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What if they’re both right?

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The elections across Great Britain on 6 May were the nearest thing to the US midterms that we have.  And just as in the USA, they are generally held to be as much a verdict on the performance of the incumbent national administration as a judgement on local politics.  And so, after 11 years of Tory government, and in the wake of a poorly handled pandemic, the opposition Labour Party simply had to win back seats if it was to begin to claw its way back to government.  It wasn’t to be.  The by-election in Hartlepool – a seat which has been Labour since its creation in 1974 – fell to the Tories with a 23 percent lead.  Across England, the Tories gained 13 councils while Labour lost eight.  Even in the contest for London Mayor, where Labour maintains a large activist base, a poor Tory candidate unexpectedly forced the contest into a second round.

There were a couple of positive results.  Labour did well in the Northwest, where Andy Burnham won the Manchester Mayoral contest with 67.3 percent of the votes in the first round.  In Labour’s last ex-industrial stronghold in South Wales, Labour retook the Rhondda from former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood.  Contrary to earlier polling, across Wales, Labour gained five seats giving them 30 of the 60 Senedd seats.  In Scotland, however, Labour failed to recover ground from the Scottish National Party, who went on to win 64 of the 129 seats; Labour losing two seats.

All in all then, there is broad agreement that this was a bad election for the opposition Labour Party.  This though, is where agreement ends.  So far as the party leadership are concerned, the reason for the defeat was that they still hadn’t done enough to purge Corbynism from the party.  Continuing to push interventionist economic policies coupled to social liberalism, they argue, cannot win back the majority they need to return to government.  For the activist left, in contrast, it is precisely the retreat from the radical policies which very nearly secured victory in 2017 which has resulted in defeat ever since.  In the changed world of 2021, any attempt to turn the clock back to the Blairite heyday of the late 1990s simply will not succeed.

In various forms, this core argument will no doubt rumble on even after the Tories have secured yet another general election victory – most likely in the spring of 2023, following an expansionist Tory “post-covid” investment programme.  And no doubt the next Labour leader will, like Starmer, attempt to straddle the two contradictory arguments in the hope of finding some route to government.  But what if both sides of the argument are correct?  Indeed, what if the transformation of the UK economy since the 1970s – and especially since the crash of 2008 – have so fragmented the UK electorate that there is no longer a route back to government for Labour?  As polling expert Peter Kellner explains:

“Two rival theories have sought to explain Labour’s drubbing in this month’s elections. The left accuses Keir Starmer of deserting the party’s socialist principles. The leadership fears that the party has not changed enough: it needs to shed the ideological baggage that make it look elitist and metropolitan.

“I believe both theories are wrong. They are too obsessed with the immediate past. In fact, the party’s crisis has been decades in the making. If the party is to recover, it needs to address its long-term troubles.

“The biggest of these is the total transformation of its electoral base. Today’s typical Labour voter is no longer a blue-collar trade unionist working in a mine, shipyard, steelworks or factory. Instead s/he is a white collar, pro-European social liberal, living in or around a big city and working in health, education, finance, technology or public administration.”

There is irony here for a party which purports to be the party of ordinary working people; since both its membership and its voter base show it to be the party of middle class metropolitan liberals.  And that’s fine.  Somebody has to represent that electoral minority.  Prior to their complicity with Tory austerity after the 2010 election, this role would have gone to the Liberal Democrats.  But that party is little more than an irrelevant fringe at this point.  But with Labour gradually taking over the Liberal mantle, it is far from clear how exactly this provides a route back to government. There are simply not enough metropolitan liberal constituencies to provide Labour with a route to government.  As Matthew Goodwin explains:

“In his insightful blog, political analyst Steve Akehurst identifies 41 seats which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000…

“On a good day, assuming a swing of between 3.75 and 5.75 points, and with Labour over-performing in these ‘Blue Wall’ areas, Akehurst estimates that Labour could win anywhere between 15 and 26 of these seats. Assuming the Conservatives lost some other marginal seats, the collapse of the Blue Wall could demolish Boris Johnson’s majority, put Labour back in power and give journalists one hell of a revenge story…

“[But] Of the 57 seats the Conservatives gained in 2019, all but three came directly from Labour — and of those 54 seats, 50 voted Leave. While the Conservative vote increased by 1.2 points nationally, it surged by 10.2 points in the Red Wall. The Tories not only massively overperformed in these seats, they reshaped their party around a Leave vote that is more geographically efficient than the liberal vote: spread out enough to have more electoral impact.

“And this is why I do not find the Blue Wall thesis convincing. The numbers. It is simply not big enough to bring down Boris Johnson’s majority.”

