Labour can win the next election. The winds that blew apart their electoral coalition in 2019 can change in their favour; Brexit has destroyed old certainties but also made anything possible. The party needs first to analyse honestly what went wrong and then conjure up a new, yet old-fashioned progressivism to fix it.
The most popular narrative is that Labour was undone by a mix of Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit: Corbyn was too radical and inept; Brexit drove the patriotic working-class into the arms of BoJo and the populist Right.
At this week’s conference, this story will be endorsed by several factions. The small Blue Labour tendency, which argues that Labour’s chief problem is its cultural liberalism: embrace community and patriotism and the workers can be enticed back. The bigger neo-Blairite group, which believes New Labour had the right mix of common sense and aspiration to dominate the centre. And the resurgent soft-Left, largely behind Sir Keir Starmer, which wants to break from New Labour but seek reconciliation with the working-class.
It is widely agreed that Labour cannot form a government unless it wins back seats like Hartlepool, lost to the Tories in a by-election last May, the first time since its creation. Sir Keir is trying to detoxify the brand, to reassure that Corbyn is behind us and Labour can speak to the 'left-behinds' who voted for Brexit.
The narrative has flaws. As the hard-Left supporters of Corbyn point out, Jezza did very badly in 2019, but just two years before, running on a manifesto that promised us the moon on a stick, he also scored one of Labour’s best electoral performances in decades. The dynamic was different (BoJo is charismatic, Theresa May was a dodo) but Corbyn proved that socialism can win votes, or at least that voters value conviction – and there’s an alternative history in which Labour supported May’s Brexit deal in Parliament, taking us out of the EU on 'better' terms, keeping her in place and tearing the Tories in two. By this account, it is the Remainer hard cases – the neo-Blarities – who destroyed Labour’s chances, not Corbyn.
In a well-received essay at the New Statesman, Harry Lambert points out that in 2001, Tony Blair won more seats than Thatcher in her prime but that the landslide was hollow: 'voter turnout had collapsed, falling from 71 to 59 per cent… New Labour had lost nearly three million votes.'
His 2005 re-election was even narrower: the progressive coalition frayed long before Corbyn. The party had abandoned its historic identity, true, but its voters were also catching up with the Joneses. In a new book, Broken Heartlands, Sebastian Payne visits the Red Wall and concludes that though Brexit pushed people who had voted Labour for generations towards the Tories, those seats have also become decidedly more middle-class: a diversified economy, greater individualism and, crucially, lots of private housing.
Two of the greatest indicators of likely voting intention in modern Britain are age and property ownership: it is possible that Labour in 2019 didn’t lose the poor so much as it finally shed the last vestiges of those who benefited from Thatcherism.
Looking at the returns from the 2021 election, one could conclude that Labour, though wiped out in parts of the North, actually opened up new areas of growth that reflect the realities of the new economy – big strength in Manchester, capturing the mayoralty of the West of England. They picked up a seat in Tunbridge Wells, while the Greens won Tonbridge down the road from me in Kent.
The Lib Dems also took the solidly Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham in a by-election in June, confirming that Brexit giveth and taketh away (the southern middle-classes aren't keen on paying to level up the north) – and fuelling hopes that there is a progressive movement emerging out of opposition to Tory populism. The trick, perhaps, is not to put all one’s eggs in the Labour basket but to back whatever party has the best shot of taking a seat locally.
It’s possible to reconcile soft and hard Left views of the world. Indeed, it’s striking how far to the Left the party has moved on economics since 2010 without major internal controversy (Sir Keir was voted leader promising common ownership of utilities).
The key stumbling block isn’t necessarily the positions one Labour faction takes vs another but the nature of the debate itself. The 'nice' party is just so damn nasty. Labour has always been a circular firing squad; every faction has long imagined it must conquer the party before it can take the country (in fact, that this task might be the more important); hence, activists obsess over power structures that mean nothing to the rest of us, repeating the pointless procedural battles of the 1980s.
Back then, the Left backed an electoral college to elect leaders, whereas the Right preferred 'one man, one vote' – and eventually got its way. Now, to reassert the influence of MPs and unions over a far-Left membership, Sir Keir wants to bring the electoral college back, and one can see why. As George Orwell said, it is as if the word socialism draws towards it 'every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England'. The exception, today, are the feminists. One woman MP will stay away from the conference this year because she feels her critical views on trans rights make her unwelcome.
