Labour leader Keir Starmer’s campaign of “attack ads” – including a launch one suggesting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak prefers to leave paedophiles out on the streets, rather than put them behind bars – is not simply an error of judgment. Neither is it just about “gutter politics”, as most observers seem to agree.
The ads expose something far more sinister: the establishment’s near-complete capture of British politics.
As Labour races towards local elections next month, Starmer has made it his signature policy to challenge the Tories on their home turf. He vows to out-tough them on law and order. A related Labour campaign is targeting benefit fraud – another Tory favourite.
The crime ads have predictably sucked all the oxygen from the room for Labour’s follow-ups, also personalised against Sunak, on tax and the cost of living.
Perhaps not coincidentally, law and order is the one area where an increase in spending is certain to divert public funds away from the neediest.
Taxpayers’ money is directed instead into bolstering an infrastructure of control and repression – the police, prosecutors, courts – that is ultimately there to enforce the status quo. Just ask those protesting the environmental crisis, people Starmer demands should be given even heavier sentences.
The Labour leader has chosen the Tories’ preferred campaign issue precisely because he is not willing to go into meaningful battle over the most critical issues, the ones hollowing out British society – beyond trivialising them as evidence of Sunak’s personal failings.
And that is because each of those issues reflects on the same structural problem. That Britain’s political and economic system is rigged to justify permanent “austerity”, even as bottomless public funds can be found for wars and government subsidies endlessly enrich a tiny wealthy elite.
The individual criminals and “benefit cheats” Starmer wants to focus attention on distract from the much larger, public villainy committed by the elite Sunak represents, from arms makers to hedge funds and oil companies. They have been ransacking the common good under cover of “belt-tightening”.
Were the Labour leader serious about ending the supposed rise of “thugs, gangs and monsters”, criminals that apparently now “mock our justice system”, as he recently wrote for the Daily Mail, he would surely be able to connect the dots.
If there is a surge in small-time criminality, it is only because of a parallel, and far more damaging, surge in its public counterparts: political corruption and corporate profiteering.
Crooks in our boardrooms are leading by example, creating a climate that assumes only losers abide by rules.
But corporate leeching from the public coffers also leaves ordinary people much poorer. And poverty, as research has repeatedly shown, breeds desperation, hopelessness and a sense of grievance – all incubators for crime.
According to a recent survey, more than three-quarters of the British public understand the link between rising poverty and an increase in crime. Two-thirds of them prefer to address the financial hardship that drives most non-violent crime than have offenders locked up.
A large majority – unlike Starmer, apparently – recognise that “poverty, mental health issues, and problems with drugs and alcohol” are at the root of most crimes.
Chasing the ‘Red Wall’ vote
Predictably, the establishment media’s narrative about Starmer’s “attack ads”, while critical, is designed to portray him in a more flattering light – certainly not as an establishment stooge.
The accusation that Sunak refuses to jail paedophiles is cited as proof that Starmer is frantically chasing after the so-called “Red Wall” vote, lost under former leader Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 “Brexit election”.
To win power, so the argument goes, Labour needs to claw back these socially conservative voters with dog-whistle tactics, on the assumption that leftwingers will turn out for the party anyway, just to avoid a fifth Tory government.
The potential skeletons in Starmer’s closet as a former director of public prosecutions would suggest a bare-knuckle fight over law and order may not end well for Labour
On this reading, Starmer wants to be radical – and likely will be, after winning a general election – but has to play safe for the time being.
But there are lots of less self-sabotaging ways for Labour to attack a 13-year-old Conservative administration in disarray than by claiming its leader has sympathy for predators of children.
The potential skeletons in Starmer’s closet as a former director of public prosecutions would suggest a bare-knuckle fight over law and order may not end well for Labour.
The same logic that blames Sunak for failing to prosecute paedophiles would surely hold Starmer responsible for failing, as head of the Crown Prosecution Service, to jail the prolific child sex offender Jimmy Savile. Just such an allegation was roundly condemned when Boris Johnson, a predecessor of Sunak’s, levelled it against Starmer last year.
There are other reasons Starmer’s approach looks foolhardy. At a time when it is widely – and wrongly – assumed that Asian men are behind most “grooming gangs”, sticking Sunak’s face next to accusations of child sex abuse is not a good look.
Then there is the question of why Labour would choose to personalise politics as a stark choice between Starmer and Sunak. Surveys demonstrate how unwise that is likely to be.
Sunak, who inherited the leadership of the Conservative administration only six months ago, is already polling neck and neck with Starmer.
The Labour leader is still seen not only as an unknown quantity, three years after taking over the party, but as a soulless technocrat who lacks a vision of where Britain must head next. The ads only confirm that perception.
Sunak’s team, meanwhile, have slowly rebranded the prime minister, obscuring his earlier image as a pampered public schoolboy who doesn’t know how to use a contactless credit card.
Now he is being painted as a measured, capable, safe pair of hands steering the economy out of stormy waters.
