Political parties like to think of themselves as being a 'broad church' when tackled about conflicting views among members. It makes it all the more ironic then that it was a visit to a church which exposed a challenging split in the Labour party. Keir Starmer’s trip to Jesus House last week resulted in him apologising for associating with people who believe homosexuality to be a sin. The Labour party can ill-afford to keep excluding groups of voters.
The difficulty for Starmer (and for many who wish there to be a viable alternative government) is that left-wing politics is increasingly an 'AND' movement. This means that to be welcome on the left you must adhere to every item on an ever-lengthening slate of 'correct' beliefs.
To look at some recent examples, you must believe (in contrast to the Sewell report) that the UK is riddled with institutional racism, you ought to think that children are fully competent to request puberty-blocking drugs, you should probably regard Winston Churchill as a war criminal, and you certainly shouldn’t think that it is acceptable for the Leader of the Opposition to visit a church with traditional views on LGBT matters, or to make use of the Union Flag in promotional material.
This isn’t to argue with the merits or otherwise of each individual case, simply to point out that in a pluralist society people who agree on one matter may disagree on another, and that by insisting on absolute purity of thought across the slate you will inevitably exclude people from your group. Here lies the Labour party's big problem.
As many people on the left have found, being on the wrong side of the new orthodoxy on even a single one of these issues can be enough to attract vitriol from activists. The dispute over transgender rights has been one of the starkest dividing lines (and one that has similarly affected the SNP). What message does it send when a prominent Labour supporter like JK Rowling is abused by others on the left because she deviates from the orthodoxy on a single issue? One thought-crime alone is apparently sufficient.
A recent study highlights the gulf that exists between Labour party MPs members and voters at the 2019 election, especially for those Labour-to-Conservative switchers that the party needs to regain in future elections – in Hartlepool, for example. It found that voters are significantly less socially liberal than members and MPs. Voters simply do not agree with the Labour position on many issues. But there is to be no compromise with the electorate.
At the 2019 election, Labour won 64 per cent of the black and ethnic minority vote. Many of those voters will belong to churches, mosques and synagogues with similar views to those of Jesus House. How will they react to the Labour leader publicly apologising for meeting with people with orthodox religious views?
In many parts of the country, under the FPTP electoral system, the Labour vote is just NOT Conservative, while the Conservative vote is just NOT Labour. A recent Survation poll in Hartlepool put the Conservatives on 49 per cent, Labour on 42 per cent. In a binary split between the two parties, nine in ten votes are accounted for. It is madness then to presume that the left can afford to exclude any voters from its electoral coalition. But it seeks to do so anyway.
By contrast, the Conservative party is increasingly an 'OR' movement. This means that in order to be welcome, you can choose from any number of policies. Even if you agree with just a single one, your vote will be happily received. Many people in the Red Wall seats broke with Labour on one issue – Brexit. None of them had to believe in a single other policy to vote for the Tories. Maybe your only belief is that the Union Flag should be flown on public buildings? Perhaps your lone opinion is that there should be stronger controls on immigration? For many voters in 2017 and 2019, the primary motivation was voting for the 'NOT Jeremy Corbyn' party.
Because there is no fixed ideology from which to deviate, people with contrasting views can co-exist more easily in the Tory party. If you believe in a small state, laissez-faire economics, there is room in the Conservative party for you, even if the adherents to this policy aren’t currently being shown a lot of love. If you believe in big state interventionist policies, you can line up behind the 'Brexity Hezza' himself.
On every major Conservative policy divide there are voices on all sides, none accusing each other of treachery with anything like the frequency of Labour activists turning on one another. Some might point to the 21 MPs who had the whip removed by Johnson in September 2019 as martyrs to their principles. But they weren’t expelled for holding a particular view, but for voting against the government on its key policy. And many of those same MPs subsequently had the whip returned.
What are the longer-term implications of this? The short answer is that this is good news for Boris Johnson and bad news for Keir Starmer. After all, an AND group – which requires voters to simultaneously follow the liberal orthodoxy on a range of controversial subjects – can never be bigger than an OR group, which is more welcoming to voters who might disagree with one another on some things. The implacable logic is that the increasing ideological rigidity of the left will find it hard to overcome the extreme ideological flexibility of the Conservative party. And that’s not a problem that Starmer – or indeed anyone else who takes over from him – can easily fix.