The Labour leader's authoritarian instinct is already showing
Of Sir Keir Starmer’s various announcements and U-turns over the past few weeks, it was his pledge to bring in “Respect Orders” that was most disconcerting. The policy is essentially a resurrection of the old anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) of the Blair years, with bells on, or “with teeth” as Starmer likes to put it. And the Leader of the Opposition’s new stance on crime certainly does have bite to it, at least in terms of presentation: he remains unrepentant after his party this weekend put out adverts directly attacking Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for the Conservatives’ poor record on crime.
But this latest attention-grabbing stunt should concern the public less than Labour’s more insidious policy announcements. Inconspicuous as they may seem, “Respect Orders” give the clearest indication yet of the type of government Starmer will run. It will be the apogee of the “Mate, Mate, Mate” state, in which petty bureaucrats and jobsworths are empowered to exercise their (very limited) power over fellow citizens. At first, the main targets of the “Respect Orders” will be poor children, whose youth services have collapsed 70% over the past decade and whose education was torn apart by cuts and lockdowns, for the crimes “loitering” and “polluting”.
But soon enough it will serve as a pretext for the further expansion of non-criminal indiscretions for which the state can bully people. Despite claiming it wants to crack down on real crime, Labour is very sketchy on the detail. On Monday morning, Starmer’s shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry flailed through a series of questions on the Today programme about whether the party would lock up more serious criminals
Harking from a relatively obscure online meme, “Mate, Mate, Mate” satirises a peculiarly British phenomenon of small men trying to enforce pointless rules with the end result of making life marginally more miserable for everyone. Their compulsive need to overbear and check others is barely concealed behind a mask of grating faux chumminess and an unearned appeal to comradeship.
We became all too familiar with the Mate, Mate State in recent years. Its central refrain echoed through the CCTV hub of the Derbyshire police force during the first Covid-19 lockdown. “Mate, mate, it’s to protect our NHS, yeah mate?” said one policeman to another as they tracked a couple walking their dog with a drone through a local Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Starmer, a proponent of longer and harder lockdowns, was of course four-square behind this busybody nonsense.
It manifests too in the police’s zealous enforcement of an ever-growing roster of state-mandated manners, while serious crime goes through the roof and petty theft is essentially decriminalised in the major cities. It reached new heights several weeks ago in Wakefield, where a contested series of events surrounding the scuffing of a holy book by some schoolboys was leapt on by local police as a “hate incident”. A widely-circulated video of a senior officer ticking off one of the boys’ mothers at a public meeting was a masterclass in the modus operandi of the Mate, Mate State.
A prominent Labour councillor in Wakefield, Usman Ali, led the charge on this, encouraging the police to take “swift and appropriate action” against schoolchildren. Despite questions from journalists, Starmer remained silent on Ali’s actions and has still not said a word about the Wakefield affair.
Elements of the Mate, Mate, Mate State survived the lockdowns. It is still with us now, but its vestiges will reconstitute fully under Starmer, for he is its living embodiment. Both politically — as a prosecutor and politician he has hewed to an authoritarian bent — but also aesthetically, with his Adidas samba trainers and Stone Island polo shirt. He is the leader they have been waiting for. He is on his way. And perhaps, mate, you just need to get used to it.