Labour has lost the last four general elections. It has not won the popular vote in England since 2001; twenty years ago. We can go further: aside from the landslide Blair victories of 1997 and 2001 Labour has not comfortably won 40%+ of the vote since 1970; over fifty years ago. Labour is not in power in Westminster or Scotland. It may shortly lose (or be forced to share) power in Wales. It does not directly control any county councils in England, and only a tiny fraction of district councils. Labour’s power and influence is confined to London, metropolitan cities, and a shrinking part of Wales, and its appeal limited to graduates, minorities, progressive professionals, and public sector unions.
It could get worse. On the new boundaries, which will be in place before GE2024, Labour will lose between 8-10 seats and be worse off than Michael Howard post GE2005. And there is no evidence yet that the trends that manifested them in GE2019 are abating. There are nearly 60 seats vulnerable to a small swing to the Conservatives, and neither Ed Miliband nor Yvette Cooper is safe. Labour risks ceasing to be a serious contender for Government.
If you agree that Labour is primarily a political project, interested in gaining power to deliver on its values and put its policies into practice, you might think that these very sobering facts would be leading to existential questioning at present by its members. Not a bit of it. Instead, most of them are still fighting the need to compromise with the electorate.
So, why is that?
In answering that question, we need to understand the rise of identity politics. In Scotland, the SNP have comfortably captured Scottish political identity, and there is little to no prospect of a non-SNP administration taking office in Scotland for a long time to come. In non-metropolitan England, the Conservatives have captured English political identity, whilst professing vehemently they stand for a broader British one. In Wales, no single party has captured (rising) Welsh political identity but what does exist is split between Labour and Plaid Cymru, and, to a far lesser extent, the Welsh Conservatives.
What Labour has is those who feel a non-national political identity – for example, based on one’s mix of transnational, race, sexuality, and gender identity within a globalist world (Lib Dems and Greens take note, you are onto a loser here) – and it only really stills exists at the community level where large numbers of people still have personal roots deep in the history of the Labour movement; Liverpool, perhaps being one example. But the problem is that unlike for the SNP or Conservatives there is simply not enough of a constituency there for them to win. However, today’s Labour Party members are largely drawn from it and, increasingly, as their electoral base shrinks, so are their voters, and that is what is making it so hard for them to see what they need to do to win. Some don’t even want to.
This is why being ‘not Corbyn’ and ‘accepting’ Brexit are not enough. Labour’s problems go far deeper and have been festering for a long time. And they must face them because they have no choice. The Conservatives and SNP can win national elections without needing to appeal to many different cultural and social identities across the UK all at the same time. Labour cannot. They are going to have to, by necessity, be the first to cross that Rubicon.
It can be done. If you look at Labour’s three convincing general election victories from opposition – 1945 (New Jerusalem), 1964 (White Heat) and 1997 (New Britain/“Cool” Britannia) – each offered a vision of national renewal with a message of change at its heart. They each had visionary British leaders who could articulate it, and they built on existing communities and national pride to assemble a broad voter coalition. For example, in GE2024 I could easily see Labour outflanking the Tories on Unionism, levelling up across regions and generations, and leading an international global alliance to defend liberal democratic values, worldwide, but they simply aren’t trusted enough to have Britain’s best interests at heart to get a hearing. And when you mention British identity or British interests far too many of them – still, today – sneer and direct the conversation back to their comfort zone. To change that, and convince the voters you’ve changed too, you need to demonstrate you really mean what you say – not only in the consistency of your words, but by the sincerity with which you say them, the backstory that explains how your past actions support that, the reason for your present actions, and your plan for your future actions. And to do that, credibly, for a programme for government, you need both exceptional leadership and an exceptional team.
Let’s start with the leader. Keir Starmer is clearly a nice guy and is personally likeable. He is forensic at the despatch box. He’s intelligent, determined and a hard worker. He has a great analytical brain and is a steadfast political operator and determined survivor. However, he gives every impression of thinking politics is a tactical game of presentation, triangulation, and opportunism – harrying and confusing the enemy to defeat him – like he was still Director of Public Prosecutions. He is far too clever for his own good. Politics is far more of a strategic game of vision, leadership, and values. And that’s where consistency and sincerity comes in. The reason why names like “Captain Hindsight”, “Johnny-come-lately”, and “fence-sitter” are starting to stick is that there’s truth in all of them. And it isn’t new either. Keir tried to triangulate over Brexit two years ago with his policy to renegotiate, and then hold a second referendum, without saying what Labour would recommend. He was pilloried at the time, and rightly so. The risk is he does it again, and ends up losing everyone.
Let’s move onto the team. Do you know or remember a single thing Anneliese Dodds has ever said or done? Me neither. How about Kate Green? The only thing I can remember is her talking about is decolonising the curriculum and being dismissive of the Falklands. The truth is most of Labour’s big talent is not on the pitch; it’s either chairing parliamentary select committees or in the running to be a city major, and what is on the pitch isn’t impressive. A real government in waiting would have the likes of Hillary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman, Margaret Hodge, Liam Byrne and Andy Burnham in the shadow cabinet. This one doesn’t have any of them, and I’m not sure many of them are that interested either.
Labour has a decision to make: does it want to be a serious contender for power in GE2024, or does it prefer to remain in its comfort zone as a party of principled opposition? Right now, it isn’t clear and it’s trying to do both. As a consequence, the voters aren’t sure what it’s about, nor what it stands for. If I had to guess I’d say Labour are on course to only gain about 30-40 seats (at best) at GE2024 whilst the Conservatives stay in office on a reduced majority. Far from this being the start of a two-term project the risk is that Starmer is then deemed a failure, and the Left win the subsequent leadership election again – incorrectly drawing the conclusion that Corbyn’s approach got closest in 2017 and should be tried again – and Labour then lose the next election after that. This cycle could repeat and repeat, as it has in Scotland and has for decades in Japan, and Labour might never get into office again.
But, what if you’re not a Labour supporter, and not fussed about any of this? Well, you should be if you care about Britain because this current state of affairs isn’t good for any of us. Good government requires strong opposition. A healthy society requires a competitive democracy where everyone knows they have a fair chance to win. Perpetual Tory Government risks becoming stale, complacent, arrogant, and self-interested, failing to respond to the needs of all parts of our society with the necessary reforms, and carrying an even greater risk that the UK falls apart at the seams. Some may even resort to extra-democratic methods as they feel the ‘system’ lacks legitimacy. You can make a conservative case for the Conservatives not to be in power, occasionally. The alternative is not a future I’m sure I want for my children, nor for anyone else’s.
So, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors; it’s not my fight, but I feel I have a dog in it. That fight must be fair.
It’s up to Labour to throw us all a bone.