Kier Starmer is not the first Labour leader to distance himself from protest

When Sir Keir Starmer confirmed Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t stand for Labour, he declared Labour had changed “from a party of protest to a party of public service”. No one present appeared to be alarmed at the outrageous volte face that had taken place.

Starmer’s promotional video for the 2020 Labour leadership campaign facilitated his victory. It begins with a former miner remembering how “in the struggles of the 1980s, the labour movement stood together in solidarity against Thatcher”.

The video boasted Starmer’s record of supporting protesters. The causes were listed like a CV—the NUM miners’ union, Dover dockers, Wapping printers, M3 roads protesters, Greenpeace and Poll Tax protesters “who got free advice” from Starmer. And then there was the McLibel case and the stalwart protester against US bases in Britain, Lindis Percy. 

I remember Starmer in those years as a fellow socialist lawyer in the Haldane Society. He was a go-to human rights barrister for solicitors dealing with cases concerning protesters whose rights had been curtailed. He wrote numerous books and provided training on the application of human rights law to protestors.

For many years he worked to stop the police kettling of protesters, in a challenge that went through several appeals. His successful High Court case for Lindis Percy remains an important precedent on protest rights. He argued that “flag denigration” was “a form of protest activity renowned the world over” and “afforded protection in other jurisdictions”. It “was essential to protect the rights of peaceful protest in a free and democratic society”. 

Starmer’s asserting that “the Labour Party has changed” from a party of protest ignores his own metamorphosis away from being a respected and radical human rights lawyer. Today, he looks down upon those who collectively organise to change society, favouring instead high office. Dirtying his hands by attending picket lines, carrying placards or organising among communities is not for him. No longer will he work with others to persuade the powerful or fight for a cause.

But Starmer isn’t just seeking to distance himself from his past. In October on Nick Ferarri’s LBC talk-in, he even called for tougher sentences for environmental protesters who block roads. The policy he was promoting was further to the right even of Suella Braverman, the worst home secretary in 200 years. 

When Starmer’s volte face over protest started is a matter of debate. The warning signs were certainly present in 2020, when he dismissed the Black Lives Matter protests as ‘a moment’ not a movement, before later apologising. Previously, as Director of Public Prosecutions, Starmer developed a close relationship with the US state as evidenced in Terry Eagleton’s illuminating biography, The Starmer Project. 

Starmer is not the first Labour leader to distance himself from protest. Tony Blair referred to 2001 May Day protesters as inflicting “terror” and ignored the enormous Stop the War protest two years later. Prior to the Poll Tax protest on 31 March 1990, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party announced they did not support it. Their approach made no difference to 200,000 attending Trafalgar Square. A riot ensued—following a police horse charge into people sitting in Whitehall—which led to the end of the poll tax and Margaret Thatcher.  

Today, unlike Starmer, the rest of society cannot afford the luxury of not protesting. Extortionate prices, rising bills and mortgages, alongside crumbling services and conditions, leave people no option but to agitate. To demand unionisation, the exploited workers at Amazon have to protest. Others have it sharper still. Asylum seekers in Liverpool or Rotherham confronted by the far right cannot rely on Starmer’s “public service” to confront their immediate need to protect themselves. 

In contrast to the leader Starmer has become, there is a nobler tradition than appealing to jingoism with union jacks, one that he used to be part of, that has brought vital social change in society supported by the struggle of people from below.

The vote, women’s suffrage and trade unions, all came about by creative, brave protest. The Aldermaston march for nuclear disarmament, anti-apartheid protests or the Grunwick led by Asian women remain a treasured part of labour history.

What does the journey of Sir Keir Starmer, the changingman, teach us? If anything, it is that for socialists it is better to be a party of protest fighting for a better society, than to seek public office for one’s self.

Matt Foot is a criminal defence lawyer and co-author of Charged—How the Police Try to Suppress Protest (Verso, 2022). Available from Bookmarks—the socialist bookshop 

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