‘We’re trapped between the two worlds,’ said a Labour worker during the last days of the party’s ill-fated Hartlepool by-election campaign. She meant Labour was strapped for cash, lacking the many small donations that came with Jeremy Corbyn and the big donors who backed Tony Blair.
Her comment, however, had a wider relevance. In trying to keep hold of younger, middle-class metropolitan voters who already supported Labour while also attracting back older, small town working-class voters who have abandoned the party over recent elections, the various contests held on Thursday showed Keir Starmer was unable to do either. With the Brexit divide still reinforcing ongoing demographic trends that have seen education replace class as the main political cleavage, Starmer largely failed to enthuse Remainers, while making no positive impact on Leavers.
As a consequence, even before the polls closed, Labour has been afire with hot takes about how it should respond: for if in 2020 Starmer appeared to take the party one step forward, in 2021 it has taken two steps back. Some have suggested a new leader is required or that Starmer must reinvent himself; Corbyn fans argue Labour needs to reiterate its support for the 2019 manifesto, while others have called for the former leader to be expelled. A number have said Starmer should forget about trying to unite young university graduates with older school leavers and just focus on the concerns of the former; then again, others say his emphasis should be the other way around. This confusing, contradictory set of responses is just more evidence of a divided party in existential crisis: one lacking the ability and confidence to see the wood for the trees.
If, however, we stand back from the details of the present moment, we can see that Labour is trapped in a deep-set historical pattern from which it will take an act of heroic – and perhaps suicidal - leadership on the part of Starmer to escape.
If education has replaced class as the new divide, one factor remains constant with the old politics: the Conservatives usually know how to win elections while Labour struggles. Thursday was a confirmation of that. Labour has been appallingly bad at creating positive electoral coalitions that can deliver victory under first-past-the-post. That is why Labour’s three periods of majority rule have all been preceded by the widespread sense that a prolonged period of Conservative rule had failed.
They each required some kind of crisis to undermine the legitimacy of the Conservatives as a governing party: 1945 came after Conservatives lost trust on domestic issues due to the war, 1964 by the Profumo scandal and 1997 by Black Wednesday. While many in the party lionise the genius of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, they each needed the Conservatives to implode before they could enter No. 10.
Starmer believed the Covid-19 pandemic would be the crisis that would expose Boris Johnson’s government as incompetent. And for a time, as deaths piled up while Johnson argued with advisors over whether to impose the necessary lockdown measures (and allowed Dominic Cummings to seemingly flout them when he finally took action), this looked possible. Starmer even compared this moment to that of 1945.
He hoped he might not have to change much within the party to help it recover from the appalling 2019 defeat and those three election reverses which had preceded it: perhaps just not being Jeremy Corbyn would be enough? This is not to say Starmer did nothing. Making members face the implications of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism has not been easy; just saying Labour was patriotic created serious ructions; and accepting that Brexit had happened also caused the Labour leader internal big trouble. However, as last Thursday suggests, the pandemic has not highlighted – to many voters anyway – that Johnson’s Conservative government has failed. It has not united the electorate behind Starmer’s Labour: far from it.
This means Starmer – if he is ever to become Prime Minister – has to buck the historical trend and actively create a successful electoral coalition. But do party members want to do that? Britain is more divided than ever, and Labour members are mostly found on one side of that divide – they may not be young but they are largely middle class, university graduates living in metropolitan areas. If Starmer is to unite voters behind a platform that makes Labour a viable electoral force, it will not happen without challenging many of his own members’ prejudices, risking further division. There is a reason why the party has always relied on Conservative failure to win power: often it has been impossible for a Labour leader to do anything else.
Considering the party’s past, it will come as no surprise if Starmer fails to make a vigorous response to his Thursday fiasco. Instead he may continue to hope against hope that Johnson will defeat himself, that perhaps ‘sleaze’ will be a slow burn that pays dividends. Dumb luck does eventually work for the party – albeit only every 15 years or so - but by then Starmer might have become yet another Labour leader who failed to be Prime Minister.
The alternative is risky, to step outside the historical pattern, to show he is the solution to Labour’s ills and not – like almost everybody else in his party – part of the problem. But after last Thursday, what does he have to lose?