The first thing Labour must do is restore the impression of unity. This doesn’t mean the Left must be marginalised or silenced. On the contrary, millions of people voted for Corbyn, particularly the under-40s, because they like him; they are part of the coalition and belong inside the tent. Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan gave key positions to Tony Benn ('He immatures with age,' said Harold); even Blair made Michael Meacher a minister.
By contrast, the contemporary hard Left is not only silenced – its former leader, Corbyn, is still suspended from the whip. Sir Keir, in turn, is owed a little loyalty, even if Angela Rayner does give an impressive performance at PMQs. There is absolutely no point changing leaders unless there is a wildly popular alternative in the wings. And there isn't.
Second, Labour needs patience. The Tories are already coming apart: post-Brexit they lacked a narrative, something which was papered over by the pandemic. Now the bill for lockdown must be paid, the Conservatives finally have to take tough decisions that will alienate different sections of the electorate, and Labour should attack them from every possible angle – as shamelessly and aggressively as possible. Rising energy bills; rising taxes; shortages.
In 1974, Wilson, regarded by many as being on the wrong side of the trades-union debate and consumed by internal party argument, cannily identified prices as the proximate issue: Shirley Williams appeared on telly with two shopping baskets and compared prices of bread. Labour won a surprise minority. Being in opposition can be an advantage if it means one is closer to the real concerns of the voters, whereas PMs are prone to travel the world making Antoinette-style claims such as 'going green is easy'. The fact that Labour wants to save the planet too is irrelevant: one attacks on the basis of what the Government is getting wrong, just as Labour hammered John Major for the ERM crisis even though it had pushed strongly for membership.
The third requirement is practical policies that tie ideology/values to bread-and-butter concerns. So clear were New Labour’s five pledges in 1997 – lower class sizes, shorter waiting lists etc – that they are almost imprinted on the brain, and, importantly, they included fast-track punishment for young offenders, a pledge not to raise income tax and even a cut in VAT on heating (back then, the priority wasn’t going green but helping pensioners out of poverty).
Sir Keir has launched a personal manifesto that moves Labour onto inoffensive, communitarian territory (he wants a 'contribution society'), but the 11,500 words include nothing on energy prices, even though it’s all some of us can think about.
If the Right can do populism, why not the Left? Everyone hates energy companies – vampires who never answer the phone – so the electoral script writes itself.
Culture war is best avoided. Sir Keir's essay also includes the promise of a new racial equality act to tackle structural racism, and whatever this means (it's hard to imagine what's missing from the current law without tipping over into re-education camps for gammons) it won't win a single new vote. Dealing with long queues to see a GP, knife crime and rising council tax will. If one's response to that list is 'these are Tory issues', you have no chance of winning a majority in Britain, nor any right to.
In his manifesto, Sir Keir gamely albeit somewhat plonkingly tackled the existential question of 'what is Labour about?'. He would emphasise patriotism; many of his colleagues prefer class war and workers' rights. Smart people know the two are linked, that Labour was historically not a revolutionary party but a protectionist – almost conservative – movement that tried to safeguard the working-class against impersonal forces like big business, landlords, bankers and even, once-upon-a-time, the Common Market.
Labour wins when it combines moving forward with a reassuring glance backward, hence the initially attractive paradox of Wilson extolling the 'white heat' of technological change while puffing away on a pipe. New Labour paired Blair on a tennis court with John Prescott nursing a pint.
Britain is not a wholly conservative country. Its consensus is Christian socialism, each word softened by the other – more socialist than Christian, but too Christian to surrender to the ideological zeal of socialism. Brexit is Christian socialist – not in the eyes of Tory free-marketeers, of course, but the essential promise of democratic community, levelling up and becoming more like oneself belongs more firmly to the imagination of William Morris or John Ruskin than it does Margaret Thatcher.
Boris Johnson knows this, and the Conservatives have won new votes only insofar as they have become less recognisably Thatcherite, or at least have blended the aspiration of capitalism with the sense of belonging of socialism.
Labour will win not by stealing the Tory strategy but, rather more simply, by becoming more like its old self. ‘The past is not dead,’ as William Morris said. ‘It is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.’
Tim Stanley's new book Whatever Happened to Tradition?: History, Belonging and the Future of the West will be published by Bloomsbury on October 14