Starmer to defend RNLI and National Trust from ‘desperate’ Tory culture war | Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer

Labour leader’s speech will be his most outspoken response to ‘woke’ politics criticisms by Conservatives

Sun 21 Jan 2024 23.30 CET

Keir Starmer will defend organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the National Trust on Monday, accusing the Conservatives of attacking them to stoke a “desperate” culture war.

The Labour leader will mount a forceful defence of the institutions during a speech to a civil society summit on Monday in his most outspoken response to Conservative criticisms of “woke” politics.

“The Tories seem set on sabotaging civil society to save their own skins,” Starmer will say. “They got themselves so tangled up in culture wars of their own making, that instead of working with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – an organisation the late Queen was patron of for 70 years – to find real solutions to stop the small boats, their rhetoric has helped demonise them.

“Instead of working with the National Trust so more people can learn about – and celebrate – our culture and our history, they’ve managed to demean their work. In its desperation to cling on to power, at all costs, the Tory party is trying to find woke agendas in the very civic institutions they once regarded with respect.”

The RNLI and National Trust have found themselves the unlikely targets of Conservative attacks in recent years, with Tory MPs accusing them of pursuing politically correct policies.

In 2019, the RNLI was criticised by Conservative backbenchers for spending money on anti-drowning charities abroad. It then came under fire in 2021 from Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader, who accused the institute of acting as a “taxi service for illegal immigration” because of its work helping distressed asylum seekers in the Channel.

The National Trust, Britain’s largest charity, has been torn apart by an internal battle over its stance towards rewilding Britain’s countryside and how to depict the links between the properties it oversees and the UK’s colonial legacy.

In 2022 a group headed by a Conservative donor and including two “anti-woke” historians launched an attempt to gain control of the charity, while the Tory MP Andrew Murrison set up a parliamentary group to “scrutinise” its work.

Starmer will on Monday accuse the Conservatives of targeting the institutions to shore up the party’s weak poll position.

“Let me tell you, waging a war on the proud spirit of service in this country isn’t leadership,” he will say. “It’s desperate. It’s divisive. It’s damaging. It comes to something when the Tories are at war with the National Trust. That’s what happens when politics of self-preservation prevail over commitment to service.”

In comments that echo David Cameron’s vision of the “big society”, he will also urge charities, community leaders and faith groups to play an active role in Britain’s public life.

“Cameron talked about the big society, but when austerity kicked in, we ended up with the poor society,” he will say.

“Now we need a new vision for a new era. A renewed social contract. A new focus on those who build the bonds that connect us, the communities that nurture us, the institutions that support families and provide a bridge between the state and the market: a society of service.”

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