These briefing notes were to have been part of a talk by Bill Jones to the November LGC meeting. Unfortunately because of illness Bill will no longer be able to do this. He has sent these notes instead and would be more than happy if anyone would like to respond in any way.
Labour’s Traditional Role in UK Politics:
Recently, despite being a life-long Labour member, I have been wondering, and yes, fearing, if its decline might turn out to be terminal. This briefing therefore reflects a very personal concern. Looking back over its history, viewed with such reverence by its supporters (including me) it has occupied a relatively minor but still highly important role in the UK’s development. By the early 20th century, the party emerged from its ‘utopian’ phase of imagined ideal transformation into a more realistic one, reflecting its trade union provenance of using the state to limit the power of private corporations and to introduce welfare institutions to assist the less well-off. The party was careful to offer gradual rather than revolutionary reform – it emphatically rejected any truck with the infant Communist Party of Great Britain which called for a British Bolshevik Revolution – but, nevertheless, occupied government for only a third of the 20th century, suggesting that the British voter, even back then, while willing to accept a degree of change, is also wary and suspicious of it, especially any ideological driven version of it.
Maybe, when someone is not very rich, they are alarmed at the possibility of losing what little they have and thus highly receptive to Tory arguments which suggest even minor reforms might carry such risks. Nevertheless, Labour has been the spearhead of important, if not transforming reforms for example: free health care irrespective of income; free primary, secondary and tertiary education, plus a higher education system accessible by all; a minimum wage; and a national communications infrastructure. I, and thousands like me, have consequently been given opportunities which would have otherwise been denied. Since Labour’s appearance in 1900, the Conservatives, by contrast, have pursued a pragmatic, relatively non-ideological but politically very rewarding course, enabling it to change its ideas to reflect evolving political realities. This characteristic, perhaps most vividly reflected in Johnson’s time as PM, has enabled the Tories to defend successfully the status quo which bakes in so much inequality and privilege.
Origins of Labour’s Decline:
Given the only partial success noted above, and the fact that social democracy in Western Europe has been in decline for the past two decades, Labour’s decline started from an already low base. Peter Kellner’s excellent article in the New European homes in on the key reason: the ‘transformation’ of Labour’s electoral constituency:
“Today’s typical Labour voter is no longer a blue-collar trade unionist working in a mine, shipyard, steelworks or factory. Instead, s/he is a white collar, pro-European social liberal, living in or around a big city and working in health, education, finance, technology or public administration.”
In 1987, 80% of the Labour vote – 7.8m out of 10m – was from social groups C2DE: i.e., working class. By 2019 that number had slumped to 4.1m. What about ABC1 people, middle class voters who previously were widely expected to vote Tory? From 2.2m in 1987, 6.2m voted Labour in 2019 – a huge increase. It has to be realised, moreover, that the overall proportion of the electorate comprised by the working-class vote has also been in steep decline – 62% of all votes in 1987, down to 43% in 2021- so Labour has been seeking a diminishing slice of a shrinking demographic.
Counter intuitively to many perhaps, Kellner points out, Conservatives have always polled ‘around half’ of their support from working class voters. So, the shape of Labour’s decline is clearly visible from these statistics. The traditional pattern of working class- Labour; middle class- Tory has been virtually reversed. Labour now draws increasingly upon an urban middle – class demographic, while the Tories have made huge inroads into the working class one. Kellner goes on to comment on the nature of Labour’s working-class support. He makes a distinction between the ‘collectivist’ and ‘instrumental’ Labour voter. The former – motivated by the general idea of ‘socialism – worked in the mining, ship building and textile industries, explaining why seats like Blyth, Bolsover, Hartlepool and Don Valley seemingly impregnable strongholds were won by Johnson in December, 2019.
