If Labour is to win the next general election it will need to unify two diametrically opposed groups. The first are younger more liberal voters — those who were attracted to the party by Corbyn, and who are energised by identity politics. The second are those who switched to the Tories over Brexit and the lack of patriotism they saw in Jeremy Corbyn.
Strategists who say only domestic politics matter in modern elections are wrong. International issues can shape or reaffirm impressions of leaders. In December, Labour MPs and activists were told on the doorstep how Corbyn had ‘betrayed’ his country when he refused to blame Russia for the poisoning of the former spy, Sergei Skripal.
Though this event had occurred the previous year, it had for many cemented the view that Labour was no longer proud to support Britain. Yet for another group of Labour voters, the Tories in their support of Brexit appeared to be advancing xenophobia and nationalism. So to one group the Conservatives were ‘too nationalistic’, whilst for another Corbyn was dangerously ‘unpatriotic’.
How then can Keir Starmer bring these two groups together? The answer is: Hong Kong.
This week, clashes broke out between police and protestors as Beijing passed security legislation which now makes it a crime to express anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong and that allows China to build its own security institutions there for the first time.
This egregious subversion of the ‘one country two systems’ arrangement was met with relative silence by the British Government. Rather than respecting our historic ties to Hong Kong and its democracy, Boris Johnson took no meaningful action. Consequently, Keir Starmer has been provided with the perfect opportunity.
What would the Labour Party publicly backing Hong Kong protestors actually represent?
First, it would mean standing up for democracy, freedom, and the power of protest — perfect for the Instagram posts and tweets of young people. Nobody can disagree with #FreeHongKong. The cause would take a similar form to the ‘Justice for George’ posts spreading across social media at the moment and would energise many younger voters in equal measure. At the same time, it confirms Starmer isn’t Corbyn. He stands up for his country. He supports British interests on the international stage. Relatively quickly, Starmer is bringing these two groups of voters together.
Voting Conservative however represented for former Labour voters something more important than leaving the EU. Many were inspired by the promises of investment and jobs for their towns. Areas which have since the 1980s seen their manufacturing and industrial sector move to China and have thus been left with a story of economic and social decline. By backing Hong Kong Starmer is opposing China. In opposing China he would be able to offer an optimistic case for the future. Coronavirus has proven to Europe it cannot rely on Chinese supply chains alone — hence the urgent need to produce more goods and more materials that are UK-based. Labour can use this opportunity to campaign for taking these jobs back from China. It can also promise investment in more high-skilled areas of the economy that would allow Britain to rise as a technological global power and provide employment opportunities for both groups of voters.
As an opposition party Labour does not run the risks involved in adopting such an anti-China policy. It would not need to confront the quandaries around Huawei or the purchase of British Steel by a Chinese company. As opposed to the necessary pragmatism of government, through clarity and a consistency of message, the Party can apply pressure on the Tories and hope to expose growing divisions amongst backbench Conservatives who wish for a stronger policy against China.
Keir Starmer has throughout this crisis been clever in choosing his moments to criticise the government. He would be unwise to miss this one. Throughout the world countries are moving away from China. In America the election is quickly boiling down to which candidate is the most opposed to the Chinese state. There is no reason this will not become a feature of British political life.
Hong Kong allows Starmer to make the opening gambit in the long debate around Britain’s future relationship with China. Crucially, it also begins to energise Corbynites whilst winning support from the former red wall.