Opinion

Why Labour leader Keir Starmer’s devolution speech was abysmally bad

21 Dec 2020 6 minutes Read
Keir Starmer’s YouTube speech on devolution

Ifan Morgan Jones

I must admit to being a little bit of a Keir Starmer fan. Or at least, after a decade of hair-brained populism his technocratic, well-briefed, clearly intelligent manner appeals to my inner left-of-centre dad.

But his much-hyped speech today on devolution and the future of the union was very, very bad. Abysmal even. Terrible in a kind of ‘did Nicola Sturgeon write the speech for him?’ kind of way.

In many ways, it summed up the wrong-headedness that has brought us to the cliff edge of the UK, in that it was such a ‘the view from London’ speech with no understanding of the political forces at work beyond Westminster.

The first thing to point out perhaps, since this is a Welsh news and current affairs site, was that in a 3,000-word speech Wales was only mentioned five times, and four of those were literally when listing the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

The fifth time was to point out that the first baby born under the NHS was named after Aneurin Bevan.

In fact, he seemingly deliberately left out Wales when he mentioned the “Labour council leaders, mayors and metro mayors have stood up for their communities against a centralised Westminster-knows best response.”

Whither Labour’s highest-ranking elected politician, First Minister Mark Drakeford, in this?

So despite being billed as a speech about devolution, it had nothing to say about any devolved part of the UK where Labour were in power (neither Manchester or Liverpool were mentioned by name either).

This speech was really about Scotland because that’s where Labour need to a) stop independence and b) claw back some political relevance to have a hope of forming the next UK Government.

And on the basis of this speech I think that Labour not only won’t achieve those two goals, but may well have taken a backwards step.

The first and most obvious flaw is that the speech didn’t in fact deliver anything of substance. If it was a Christmas present it would have been all shiny wrapping with nothing inside but an ‘I.O.U one devolution plan’.

“[The Conservatives] have no plan to counter Scottish separatism other than to defend the status quo,” Keir Starmer said.

He then reveal Labour’s big plan – an “UK-wide Constitutional Commission to consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level”.

Cue the rasping noise of the wind going out of a balloon. “It’ll start with listening to people in their local communities about what they want,” he said.

Shouldn’t this be the kind of thing Labour is continually doing anyway, not selling to the public as if it’s some kind of shiny new bauble on their electoral tree?

“It will put our nations and regions at its centre: our Metro Mayors, Mayors, local leaders and councillors.” Again note – no Welsh First Minister here?

The nadir of this was when he revealed with an enthusiastic flourish that former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was going to be an advisor to the Commission.

As if the man who oversaw Labour’s collapse in Scotland now suddenly had all the answers as to how to reverse that same decline.

It was deeply, painfully underwhelming stuff that will be absolutely nothing to put Labour in a better positing in next May’s Scottish Parliament elections, let alone curb a growing appetite for independence.

 

Othering

The bulk of the speech beyond that was just the kind of meaningless platitudes that could have been cribbed from any pro-Union speech over the last 20 years.

In fact, I got a distinct feeling that as well as advising the commission, Gordon Brown had written large chunks of the speech, so familiar did much of it sound.

“I don’t believe in putting up borders across any part of our United Kingdom, in dividing people, communities, and families who have stood together for so long,” Starmer opined.

“It’s not England, or Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland. I’ve had enough of hearing that. It’s England, and Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland, together.

“[Labour will] show that you don’t have to choose between a broken status quo and the uncertainty and divisiveness of separatism.”

This kind of stuff is almost a parody of the kind of waffle you would come up with if asked to write a speech on this topic.

Repetition can be a key tool in politics but if this sort of rhetoric hasn’t moved the dial away from independence so far, why on earth would it do so now?

Worse still, calling people mean sounding names like ‘separatists’ may be a good political tactic when you want to ‘other’ a small minority.

But this is 58% of the Scottish population that now support independence, and many of them the exact former Labour supporters they now need to win back.

Disillusionment

Least convincing of all was when Keir Starmer, straight after denouncing the ‘separatists’, claimed that he understood the frustrations that drove people towards independence.

“I hear what you’re saying. I understand why you feel as you do. And I’m not surprised,” he said gravely.

“For a decade there’s been a Conservative government in Westminster with priorities you don’t share.

“And there’s been a Labour opposition that keeps losing. When those are the alternatives, I can see why you’ve reached the conclusion you have.”

But this misses the point that the SNP were winning elections, and support for independence was on the rise, back when Labour themselves were in power.

Thinking that Scottish independence is all about UK Labour’s success and failures at a time when they’re electoral also-rans in Scotland is an extremely self-centred point of view.

And worst of all it’s indicative of the kind of attitude that treats Westminster as the centre of the political universe that has driven frustration and disillusionment in Scotland in the first place.

He finished the speech by compounding all his previous errors with the only definitive statement in the whole thing: that he would oppose a referendum on Scottish independence.

Not just oppose independence but a referendum on the question.

That is, after promising to tune in to Scotland’s national conversation, to immediately tell the majority of the country’s population that their opinion just doesn’t matter.

So much for making a start of winning them back. So much, indeed, for “listening to the British people”.

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