‘Instrumental’ Labour voters – those looking, more narrowly perhaps, for a party to improve their material well-being – tended to be found among the diminishing numbers of blue-collar workers: only 2-3% of which could be described as ‘collectivist’. Given the disappearance of the regular, well-paid jobs in these traditional industries, it is not surprising voters in these depressed areas eventually rebelled against a voting pattern which seemed to offer them no improvement. Kellner is surprised the massive defection of 2019 did not happen earlier – though signs of its imminence were evident in the 2017 election results when Theresa May’s version of Conservatism made substantial inroads into what became known as ‘Red Wall’ seats. He attributes this to a surviving sense of loyalty to or nostalgia for ‘their’ party: like Wile E Coyote in the cartoon, who, when chased over the edge of a cliff, hung there for some moments, legs flailing, before plunging downward. Brexit eased Red Wall voters away from past voting practice and the novel appeal of a wholly untypical politician, Boris Johnson, did the rest. A similar process, of course, had already occurred north of the border: the infectious excitement of the 2014 referendum weakened Scottish voters’ connection with Labour – which won 56 of the 59 seats in 1997 – and the subsequent elections confirmed the new attraction of the SNP. Realistically, Labour is unlikely ever to regain its lost dominance in Scotland.
The 2019 Election:
After Johnson had persuaded the SNP and the (foolishly naive) Lib Dems that a general election would be in their joint interests, the objectives of the protagonists involved were as follows: Tories – ‘Get Brexit Done’; SNP – more MPs to call for a second referendum; Greens – more voters to spread the word; Lib Dems – a deluded belief they could win a majority; and Labour to win a majority on a transforming manifesto to prove Corbyn’s claim that British voters wanted genuine socialism and possibly a second referendum.
Of all those objectives, of course, only the Conservatives and the SNP called it correctly. Labour plunged to its greatest defeat since 1935, largely through the Torydestruction of its ‘Red Wall’. Lord Ashcroft’s analysis – the author of the ‘Smell the Coffee’ report on the Tories in 2005 which helped install Cameron as the party’s new leader – produced ‘Diagnosis of Defeat: Labour’s Turn to Smell the Coffee’ three months after the so-called ‘Brexit Election’. When offered 12 possible reasons why Labour lost the election: ‘Brexit’ actually came second with 7.5 on a scale of 1-10. Top reason (7.7) was ‘Corbyn was not an appealing leader’; third was ‘Labour’s election promises were not believable.’; fourth was ‘Labour was divided’; and fifth ‘Labour no longer really represented traditional voters’: most of these reasons clearly reflecting Labour Party failings. Party members emphasised that voters believed Tory lies in the biased media.
When asked why they had defected to vote for Boris Johnson:
53% said ‘I did not want Jeremy Corbyn to become PM’;
40% said ‘I did not believe Labour would be able to deliver the promises it was making’;
37% ‘The Labour Party no longer seems to represent people like me;
30% ‘I wanted to get Brexit done and voted to make that happen’;
26% ‘I did not like the policies Labour were proposing’.
I’ve never quite understood why northern constituencies became so pro Brexit- 63% on average compared with 52% nationally- but combine this sentiment with hostility to Corbyn and the fall of the Red Wall is explained. Sebastian Payne’s brilliant “Broken Heartlands: A Journey through Labour’s lost England” provides more chapter and verse on these factors. (see also Denis McShane’s Must Labour Always Lose? 2021, Claret)
Personally, I always thought Corbyn a very decent and likeable man, embodying many desirable fine qualities but I had also perceived two massive shortcomings: firstly his attempts to establish peaceful networks had caused him to share platforms with a variety of people who could be perceived as terrorists, thus making him catnip for red top tabloids seeking to undermine him. Secondly his total absence of executive experience I thought a disadvantage if pitching for the top executive post in the country and, not least, as organiser of the official Opposition to the sitting government.
‘Super Thursday’ Elections, 6th May 2021:
These elections, in which 48 million people were able to vote, were crucial indicators, over a year on from the general election of whether:
i) Johnson’s bungled conduct of the pandemic in 2020 had affected his popularity.
ii) Starmer’s leadership of Labour was winning voters’ approval.
iii) The SNP were on the way to winning majority endorsement of proposal to hold a second referendum in independence.
