On 10 July, towards the end of a two day visit to Northern Ireland (NI), Labour leader Keir Starmer was asked, in an interview by BBC NI, what he would do in the event of a future border poll on a United Ireland.
At first he dodged the question by insisting that such a poll was not an imminent possibility and it would be up to the people of NI to decide. When pressed by the interviewer though, he said that he “believed in the United Kingdom” and would campaign for the union and against a united Ireland.
"I personally, as leader of the Labour Party, believe in the United Kingdom strongly”, he said, “and would want to make the case for a United Kingdom strongly".
It’s difficult to know what exactly Starmer was trying to do here. It’s not as if he picked the safe, uncontroversial option. That would have been to state his neutrality and that of any UK government in a border poll. He wasn’t reflecting the views of Labour Party members, or historic policy either.
Harold Wilson argued in 1971 that a Labour government should announce an intention to leave Northern Ireland in favour of reunification in 15 years and begin to work towards that. Labour's sister parties in Ireland are the SDLP in the north and Labour in the south, both of whom are for a united Ireland by consent. The Party adopted a manifesto policy for unity by consent in 1983 and that remained the policy until the New Labour years, when the Downing Street Declaration (1993) was used as a pretext to shift to neutrality.
The Declaration committed the UK government to accept any decision by the people of NI on the constitutional question. It produced a (choreographed) IRA ceasefire and was a key part of the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement. It involved the UK government taking a neutral stance on the issue.
In a poll of Labour members in 2018 two thirds backed reunification by consent. Jeremy Corbyn visited NI as Labour leader in 2018, and he was asked the same question. Despite being a long-time activist for British withdrawal and a united Ireland, Corbyn’s reply was that a government led by him would remain neutral and respect the decision of the people of NI.
The diplomatic protocols haven’t, however, prevented the Tories from continuing their policy of supporting unionism.
Starmer’s decision to come out as a Unionist, if it makes any sense, reinforces the impression that he has no greater vision than scrabbling for lost "red wall" votes. He seems determined to appeal to the lost Labour voters not with radical social policies but with ersatz British nationalism.
Time and again he underestimates and patronises disenchanted working-class voters with the assumption that their central concerns are culture wars centred on patriotism and race rather than economic abandonment and inequality. His leadership is characterised by an especially inept triangulation which is simultaneously failing to win over lost voters and draining the enthusiasm of his existing electoral base.
Such is the low level of interest in NI in wider UK politics that there’s likely to be little or no electoral impact from Starmer’s latest bombshell, though it won’t have gone down well with the sizeable and mostly Labour-loyal Irish electorate in Britain.
Labour should be openly for the reunification of Ireland on democratic principle. Partition was an unjust, gerrymandered attempt to frustrate the express democratic will of the Irish people and it produced, as it inevitably would, a sectarian police state in NI.
It should be borne in mind too that a border poll will only be called if the UK Secretary of State for NI calls it. And the criterion for that is that the evidence over a period of time suggests that it would result in a vote for a united Ireland.
To commit to campaigning for a unionist position in those circumstances is more than "a belief in the UK". It’s an attempt to defend partition and reject the right of the Irish as a whole to self-determination.
Anyway, if Starmer genuinely believed in the union he would ensure that people in NI could vote for Labour in elections by standing candidates there.