Labour's left uneasy with leader's view on tearing down Colston statue

Keir Starmer condemns ‘criminal damage’ but says we can’t have ‘a slaver on a statue’

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, sparked unease among some on the left of his party on Monday, as he condemned as “completely wrong” the tearing down of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol at the weekend.

Starmer and the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said they shared the sense of injustice that had brought more than 100,000 people out on to the streets of the UK to join Black Lives Matter protests in recent days.

But in a clear shift in tone from Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to civil disobedience, Starmer told LBC radio: “It shouldn’t have been done in that way, [it was] completely wrong to pull a statue down like that.”

He added: “Stepping back, that statue should have been taken down a long, long time ago. We can’t, in 21st century Britain, have a slaver on a statue. A statue is there to honour people.

“That statue should have been brought down properly, with consent, and put, I would say, in a museum.”

Some leftwing Labour MPs privately expressed concern at what they felt was an unfortunate departure from Corbyn’s approach.

Speaking in the House of Commons later in the day, Thomas-Symonds used a similar phrase to Starmer, saying, “I do not condone an act of criminal damage to remove it, but I will not miss a public statue of a slave trader.”

Thomas-Symonds was responding to the home secretary, Priti Patel, who insisted: “Black Lives Matter, but police brutality in the US is no excuse for the violence against our brave police officers at home. So to the quiet, law-abiding majority, who are appalled by this violence, and have continued to act within the rules, I hear you.”

The shadow home secretary made a series of demands of the government, including calling for Patel to act on the recommendations of the Wendy Williams review into the Windrush scandal, and the 2017 David Lammy review into the experience of BAME people in the justice system.

But his measured tone contrasted with passionate interventions from prominent leftwing Labour MPs, including Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Nadia Whittome and Zarah Sultana.

Whittome had earlier tweeted, “I celebrate these acts of resistance. We need a movement that will tear down systemic racism and the slave owner statues that symbolise it. And we need to win a government that will always be on the side of this movement.”

Thomas-Symonds’ predecessor, Diane Abbott, also sounded a note of caution about Labour’s approach. “Nobody supports criminal damage. But we need to be careful not to sound as if we care more about the vandalism than the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade,” she said.

“The truth is that the community in Bristol tried for years to even get a plaque on the statue that mentioned slavery. They were blocked. The statue should have been taken down years ago. There is an excellent museum of slavery in Liverpool. That would be the right place for this statue, if it is eventually fished out of the water.”

One Tory, representing a former “red wall” Labour seat said Starmer had a significant amount of work to do to eradicate the perception that Labour was soft on law and order. They said: “If there’s one thing my voters can’t stand, it’s rioting. To them, it’s an anathema to the democratic process.” They said their inbox was full of messages, including from ex-Labour voters, on the protests over the weekend. “People don’t want soft-touch policing.”

Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, which turned Tory after 100 years in 2017, said: “99% of my feedback from constituents is horror at the lack of law and order and at the lack of care for others by those breaking lockdown. Many have said they were sympathetic but not now, following the violence.”

A group of seven “blue collar” Tory MPs also posed for pictures as they offered help to clean up the statue in Parliament Square of Winston Churchill, which had “is a racist” spray painted on it during the protest.

One Labour MP in a red wall seat said: “These are the sorts of things that do test the fragility of the voter coalition that used to be very successful for us. Where we see divisions on issues like Brexit, law and order, immigration and so on – these do become our test points. I thought Keir navigated that very well.”


Heather Stewart and Kate Proctor

The GuardianTramp

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