The results suggested strongly that it was incumbency which determined who would be the victors: Tories in England, SNP in Scotland – another Holyrood majority – and, finally a positive outcome for Labour in Wales – 30 seats out of the 60 available.
The NHS conducted the vaccine roll-out, but it was Johnson who received the political reward. Labour suffered major swings to the Tories in the locals, losing key councils like Durham in the north, Harlow in the south while the Tories won 250 council seats and won control of 13 councils. They also won the headline contest – the Hartlepool by-election by a massive 7000 votes, overturning a seat Labour had held since 1974. Never mind that the 10,000 who voted for The Brexit Party in 2019 were very unlikely to split for Labour rather than Tories, any Labour loss here would inevitably be heavily freighted as a vote of no confidence in Labour’s replacement for Jeremy Corbyn: the result was consequently a major blow for Keir Starmer. It seemed as if all the government’s wrong turnings, flagrant examples of chumocracy, fatal delays in announcing lockdowns, plus Labour’s cries of Tory ‘sleaze’, had no effect whatsoever.
The very fact that the vaccine roll-out had proved to be so successful, was enough to draw flocks of voters into the Tory fold, even in those former ‘Red Wall’ areas where Labour had so hoped voters would ‘see through’ the PM’s rhetoric and return to their former roles as ‘lifelong’ Labour supporters. Starmer compounded a very bad day for his party by apparently blaming his Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, for the debacle and then embarking on a rushed reshuffle. It later transpired his sacking of her was meant to be a move to a more senior position, but, on the day when Labour should have been celebrating its nationwide regional mayor victories – including London, Manchester, West Yorkshire and Merseyside – all the media focus was on Starmer’s PR disaster. Voting experts noted, significantly, that the ‘Brexit Effect’ still applied: swings from Labour to Tories were much greater in Leave areas than in Remain ones. Prospect’s editor Tom Clark, summed up the significance of the Hartlepool loss:
“There is no arguing with the seismic arithmetic of the result. Against the baseline of the miserable win eked out amid Labour’s crushing national defeat in December 2019, the party lost getting on for half its total number of votes. The Tories, meanwhile, increased their absolute vote, mopping up virtually all of the large local vote share for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party to cruise home with an outright majority of the ballot.”
They did quite well in these elections – Labour, maybe, should have taken the London Authority seats won by the Greens. As Labour fades in the UK, the Greens, which are now pressing for Chancellorship in Germany are gathering increasing support.
Criticisms of Starmer:
Since being elected as leader in April 2020, Sir Keir Starmer had established his party as a serious critic of the government – the former DPP used his forensic skills to reveal Johnson’s wobbly mastery of detail and frequent missteps in his handling of the pandemic. By the autumn of 2020, the Labour leader was easily beating Johnson’s ‘competence’ ratings but once the vaccine began to be rolled out across the country, the polls registered rising support for the PM and falling ones for Starmer.
Critics on the left fell short of demanding a return of Jeremy Corbyn, (cast out of the party for his critical attitude to the EHRC’s damning report on anti-semitism in the party, October 2020), but were on firm ground when they accused Starmer of failing to provide any clear idea of what the party now stood for. Moreover, even centrist Labour MPs could also agree that he lacked the kind of excitement or the charisma that leaders are expected to bring to their cause. Having a first-class intellect helps in politics but more important is the ability to cut through and engage with voters in the way, for example Tony Blair demonstrated – winner of three elections 1997-2005 but now a pariah leader, exiled to the outer fringes of the political conversation. A Guardian editorial accepted that being leader of the Opposition ‘during a national crisis is probably the worst job in politics.’ Being too critical risks being perceived as being destructively unpatriotic and Labour’s usual remedies, involving high public spending, had been hijacked by that enthusiastic big spender, Rishi Sunak.
Sympathy there was on the left, but this did not prevent a proliferation of critical articles started in early in 2021: Mathew Parris: ‘Lacklustre Starmer needs to be surprising’ Andrew Rawnsley: ‘Why senior Labour figures think their party needs to start upping its game’ ; Stephen Bush: ‘Does Keir Starmer have the killer instinct?’; and Hugo Rifkind: ‘What is the point of Sir Keir Starmer?’ Tellingly Tory commentator Iain Dale wrote ‘This week we learned Sir Keir Starmer is neither a lucky general or is cool under fire.’ Shortly after these dire 6th May results, commentary became even more pessimistic.
