It was a tale of three tributes.
The first was rushed out at 12.19pm on Friday by the leader of the Labour Party.
‘Prince Philip dedicated his life to our country – from a distinguished career in the Royal Navy during the Second World War to his decades of service as the Duke of Edinburgh. However, he will be remembered most of all for his extraordinary commitment and devotion to the Queen,’ announced Sir Keir Starmer.
But the message was too rushed.
The first was rushed out at 12.19pm on Friday by Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party…but was too rushed
In his keenness to get ahead of Boris in issuing his condolences, he had inadvertently broken protocol over the order statements about the death of members of the Royal Family are issued.
‘It was the Palace’s wish the Prime Minister spoke first,’ said a Government insider. Labour’s response was that they weren’t informed of the rule. ‘We didn’t realise there was one,’ an insider said. ‘No 10 never told us.’
Next, 20 minutes later, was the previous Labour leader.
Though his tribute had a slightly different emphasis.
‘The people of Bolivia have chosen a path of social change which puts people and planet before private. Join me to show our solidarity,’ Jeremy Corbyn tweeted.
Finally, at 1.49pm, came Labour’s most successful leader.
Who nailed it.
‘Our whole nation will be united in sadness at the passing of Prince Philip,’ said Tony Blair. ‘He will naturally be most recognised as a remarkable and steadfast support to the Queen over so many years. However, he should also be remembered and celebrated in his own right as a man of foresight, determination and courage.’
Party political campaigning has rightly been suspended. But in the days before Prince Philip’s death, it had been dominated by one issue. Where was Labour? Where was Keir Starmer a year after winning the leadership? Why wasn’t he cutting through?
Jeremy Corbyn tweeted about the people of Bolivia in his message which had a slightly different emphasis
Today, people have their answer. Look around, at a nation that is taking a moment to pause and reflect. Labour is nowhere.
Actually, that’s not quite true.
Labour is here with us. Standing in the corner, a little awkwardly, not quite sure what to do with itself. As Britain mourns, Her Majesty’s official Opposition are – to coin a famous phrase – present, but not involved.
No one has made any major blunders. Some Labour staffers were caught making inappropriate comments on their WhatsApp group. Starmer’s words attracted predictable ire from some of the Corbynite social-media warriors. But when a national moment such as this occurs, Labour feels somehow apart.
When I was writing this piece, I came across a clip of one of last year’s leadership debates.
The three candidates were asked if there was a referendum on the Monarchy, would they vote to keep it or scrap it. Lisa Nandy said she’d vote for abolition. Sir Keir laughingly said he’d opt to ‘downsize’. Rebecca Long Bailey said there were more important things to worry about, but she’d vote to retain.
Lastly came a tribute from Labour’s most successful leader…who nailed it
Which is exactly what is communicated to the British people at times like this.
That Labour grudgingly views the Royal Family as a dead weight to be shouldered. That the party has calculated that following its republican instincts would get in the way of the really important stuff, like how to cut class sizes or build more cycle lanes.
And Long Bailey is right. Taken in isolation, the debate about the Monarchy is irrelevant. But the problem for her and Labour is no issue sits in isolation. It all forms part of a wider mosaic. And when people step back and look at the whole, it all too often spells out the words ‘LABOUR DOESN’T LIKE BRITAIN VERY MUCH’.
When I was in Sedgefield on Election night, I saw Labour MP Phil Wilson as he arrived at the count. He was almost white with fury. ‘People here are genuinely patriotic. Lots of them in this part of the world have links to the military. And when they see what Jeremy Corbyn says about the IRA or national security, they resent it,’ he said.
As Labour casts around for reasons why it is embarking on its second decade in the political wilderness, it still cannot – or will not – join the dots.
If Labour isn’t seen to respect the Crown, many people will form the view it doesn’t respect the country. If it isn’t seen to respect the country, they will form the view it doesn’t respect its people. And if Labour isn’t seen to respect the people, it can’t expect the people to respect Labour.
There is no great mystery about what Starmer needs to do get back to power.
Labour’s current leader shouldn’t be tripping over protocol as he overcompensates in his rush to deliver his messages of condolence and the former leader shouldn’t need to be told not to prioritise a message of solidarity to Bolivia
Be strong on defence. Be tough on law and order. Be firm on immigration. Embrace the flag. And maybe – God forbid – show some affection for the Royal Family, rather than treat them as an embarrassing anachronism. Yet many on the Left still try to dismiss this analysis as too simplistic.
Which is actually just another self-serving attempt to deflect unpalatable truths.
Blair’s strategy was so blunt he literally stuck the word ‘New’ in front of his party’s name. Cameron started hugging hoodies and virtually shouted: ‘We don’t hate poor people any more.’ Boris drove a forklift through a wall.
There are others in Starmer’s party who look at this whole agenda and sense a trap. They fear, at best, they will be fighting on terrain suited to Boris’s unique brand of guerrilla warfare. Or at worst that they will find themselves in the midst of a vicious culture war that will see them outgunned and outmanned.
But if Labour cannot fight and win on this terrain, it won’t be able to fight and win anywhere. There is no route to government – and certainly no route back into the ‘Red Wall’ heartlands – that involves ceding fundamentals such as patriotism, respect for the Union Jack and respect for the Royal Family to its opponents.
And then there is one other argument.
Which is Labour should reject this agenda on a point of principle. That there is something tasteless and jingoistic about wrapping yourself in the flag, and expressing a love for Crown and country.
Indeed, that there is something rather tasteless and over the top about our current expression of national sympathy.
Which is fine.
In which case Labour will lose again, and it will deserve to lose.
If those Left-wing keyboard warriors who pontificate daily about ‘fighting fascism’ cannot embrace a moment of collective remembrance for a man who risked all in a life-or-death struggle with actual Nazis, then we can forget them.
They can return to their endless debates over which green tax credits or level of Art Pupil Premium will finally lead them back to power. And the rest of us can all get on with our lives.
Really, this stuff shouldn’t be hard.
Labour’s current leader shouldn’t be tripping over protocol as he overcompensates in his rush to deliver his messages of condolence. Labour’s former leader shouldn’t need to be told not to prioritise a message of solidarity to Bolivia, over a message of sympathy to the Queen. These should merely represent the basics for any potential party of Government.
But at the moment they’re not.
So we will have our moment of national reflection. And then we will move on. But Labour and Keir Starmer will still be there, standing in the corner. A little awkward, a little apart. And wondering what it is they have to do to join us.