‘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.