The Sun’s post-polling day reported that ‘One in Three Labour voters have no idea what the party stands for with Keir Starmer as leader.’ ‘Is Labour Dead?’ asked Ian Birrell, setting his question within the context of the retreat of social democracy in many Western democracies ‘at a time when the free-spending policies of their creed, boosted by the pandemic, are in the ascendancy?’
“Labour’s plight is similar to other traditional centre-left parties on our continent. Once their leaders could rely on a powerful alliance of middle-class progressives backed by the massed ranks of working-class voters to win elections. Their parties should have been boosted by the flaws of neo-liberalism that were exposed first in the financial crisis of 2008 and now in the pandemic. Instead, as the United States veers towards social democracy under its latest president and even Johnson turns into a cheerleader for the nanny state, the brothers and sisters of socialism find themselves rebuffed, rejected and sliding into irrelevance across their European heartlands.”
Writing in The Times, Trevor Phillips saw the 6th May results as ‘an unambiguous, crushing rejection by the voters who are showing no sign of buyer’s remorse.’ He identifies the most resonant coherent (and ‘blistering’) critique of the party came from its former leader in an essay in The New Statesman.
Opens up with this statement:
“The progressive problem is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. The choice is therefore between those who fail to inspire hope and those who inspire as much fear as hope. So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the “moderates” dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels to stop further sliding towards the alienation of the centre.”
The key element for Blair is that ‘We are living through the most far-reaching upheaval since the 19th century Industrial Revolution: a new technology revolution of the internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery – everything, every sphere of work, leisure and life are subject to its transformative power.’
He argues that:
‘Those who understand this revolution, show how it can be mastered for the benefit of the people, and harness it for the public good, will deservedly win power. It is a challenge tailor made for the progressive cause.’ Why do ‘progressives’ find it hard to ‘rise to this challenge’? ‘a failure to grasp the nature of contemporary social and economic challenge and ‘deep psychological reluctance to let go of an outdated past.’ ‘You can literally go through the policy catalogue, from crime to defence to the environment, and in every case the potential of technological change is enormous and revolutionary. This is the future. But you can’t organise the future with a playbook from the past.’
Cultural Issues: ‘The correct course for progressives on culture questions is to make a virtue of reason and moderation. To be intolerant of intolerance – saying you can disagree without denouncing. To seek unity. To eschew gesture politics and slogans. And when they are accused of being insufficiently supportive of the causes – which is inevitable – to stand up for themselves and make it clear they are not going to be bullied or pushed around. This will lose some votes among a minority with loud voices; but it will bind the solid but often silent centre to them.’ It’s not just a question of leadership says Blair: Keir Starmer is ‘intelligent, capable, moderate minded…. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.’
Should Blair be Accepted Back as a leading Labour Figure?
Since the end of his third administration, Tony Blair has been a pariah, and irrelevant to Labour politics. His misjudgement over Iraq and refusal to accept he was wrong, was complemented by his apparent pursuit of ‘super’ riches earned often from repellent autocratic regimes. He seems to have relinquished such self-marketing activities but still appears to have little or no traction within the party he once led. It has to be said, however, that he has made an impression on the political scene through his various interventions on the conduct of the pandemic, not to mention Labour’s troubles as explained above. People like Peter Mandelson and Andrew Adonis (who has called for Starmer to resign) have emphasised that Blair has been Labour’s only winner during the past half century of party politics, suggesting maybe he still has much to offer the party- the recent Blair and Brown documentary was nostalgic for us all Labour people but I remain sceptical. However much his (in my view) wise counsel is absorbed, it is likely he will always be offering it from outside his former political power base. I do believe Labour can win by offering a radical prospectus but, crucially – and I know many members will disagree with me here – not a ‘socialist’ one, especially a hard left one, as the 1983 election debacle proved and the national electorate’s reaction to Corbyn in 2019.