Some way or another, Labour has to win back what is often wrongly referred to as the “traditional working class.”  But that class disappeared in the 1980s when millions of relatively well-paying manual jobs were either offshored or done away with.  What remains across the wastelands of ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small town rural Britain is a growing precariat engaged in what David Graeber referred to as “bullshit jobs” – low paid, over-regulated, unpleasant and offering no route to prosperity.  Crucially, what Labour has consistently failed to understand is that the primary economic concern of this electoral majority is not so much inequality as precariarity.  Sure, higher pay would be welcome; but it is the fact that employment can be terminated at a moment’s notice with no hope of redress which hangs like a dark cloud over millions of workers.  Moreover, a punitive and unsupportive social security system largely supported and partially engineered by Labour, no longer prevents families from being plunged into poverty every time their precarious employment is ended.  Planning for the future is all but impossible.  The once taken for granted trappings of post-war suburbia no more than a fairy tale.

All too often, politicians – both Tory and Labour – excused their inaction over increasing precariarity by blaming the European Union.  And this feigned impotence fed into the 2016 revolt which still divides the wastelands from the shrinking pockets of metropolitan prosperity.  The Labour Parliamentary Party’s antics after the 2016 revolt – seeking any and every means of thwarting the decision to leave the EU – drove an even deeper wedge between the party and the majority of voters; particularly after the 2017 election when – led by Kier Starmer – the party ditched the policy of a negotiated exit from the EU in favour of a second referendum.  Given that more than 65 percent of constituencies in England and Wales have leave-voting majorities, this policy change was hubris on a giant scale.  As Paul Embery reminds us, at the 2018 Labour Party conference:

“There was an undue chirpiness in the air. Labour was now the largest political party in Western Europe, people would remind me. The glorious leader was playing to packed houses everywhere. Ergo, we stood every chance of forming the next government.

“Then, during the Brexit debate itself, the conference rallied enthusiastically behind a motion explicitly putting a second EU referendum on the table. I remember gazing around the hall in despair as speaker after speaker pledged support for the motion, each drawing wild cheers and applause from delegates. That the adoption of this policy was almost certain to result in electoral oblivion seemed lost on virtually everyone present.

“At that moment, I tweeted that the conference was effectively handing a P45 to every Labour MP in the North and Midlands. I knew then that this self-inflicted wound would take years — possibly a generation — to heal…”

And that’s the point.  Hartlepool should have marked the end of Labour’s misfortunes.  Holding onto the seat and winning back some of the councils lost since 2010 ought to have provided the springboard for renewed success.  But Hartlepool was lost and lost big; and Labour councils continue to disappear.  Because, as Goodwin argued before the latest elections, the electoral geography works against Labour:

“Here is just one statistic to keep in mind. Of the 44 most marginal Labour seats today, 39 are outside of London and the South. I call this the ‘Red Wall 2.0’. These are seats that have small majorities of 4,000 votes or less, are filled with pro-Brexit, cultural conservative workers who lean Left on the economy and Right on culture, and which have been trending Conservative…

“If the Conservatives take Hartlepool or come close to doing so, then the implication is not just that Johnson will defend his existing Red Wall at the next election but could easily add another 40 or so seats to it. That would tilt British politics into a much deeper realignment that sees the Tories sink even longer roots into northern, working-class heartlands and Labour increasingly retreat to liberal enclaves.”

Neither Labour’s socially liberal left nor its economically liberal right is prepared to reconcile the party with the mass of ordinary people who defied them over Brexit and who voted against them in huge numbers in 2019 and again in 2021.  Instead, Labour piles up thousands of effectively wasted middle class votes in metropolitan constituencies that they already hold.  In the meantime, Johnson’s Tories – which have appropriated a good deal of Corbyn’s economic policies – continue to win seats which had been painted red for as long as anyone can remember. 

Kellner’s suggestion is for Labour to set aside the unhelpful shibboleths of both left and right:

“What, then, can Labour do to maximise both its metropolitan and red wall appeal? I can’t see a quick fix. Instead, here’s a novel thought. Park that conundrum for the moment and start with a different question: What are the policies that will make Britain richer, fairer, cleaner and more contented…

“Britain’s more recent political history has dealt Keir Starmer a weak hand. He won’t escape the pincer by triangulating the rival identities that comprise Britain’s new electorate. He might just do by developing a brave and credible programme for the country’s future. Like a successful entrepreneur, he should start by getting the product right.”

This is no doubt good advice, but it doesn’t go deep enough.  In an energy-constrained post-pandemic world of shortages and broken supply chains, a fairer, cleaner and more contented society may still be built.  But richer is no longer possible.  Not that this matters much, because the left has always rejected research and strategic planning in favour of blind faith.  With the various manifestations of our overshoot predicament – climate change, energy costs, mineral depletion, food and water shortages, etc. – increasing with each passing day, we simply do not have time to wait for the opposition factions to fumble their way to a new policy platform capable of winning over a majority of the electorate – most likely sometime in the mid-2030s at best.

As you made it to the end…

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