north-east

This apparent contradiction was brushed aside by members of Sir Keir’s team, one of whom commented: ‘As the great Nils Lofgren once said, it is not a crime to change your mind. When the circumstances change, it is only right that our policies should change to reflect such an occurrence. Quite plainly this was a case of the circumstances changing very quickly indeed. On Thursday Sir Keir was talking to some God botherers, on Friday he was soft-soaping those from the dark side. Nothing to see here, move on.’

The transparency of Starmer’s approach does not really register with the ordinary voter, only with the sort of political obsessives who read magazines such as this one – which is why most likely this country will buck the European (if not world) trend and regress to voting in a left-liberal government. I mentioned last week that Starmer was storing up trouble for his party’s electoral chances through his (principled, so far) defence of Israel, and I think that this is correct. But almost certainly not enough trouble to divert Labour from its general trajectory, which has been occasioned by an epic weariness on the part of the electorate towards the Conservative party.

Starmer’s approach is, of course, very similar to the one taken by Tony Blair in the lead-up to the 1997 general election. I had lunch with Blair at some point in 1995/96, the venue being one of those effete ponced-up modern Italian eateries in Islington with which he will be eternally associated: no bread sticks, just olive oil with balsamic vinegar and too much fish on the menu. It may even have been the famous Granita, but I can’t be sure. Over that lunch Blair insisted that absolutely no policy should be exempt from scrutiny: no socialist sacred cows, no kowtowing to union demands, and a recognition that Margaret Thatcher had been a highly capable leader who had secured an awful lot of working-class votes. Labour’s mind should be open on every issue, including privatisation and reducing taxes. Probably half-cut by then, I asked a little facetiously if this included an openness towards, say, bringing back the death penalty – but Blair just smiled and said: ‘On every-thing.’ It seemed that he had taken to heart the advice supposedly given by the then White House director of communications, the very Blair-ish George Stephanopoulos. The best way to win an election? ‘You can never be too right-wing’ was the advice – a recommendation open to misinterpretation but by which he meant not that one should avoid a drift to the right, but that any and every appropriation of right-wing policies was to be commended.

The only problem with this is that the demographics have changed markedly since the mid-1990s, but Starmer is surely aware of this. He presumably also knows that praising Margaret Thatcher (and then doubling down on that praise a day or so later) may tug a little at the heartstrings of a few thousand Conservative voters, but it will go down like a cup of lightly chilled puke with those Red Wall voters who, the polls suggest, were hitherto disposed to return to the Labour fold after the mass desertion in 2019.

‘I love showing restraint in other people’s pay.’

However much Margaret Thatcher was grimly admired for her strength and foreign policy triumphs, and especially her patriotism, her economic legacy in the north of England, and particularly the north-east, has not made her one of the more popular post-war prime ministers. Up here we are still recovering from the recessions and the closing down of our major industries in the early to mid-1980s. While other countries, notably Germany, diversified and modernised, the north was left with very high unemployment which morphed, over the years, into a low-income economy based around cold-calling and minions running around vast warehouses putting packages onto forklift trucks.

For Starmer to single out Thatcher’s apparent desire to bring an end to British manufacturing suggests to me that he is no more interested in the votes of those dispossessed millions north of the Trent than Rishi Sunak – so they will remain dispossessed just as they remain effectively disenfranchised. I do think that both of our major parties are missing the chance to make a killing with those voters, who are not a terribly difficult section of the electorate to entice. An unequivocal approach to immigration, for example, would attract many more voters up here than were entranced by HS2. James Cleverly has begun saying the right things, but the problem, of course, is that his party has been saying the right things since 2015 and nobody believes them any more.