Batley and Spen by Election, 1st July:
Coming so soon after the loss of Hartlepool, and Labour’s poor showing – winning only 622 votes – in the Tory loss to the Lib Dems of Chesham and Amersham, 17th June, the Batley and Spen by election was viewed as crucial to Starmer’s leadership. . His supporters pointed out that the 622 votes figure represented tactical Labour votes switching to Lib Dems to defeat the Tory but there was truth in the argument that Tracy Brabin’s decision to stand as mayor of West Yorkshire, which caused the by-election, could have been prevented by Starmer had he seen the danger. As polling day approached, most commentators, including voting experts, expected another brick in the ‘Red Wall’ to be dislodged. Such predictions became more insistent once the maverick former Labour MP, George Galloway, standing as a left-wing candidate, campaigned for the substantial number of Muslim votes on offer as well as disillusioned left-wing Labour votes. Labour desperately threw in volunteer resources and, for once its campaign was well organised. The scandal of Matt Hancock’s Covid restrictions busting affair probably also helped the candidate, Kim Leadbetter, sister of Jo Cox murdered by a right-wing extremist during the 2016 Brexit vote, to narrowly shade the result in Labour’s favour by a mere 323 votes. Starmer declared ‘Labour is back!’ but most commentators agree that the result represented only a temporary reprieve: Angela Rayner, his Deputy, allegedly was already ‘on manoeuvres’ to stand against him, supported by some unions and left-wing MPs of the Corbynite faction.
Labour Party Conference, 25th to 29th September, 2021.
This conference was perceived by most commentators as critical for the future of Starmer and, given the salience of leaders on polling days, the party as a whole. Starmer showed another lack of political judgement by seeking to change the rules whereby leaders are selected. There are powerful arguments for giving MPs a greater say in the process in that the constitution awards them key control of the state’s sovereign power: the House of Commons. Giving the membership ultimate control over selection runs the damaging risk of MPs not accepting the darling of the membership, as happened under Corbyn. The Tories, sensibly in my view, allow their MPs to choose the two candidates who go through to be chosen by the membership. However, to burden conference with an unnecessary problem at such a parlous time, was surely inept: The Times leader (24th Sept) warned Starmer was ‘picking the wrong fights with his party’. All this, plus stories of rivals, Angela Rayner and Andy Burnham, measuring themselves up as his replacements, pressure mounted on Starmer to make a scintillating speech when such an adjective had rarely, if ever been applied to his speech-making prowess.
In the event his speech was something of a revelation. It was definitely too long at 90 minutes but content and delivery were such that it scarcely mattered. The speech covered a vast area of policy issues but it was interspersed with cleverly conceived ‘emotional’ inputs which helped counter the ‘buttoned up’ tendencies to which the QC leader is so prone. Left-wing hecklers tried hard to destabilize the speech but were overwhelmed by a supportive consensus, helped by Starmer’s shouted replies of an inspired soundbite: ‘Changing lives not shouting slogans’. A You Gov opinion poll showed the public preferred Starmer’s to Johnson’s vapid conference speech 63% to 51%
Has the Labour Party now ‘fulfilled’ its mission and has no future role?
This is an idea frequently mooted in the debate about Labour’s existential crisis. The welfare state has been established so the argument runs: the NHS is now a politically untouchable icon but Labour’s basic economic idea of ‘nationalisation’ wholly discredited, so why shouldn’t the party accept it is performed its historical role and quietly fold up its tent? I’d like to refute this argument emphatically. There are very many issues which a progressive party like Labour could make its own. Let me list just a few of them, starting with working to:
- reverse the ever increasing social and economic inequality in Britain;
- reduce the extent of poverty in our country;
- bring back Sure Start centres all over the UK to improve parenting and help children from problem backgrounds;
- defend and improve the funding of the NHS;
- improve the housing stock, so diminished that the cost of even a small, terraced house is often, dependent on location, outside the means of most young people; follow Blair’s advice on creating a strategy to embrace the consequences of technological innovations;
- take the lead on fighting climate change;
- improve perceptions of training and education to improve skill levels throughout society and though all age groups;
- improve a positive sense of internationalism and a moral sense of obligation to those countries less developed than our own.
