Peter Mandelson said just before the 2001 general election, that ‘no politician would declare that they were “against” ambition’. And yet, that’s what Diane Abbott did on Newsnight yesterday evening. In an interview with Lewis Goodall, she spoke about Keir Starmer and the time she shared with him in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Asked about his evident desire to become Labour leader, Abbott replied, ‘Keir Starmer’s ambition is fairly apparent’, with ‘ambition’ said in an accusatory way, as if having such a thing was an obviously bad thing. ‘I blame his mother for calling him Keir’, the former shadow home secretary added at another point in the interview.
Abbott’s comments are representative of so much that has gone wrong within the Labour party over the last decade, and what may be the biggest obstacle in the way of Starmer becoming Prime Minister.
There’s a story Tony Blair used to tell about canvassing that is probably apocryphal but instructive nonetheless. Blair said he was out knocking on doors in 1992 when he found himself speaking to a working-class man made good, someone who had managed to buy a house and a car. The story goes that he told Blair his family had always voted Labour and yet he now intended to vote Tory because he was scared that a Labour government would try and take it all away from him. ‘His instincts were to get on in life,’ Blair said. ‘And he thought our instincts were to stop him. But that was never our history or our purpose.’
One of the things Labour purged after the Blair era was this idea that the party would help the working classes get on in life. Instead, they switched to a narrative that said that anyone who was lower on the socioeconomic chain than middle-class had to be coddled and excessively guided, as if they were unable to do anything for themselves. This has understandably led to resentment amongst working class voters. ‘Mondeo Man’ didn’t go anywhere; he just started voting Tory when he felt Labour no longer represented his interests.
What makes Abbott’s disdain for ambition all the more bizarre is that she must have been ambitious. To become the first black female MP in British history, at the relatively tender age of 33 no less, required many things: determination, political savvy and yes, ambition. Without the latter there is no way she would have overcome the obstacles in her way.
There is also the issue of Jeremy Corbyn to consider – was he not ambitious? I was under the impression that he wanted to become Prime Minister of the UK, which is a fairly lofty goal. Why is Starmer’s desire to get to the top to be derided, while Corbyn’s is okay, particularly when Starmer is from a working-class background while Corbyn is upper-middle class?
I believe one of the biggest factors that led to the crumbling of the ‘Red Wall’ in December was that Labour had spent a decade talking down to those voters. And I don’t mean in terms of a liberal/conservative split which is often commented on. It’s more that the working-class north saw that Labour constantly depicted them as poor, wretched souls that needed saving, as opposed to people who are looking to work hard to better themselves.
I understand that part of Diane Abbott’s dismissal of ambition, at least consciously, was an expression of her disappointment at Corbyn’s project fizzling out. Yet I think she unconsciously revealed more than intended. The Labour party needs to understand that they are supposed to be, more than anything else, a vehicle for helping the working poor make their lives better. The reason Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ messaging worked so well in December is because it was what many people have wanted to hear from Labour for so long.
Making Labour the choice of the working-class once again will be difficult; Diane Abbott showed last night how much internal resistance Starmer will face on that front. Yet the rewards for doing so are potentially great. The electoral coalitions Blair put together, which led to landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, still exist. The only question is if Labour has the collective willpower to reach those people again.
This is much more important to the party’s electoral fortunes than Brexit, social conservatism or anything else. The Labour party’s fate will be decided by whether working people see the party as being for or against their core economic desires.