Fergus Finlay: Befuddled by Brexit, British Labour has to regroup to fight Johnson

Keir Starmer must marshal his party into a proper opposition to tackle the damage the Conservatives have done to his country
Fergus Finlay: Befuddled by Brexit, British Labour has to regroup to fight Johnson

The chaos wrought by Boris Johnson and his Tory government is due in part to the quality of its opposition. Keir Starmer’s challenge now is to turn the British Labour Party into a coherent force to undo the damage. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA

I feel I have to start off this week by thanking James O’Brien and Peter Stefanovic. They both did me a huge favour last week — and gave me a challenge too.

Lest I’m accused of talking riddles, I should explain that James O’Brien and Peter Stefanovic are two influential people in the UK. One’s a broadcaster, the other a lawyer. I’ve followed O’Brien on social media for a while now and I’ve just started following Stefanovic.

They’re entertaining and interesting, direct and tough-minded. And they are both what you might call leaders of opinion in the school of thought that believes Boris Johnson is a clown and a charlatan (among other things).

They both did me the accidental favour of retweeting the column I wrote last week here. As a result, my world went kind of mad. I’m always very grateful for the reaction the column gets when I put it up on social media, and for the conversation it starts. But I’ve never seen anything like this.

As I write this, that column has got 836,000 Twitter impressions and 66,000 engagements. Nearly 34,000 people logged on to the Irish Examiner page online — the vast majority from the UK — to read more. And that was just Twitter. Facebook doesn’t help you to measure activity, but I know a lot of conversations started there too.

Johnson's success puzzles many in the UK

It was all very gratifying, but a wee bit puzzling too. My piece effectively posed questions  — how does Boris do it? How has he survived and thrived despite everything? I have a much stronger sense now, at least if a lot of the nearly 700 direct replies I got are anything to go by, that the question is one that is really bothering a lot of people in the UK.

Not everyone, of course. If you follow some of the threads it seems to have encouraged over there, you’ll find a lot of people who believe Boris is some sort of divinity — and who hate with a passion anyone who criticises him. There are some at least who seem to have joined a cult of worship, in which Boris is the High Priest.

There’s never been a British prime minister — at least not since Churchill at his very height — who achieved that kind of status. On the other hand, there’s never been a prime minister since Thatcher who divided their country quite so much as Boris has.

Brexit is now Britain's 'national question' 

Although a lot of the replies I got to my question “How does Boris do it?” were of the “damned if I know” variety, quite a few people had ideas, and more than a few challenged me to come up with answers myself. Since most of the replies I got seemed to be from real people as opposed to the types who live under stones and crawl out on Twitter, I thought I should try to offer some answers.

Brexit is still at the heart of it, of course. You know how in Ireland we often talk about the “national question” as a shorthand for everything to do with Northern Ireland, partition, peace, reconciliation, eventual Irish unity, and all that?

Well, from everything I’ve read, Brexit has become the national question in the UK. It’s palpable that the immediate consequences of Brexit are intensely damaging to the UK, and it’s entirely questionable that they will ever recover fully. But it’s still possible for Boris to blame everything that goes wrong on “our friends in Europe”, and it seems to be still possible to pretend that today’s hardship and the hardship heating Britain’s way are just part of the “transition to greatness”.

Britain is being let down by its media 

A lot of my respondents have also offered their view that the media in Britain has bought into the cult of Boris to a considerable extent. I’m not qualified to judge that definitively, but as an avid watcher of news media on television, and as a close reader of some UK newspapers, there’s clearly a point to that.

It’s certainly the case, from my observation, that if you want to see a real daily “holding to account” of Government, you won’t find it on the BBC. Strictly Come Dancing is great, of course, but if you’re looking for a critical approach to politics, you have to tune in to Channel 4, which sadly has a fraction of the audience for its news programming that the BBC has. In fact, according to research carried out by the media regulator in the UK, Channel 4 lags behind Facebook as a source of news.

Urgent need for proper opposition

But the bottom line in my head is different. I’ve always believed — and I’ve seen it up close and personal — that when a government is getting away with it, the main reason is the quality of the opposition.

Of course, if I lived in the UK I’d have been a lifelong member of the British Labour Party. But I’m guessing I’d be a pretty disillusioned one by now.

If the British Labour Party is campaigning about anything that matters right now, it’s not obvious to me. I know I’m on the outside looking in, and I have to rely on the media coverage it gets and that it seeks to generate. But unless there’s something I’m missing, the party seems more dead than alive right now.

Here are two recent headlines from the Party’s official website, as just one example:

“Labour calls on government to mandate 1.5C-aligned transition plans for financial institutions and major companies to turbocharge the global shift to net zero and make the UK the green finance capital of the world ahead of COP26” and “Angela Rayner comments on Ministers being required by Cabinet Office policy to set instant messaging chats to delete automatically”.

Hobbled by complacency 

I didn’t read either of the stories to which those headlines referred, essentially because I was so put off by the gobbledegook in the headlines themselves. And they’re pretty typical examples. Everywhere you look — its social media pages are just as bad as the website — the main opposition party looks complacent, self-satisfied, and smug.

In a country that is seeing nearly 1,000 deaths a day from Covid, whose entire health system has been struggling to cope for months, the party appears to have nothing coherent to say. There’s an argument going on in Britain right now about whether compulsory mask-wearing and Covid passports in crowded places should be re-introduced in the face of catastrophically rising numbers, and Labour can’t, right now, make up its mind about whether to essentially back the government or try to force change.

Perhaps it is the case, as some of my correspondents have said, that Brexit fatally undermined the confidence of the British Labour Party. If that’s so, they need to get over themselves. The Labour Party I remember always had the courage of its convictions and that’s a primary responsibility in politics.

Without that — and the passion that goes with it — they’re going to stand by idly by and watch a clown get re-elected again. It’s time, in short, for Keir Starmer to dig deep. One of his predecessors (in a different context) said he would “fight and fight and fight again” for the things he believed in. Britain needs to see him lead a fight.

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