- Repairing near ruined relations with EU countries; condemn and fight the negative aspects of Brexit; and, consider re-joining at some time in the future.
William Hague’s advice to Starmer:
On 6th July the former Tory leader, who also bore the scars of having been Leader of the Opposition, offered sound advice to Starmer in his column for The Times.
- Whilst he faced a figure in Tony Blair ‘who cultivated admiration among Tories, Starmer faces a ‘Tory who governs like a social democrat’.
- Despite the difficulties, Labour should be offering a vision for the future: why not compete on ’levelling up’?
- Many Labour supporters still think in terms of state ownership and even higher taxation’ yet [Hague echoing Blair’s advice here] ‘We are entering an age of extraordinary innovation and technological change for which 20th century socialism does not provide the answers. Nor does the fractured identity politics into which the party has drifted. Surely the centre left can produce a philosophy of how to combine the fostering of innovation, on which national prosperity will depend, with alleviating in equality on which social cohesion and fairness will depend.’
- One the three occasions Labour has gained majorities, 1945, 1966 and 1997- it has been associated with ideas for the future…. Labour only wins when it is the future.
No party has a right to exist – it has to justify its existence by results in the ballot box: at the time of writing (mid October 2021) Conservatives lead Labour in the polls by 10 points. So many columns have been written – and not just in the left of centre press e.g. Mathew Parris and Danny Finkelstein in The Times- of the fact that eventually voters will perceive Johnson as a sham, causing the political weather to change rapidly and put an end his hegemony. But while such predictions offer temporary catharsis for us on the left, they do nothing to change the fact that Johnson is still entrenched in Downing St and totally in control of his party. It’s true that Labour has been fading for a while but its obituary was issued in the early 1960s and again in the 1990s, but each time the party came back a few years later and regained power. Yet each time it took deep analytical introspection, a struggle for the soul of the party and some inspired leadership the like of which seems in very short supply.
But I hope I have shown that, for progressive minds, Labour is not past its sell-by date and still has a vital role to play: the problem for it now, as when at previous nadirs in its fortunes, is to fashion messages with style and content which can neutralise Conservative spin and hype and cut through to those voters who are open to such persuasions. The political mountain to climb is high: a swing of 10.3% is required to win the next general election, higher than that won by Blair in the historic 1997 election victory but next time almost certainly without Scottish seats and only the prospect of winning back Red Wall ones. Some suggest Labour can only succeed through the ‘Progressive Alliance’ urged by Labour’s Compass grouping, embracing the Greens, who seem willing, and the Lib Dems, who seem less so. And it should not be forgotten that, after recent elections the Tories too have their own worries; one home counties MP is quoted as telling a journalist, ‘There is something very strange about a centre-right party that cannot count on the votes of affluent young professionals.’ But the government faces a perfect storm this winter: a continuing possibility restrictions will need to reintroduced to curb the persistent pandemic, compounded by the additional threat of influenza; the continuing backlash from Brexit in Northern Ireland; the threat of inflation as rising energy prices begin to bite; and the impact of increases in interest rates; and the ever present problems of trying to pre-empt the impact of climate change. Can Johnson hope to find the answers to such challenges? An appropriate quote upon which to end is from columnist, James Forsyth: ‘For good or ill, much of the country’s fate is out of Johnson’s hands.’ Times, 15th October.
The immediate future?
I think we have to stay with Starmer for the time being and be understanding of his difficulties. Given the manifold difficulties the government faces and its evident difficulties in even acknowledging them let alone solving them,Labour has an opportunity to create a genuine challenge to an imposter government.
I’d add that it doesn’t help to anathematise Tories as ‘scum’: insulting ‘soft’ Tory voters is no way to tempt them over to our side.
[Professor (rtd) History and Politics, Liverpool Hope University]