Keir Starmer says Labour should not ‘shy away’ from being patriotic as he defends Brexit voters
The Labour leader said his party’s values were about improving Britain.
Labour should be “proud to be patriotic”, Sir Keir Starmer has declared.
The Labour leader told voters during a virtual call that his party's values were about making Britain “the best it can possibly be”, as he rejected claims the 2016 Brexit vote had been driven by racism.
Sir Keir was speaking during a virtual meeting with residents in Bury as part of a new tour aimed a winning back the support of voters who abandoned the party at the last general election.
During the call, one former Labour voter told Sir Keir, who took over from Jeremy Corbyn last month, that he had been made to feel racist because of his support for Brexit, monarchy and the union jack.
But the Labour leader argued that patriotism and his own party’s beliefs were “two sides of the same coin”.
Sir Keir said: “I’m really proud of my country and I wouldn’t be leader of the Labour party if I wasn’t patriotic.”
And he added: “What I desperately want for our country is for our country to get better. In the Labour party we should be proud of being patriotic.
“We’re all working, knocking on doors in the rain or shine, to try to put in place a team that can go into government to improve the country we live in because we love the country we live in.
“I don’t think we should shy away from that. That is a really good thing to be proud of, and want your country to be the best it possibly can be.”
Former Labour frontbencher Clive Lewis came under fire earlier this year after he said an “element of racism” lay behind the UK’s decision to quit the European Union.
Mr Lewis said that while he did not believe "every single person that voted for Brexit is a racist", there were "very unsavoury" drivers behind the vote to quit the bloc.
Then-shadow home secretary Diane Abbott meanwhile told a meeting in 2016 that some Brexit voters had wanted “less foreign-looking people on their streets”, and challenged the Government over a rise in hate crime in the aftermath of the vote to quit the bloc.
But Sir Keir said: “The vast majority of people who voted Leave [had] nothing to do with racism at all and I don’t think Brexit was really about that.”
The former Shadow Brexit Secretary, who was instrumental in pushing his party to back a second referendum on EU membership before the last election, added: “I was concerned about the spike in hate crime that happened at the same time, and that we do need to take very seriously. Although it may be a very, very small element, and I don’t think the EU is really to do with that at all.
“But there are racist comments and incidents that are said and done and there has been hate crime out there and we need to be very firm about tackling that.”
Speaking to the Bury Times on the same call, Sir Keir also addressed a brewing row over the participation of Ms Abbott and Labour MP Bell Rebeiro-Addy in a Zoom call that included former members expelled from the party amid its row over anti-semitism.
Both the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Labour Movement have demanded action from the Labour leader over the online event, which included one speaker who appeared to defend former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who quit the party following a lengthy extension triggered by his claim that Adolf Hitler had supported Zionism.
Sir Keir said: “What I’ve done since I’ve been leader of the Labour Party is to take the first opportunity to apologise for the way we’ve dealt with anti-Semitism in the party, to build links with the Jewish community, to begin to get to grips with the cases.
“Obviously, we’re looking at the circumstances of the meeting last night, but the most important thing is to build that relationship. And I know that’s going to be a difficult thing to do.”
The comments came as part of the Labour leader’s new ‘Call Keir' sessions, which will see him take questions from the public on the coronavirus crisis.
Sir Keir said he would hold virtual meetings in every region and nation of the country in an attempt to "hear directly" from the public about the impact of the pandemic.
Bury North dramatically switched from Labour to the Tories by just 105 votes at last year’s general election.
A sharp swing away from Labour also saw the party cede neighbouring Bury South to the Conservatives on the same night.
The party said dozens of the hour-long calls would be announced over the coming weeks, and it comes after the Labour leader held similar calls with key workers, small businesses and representatives of the BAME community.
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