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Starmer wraps himself in the flag to woo back patriotic British voters

The Union Jack is back in vogue at the Labour Party, while England’s cross of St George is also in from the cold

When Labour leader Keir Starmer made his big entrance into a little parish hall in West Sussex on Monday to effectively launch his election campaign he came through a side door that nobody else had used.

A huge Union Jack flag had been strategically placed beside the door, which opened directly out to the car park. This ensured that when Starmer burst into the room he was photographed by the press pack striding purposely forth with Britain’s national flag fluttering in the wind in his wake.

It was a clever piece of political theatre. The only other Union Jack in Lancing’s main parish hall could be seen on the screen behind the Labour leader as he gave his big speech onstage. Again this ensured Starmer’s patriotism was a conspicuous background theme to the morning’s events.

Apart from the entrance door and the stage where he gave his speech Starmer appeared to have been photographed at only one other location in the building – a little ante room off the main hall that housed the tea counter over which Lancing’s parish committee handed out refreshments.

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The Labour leader was pictured standing in front of the tea counter enjoying a brew with Tom Rutland, his party’s local candidate in the July 4th national poll. Behind them the entire wall at the back of the counter was covered in Union Jack bunting. Everywhere Starmer went the blue, white and red of the flag were there too.

Starmer’s handlers had ensured that he laid it on thick with the patriotic symbolism at his launch on Monday.

Since Brexit in particular Britain’s national flag had become more closely associated with Labour’s political rivals. The Tories wave it every chance they get. In a strategy first devised in 2021 Starmer has sought to reclaim the flag as part of a deliberate attempt to woo back the sort of voters – many of them working class – who had deserted the party to vote for the Tories under Boris Johnson.

Curiously the flag strategy was devised by a man from Macroom in Co Cork – Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director and one of Starmer’s top aides.

The Union Jack flag is clearly not a controversial symbol in Britain. But it is rarely embraced with much enthusiasm by Britons who are members of different ethnic groups. I have never once seen one in the centre of Brixton, the capital of London’s black community, that is barely 10 minutes from my house. The union flag isn’t a common sight in most inner London boroughs.

But if you travel to one of the outer boroughs such as Bromley or Hillingdon you are more likely to see it fluttering outside a hall or, occasionally, in someone’s garden. The union flag becomes more prominent beyond the M25 and into the small towns and villages of southeast England.

Before Starmer became leader in 2020 the Labour Party was more squeamish about the flag. Followers of former leader Jeremy Corbyn were not enthusiastic – they were more likely to wave the flag of Palestine. You would have to go back to 1997 and the Cool Britannia wave that coincided with Tony Blair’s first landslide win for the last time Labour showed such love for the union flag.

When Labour announced its six policy pledges to voters on May 16th, a promotional video released by the party on social media opened with an image of Starmer bursting from behind a Union Jack. The flag is all over Labour’s official shop merchandise. It is prominent on many of its MPs’ Twitter/X bio pages. Even Pat McFadden, a Celtic football-mad Glaswegian who is also one of the most powerful members of Labour’s shadow cabinet, has a large flag displayed on his account.

The red cross on a white background that is the flag of St George, the national symbol of England, is traditionally a bit more controversial due mainly to its popularity with a boorish section of the fans of England’s national football team. Yet on April 23rd, St George’s Day, masses of Labour parliamentarians were instructed by party headquarters to tweet pictures of the flag – another clear symbol to the sort of “white van man” voters the party is trying to tempt back.

Starmer even wrote an article on the St George’s flag – published in the Daily Telegraph of all places, the Tory party’s daily bible. He pitched Labour as being now “the true party of patriotism”.

“I have no time for those who flinch at our flag,” wrote Starmer. “The cross of St George belongs to all who love this country.”

When Starmer repeats relentlessly that he now leads a “changed Labour Party” he isn’t kidding.