In the gutter
Despite the outcry over the “attack ads”, even from within Starmer’s own shadow cabinet and sympathetic media such as the Guardian, the Labour leader has doubled down. He blames critics for being “squeamish” and makes “absolutely zero apologies for being blunt”.
The real concern should be not that Starmer has abandoned the moral high ground to fight the Tories in the gutter, but that the bigger picture is being erased.
And it does this in exactly the same way as the latest furore that Sunak failed to declare his wife’s interests in a childcare firm as he defended the weighting of financial incentives in favour of such firms over individual childminders.
As usual, the media’s interest is limited to questions of whether Sunak was sufficiently transparent about a conflict of interest, and whether this is an example of sleaze.
But the problem runs far deeper than any individual action or any individual politician.
Britain is mired in permanent sleaze, whoever runs it – precisely the story Starmer wishes to avoid highlighting because he has no plans to take on the establishment and overhaul the corrupt system it has engineered.
‘Causes’ of crime
The widespread assumption is that an old guard – former advisers to Tony Blair like Peter Mandelson – have simply steered Starmer back to a 1990s, New Labour agenda after the party’s rightwing establishment was given the shock of its life in 2015.
That was when ordinary members elected Corbyn, on Labour’s left, to be leader. At the general election two years later, he came within a hair’s breadth of securing a parliamentary majority, despite a pitiless vilification campaign by many of his own MPs and the media. Corbyn won the biggest rise in Labour’s share of the vote since 1945.
A leaked internal Labour report showed that the right-wing party bureaucracy furiously plotted to be rid of Corbyn, even sabotaging efforts to win the 2017 election.
A subsequent investigation into those leaks set up by Starmer himself has been largely suppressed because its conclusions were so unfavourable.
Martin Forde KC confirmed that Labour’s head office weaponised antisemitism against Corbyn, in collusion with the media, and created a “hierarchy of racism” that encouraged the mistreatment of Black and Asian members. BAME communities disproportionately backed Corbyn, in large part because of his long-standing anti-racist politics.
Further evidence emerged last week of how relentlessly the media had smeared Corbyn when the BBC had to issue yet another correction over its reporting of a supposed “antisemitism problem” in Labour under his leadership. Its flagship Newsnight programme falsely claimed last month that Corbyn refused to apologise for antisemitism, when he had repeatedly done so.
This week Starmer suspended another veteran leftwinger from the parliamentary Labour Party when he removed the whip from Corbyn ally Diane Abbott over a letter she wrote to the Observer newspaper, in which she stands accused of antisemitism for raising the issue of a hierarchy of racism.
Yet in daring to take on the Tories over law and order, Starmer is not simply erasing the Corbyn era and winding the clock back 30 years to the supposed halcyon days of Blairite rule.
In the mid-1990s, when Blair attacked the Conservative government, he famously promised to be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. That slogan at least paid lip service to the fact that social and economic factors play a part in crime – a large part.
In his 1994 address to the party conference, Blair promised “long-term measures to break that culture of drugs, family instability, high unemployment and urban squalor in which some of the worst criminals are brought up”. He urged: “Social responsibility for all.”
That was during a boom time for capitalism, as “deregulation” lifted all restraints from the City and hedge fund managers. Capitalism’s stewards had a new-found freedom to inflate the economy – mostly with empty money. It all turned sour in 2008, shortly after Blair’s exit, when the giant Ponzi scheme came crashing down.
No lessons were learnt. Bailed out by taxpayers, the rich continued to prosper, while the public has been paying the price with relentless austerity policies.
Starmer’s role is not to question this. It is to neuter the Labour Party ideologically, tearing out the last vestiges of its withered socialist roots. It is to join the Conservatives in echoing Margaret Thatcher’s favourite refrain: “There is no alternative.”
British politics lurching rightwards
Whereas booming capitalism allowed Blair to make a nod towards the causes of crime, collapsing capitalism allows Starmer no such leeway. He must claim his hands are tied and that the solution is yet more austerity – except on issues the Tories champion for increased spending.
On these issues – but not on strikes, nationalisation, public services, or the cost of living crisis – Starmer is ready to go head-to-head with the Tories, even if it means brawling in the gutter.
Starmer is the ideological dead-end of a trajectory set in motion by Blair’s Third Way, which claimed class politics was redundant
For anyone who assumes Britain’s exclusively two-party system offers a binary choice between a conservative party on one side and a progressive, socialist-leaning party on the other, Starmer is proof that they have been misled.
He is the ideological dead-end of a trajectory set in motion by Blair’s Third Way, which claimed class politics was redundant and that Labour could still achieve progressive change by allying with big business.
Now even that limited ambition for change is gone. Were Starmer to offer a real alternative to the Tories, it would necessarily require the redistribution of decades of wealth hoarded by a tiny elite. That is not the battlefield on which he will fight the next election.
As Starmer has made clear, he is preparing for combat on the political terrain set by the Conservatives themselves – a party that is more right-wing than ever, an out and proud “Nasty Party”.
British politics is lurching dramatically rightwards – and will continue to do so with the active connivance of the leader of the Labour Party.
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