Keir Starmer faces discontent as Labour MPs reject union jack election flyers

<span>Keir Starmer is seeking to emphasise Labour’s patriotic credentials to indicate the party has changed since the Jeremy Corbyn era.</span><span>Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Getty Images</span>
Keir Starmer is seeking to emphasise Labour’s patriotic credentials to indicate the party has changed since the Jeremy Corbyn era.Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

Keir Starmer is facing discontent from Labour MPs over the dominant use of the union flag in election campaign material amid concern it may alienate ethnic minority voters and others.

Concerns were raised at recent meetings of the party’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) group at Westminster and also by London members of the parliamentary Labour party. There is also unhappiness among some activists who are reluctant to handle the material.

There was criticism, voiced to Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray and chief whip Alan Campbell, at a meeting of parliamentarians from ethnic minority backgrounds. One MP who spoke to the Guardian described free post campaign material as being “plastered with union jacks”.

There is also increasing unhappiness about the lengthy delay to the investigation into Diane Abbott, who had the Labour whip removed almost a year ago, as well as discontent over the party’s progress on BAME representation.

Related: UK general election opinion polls tracker: Labour leading as election looms

Unease about the party’s use of the flag also came up at a meeting of London MPs that was attended by Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s director of campaigns, and Ellie Reeves, its deputy national campaign coordinator.

The union flag has taken on an increasingly prominent role under Starmer as he seeks to emphasise Labour’s “patriotic” credentials to assert that the party has changed from the Jeremy Corbyn era.

However, some Labour MPs have suggested that the prominence of red, white and blue still has negative connotations among ethnic minority communities targeted by the far right. They asked why material provided could not be more tailored to specific constituencies.

One MP said: “We are all really proud of our country but this can be a complex issue for some communities and we have to navigate that more carefully.”

“For a lot of communities we are talking about colours that are associated with the National Front or another far-right group. Using the flag might be great for trying to reach those ‘hero voters’ but why can’t we have segmented branding,” they added, using a phrase Labour strategists coined for the slice of the electorate who swing directly from Tory to Labour and who tend to be more socially conservative and pro-Brexit.

“I can see how it would work in some places but it’s definitely detrimental in university towns, and in heavily BAME seats,” said another MP who attended one of the meetings and who added that “multiple colleagues” had told him of activists refusing to give out the leaflets.

“They just look like union jacks really, with a bit of red on the side. There’s not even a Labour rose. You don’t need to prove your patriotism by wrapping yourself in the union jack,” they added.

A councillor on the south coast told the Guardian that the flag-branded material was also sometimes a problem and not only among BAME voters.

“I’ve seen boxes of the leaflets being piled up because activists don’t want to give them out. We’re also finding that in some cases people on the doorsteps have mistaken them for leaflets put out by the Conservative,” they said.

A video sent out by Labour to its activists and organisers outlines its general election branding. “The flag dominates, and of course Labour red,” states the video, which also recommends the use of a “poppins” font and says that MPs and organisers should use the template to ensure “brand consistency”.

Other Labour guidance to members on branding states that a “primary palette” of colours including “Labour red”, “flag blue” as well as white and black should predominate colour when producing “content or positive messaging”.

A “secondary palette” has been composed to match messaging relating to Labour’s “missions”. They are “growth pink”, “green energy green”, “NHS blue”, “policing yellow” and “opportunity purple”.

Abdi Duale, a member of Labour’s NEC (National Executive Committee), said: “Britain’s strength is in its diversity and our communities are hugely proud of our nation and its flag. Labour is running a proudly progressive and patriotic campaign that celebrates all our communities and that includes using our flag.”

A spokesperson for Momentum, the Labour-supporting group, said: “Members are the lifeblood of our party, the activists who put the hard graft in on the doors. They must be listened to and the message is clear: Labour’s campaign materials should reflect the concerns of the communities they serve. A one-size-fits all model is not just ineffective, but has the potential to repel parts of Labour’s core voter base.”

The concerns about the union flag emerge as Starmer intervened in a row over England’s new football kit for the Euros, calling for it to be scrapped after the decision to replace the traditional red and white St George’s Cross for a multicoloured cross on the shirt.

A leaked strategy document seen by the Guardian in 2021 advised Labour to make “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly” as part of a rebranding.

• This article was amended on 30 March 2024 to clarify that criticism was voiced to, rather than by, Sue Gray and Alan Campbell at a meeting of parliamentarians.