The Tories’ narrative about where they are taking UK politics and society is dishonest and incoherent. But it is a narrative, one strongly honed and consistently argued for. In contrast the leadership of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party seems to have pretty much nothing to say about the kind of society or even the policies it wants. That is surely an important part of why Labour suffered such serious defeats on 6 May.
Attempts by the Labour right to claim the problem was the party not being right-wing enough must be “forensically” dissected and vigorously opposed. Already the Starmer leadership had reduced Labour's criticism of the Tories to little more than one of "competence".
Former Hartlepool MP and millionaire peer Peter Mandelson has spear-headed calls to use the crisis following the 6 May losses to purge the Labour left, further gut party democracy and break or downgrade Labour’s trade union link in (see his article in the Financial Times). Clearly Mandelson has strong influence on the Starmer leadership. But it is not necessarily the case all this will work out as he and his ilk want.
It is true that some Corbyn-supporters, emphasising Labour’s vote surge in Hartlepool in 2017, effectively airbrush out its sharp decline in 2019. Mandelson airbrushes out the 2017 surge, and airbrushes the decline in Labour support there under Blair and Brown. In the 2004 by-election after he departed to become EU Trade Commissioner, Labour’s vote share fell by almost 20% and UKIP made its first major breakthrough in the constituency, to over 10%. The seeds of the current reality were sown by Blairism.
The deeper and longer-term trend which Blairism both expressed and reinforced is the decline of the labour movement organisations and cultures that underpinned Labour’s rise and successes in the past, and extreme slowness in replacing them. Fighting to shift Labour’s course has to be part of a wider struggle to revive the labour movement and working-class politics in the 21st century.
The new Tory project
In an article strongly criticising Starmer, left-wing Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty sums up the Tory agenda, particularly in the areas of country where it has shoved Labour aside: it “is based around buildings and burning red tape, state-led investment and deregulation. It is about public investment rather than public services, Keynesianism without the welfare state. Call it capitalism with Brexit characteristics.”
In reality this agenda is about more active use of the power and resources of the state to benefit employers and the rich, with strikingly little “trickle down” to the working-class communities which are the targets of its rhetorical appeal. It may generate increased economic activity in areas targeted for extra funding, but on the basis of low-paid, precarious work and decimated public services. It would be very premature to think that it has closely bonded millions to the Tories for years to come. At the moment, however, its appeal seems to be working.
As Stuart Hall wrote in 1987, as Thatcherism was building on its defeat of the organised working class by progressing to a third general election victory: “People don’t vote for Thatcherism, in my view, because they believe the small print … It invites us to think about politics in images. It is addressed to our collective fantasies, to Britain as an imagined community.”
Under Starmer what Labour has been counterposing to the Tories' vision is little more than a promise to wave the Union Jack more "competently".
The 6 May results were undoubtedly extremely bad, especially given that they were from seats last contested in 2016 and 2017, both poor years for Labour. (Regularly updated results here.) Some qualifications need to be made to exaggerated talk of unprecedented or historic shifts.
Contrary to “everyone here used to vote Labour”-type narratives, many of the areas of the country which have shifted towards the Tories have had a strong Conservative vote going back many decades. Before 1945 Hartlepool was Tory or Liberal. In Labour’s 1945 landslide the party won 41.2% in the constituency to the Tories’ 40.5%. In 1959 Hartlepool elected a Conservative MP, and there has long been a very strong Tory vote there. In 2019 Labour got 37.7% to a combined Tory-Brexit Party vote of 54.7%. In 2015, 35.6% to a Tory-UKIP total of 48.9%.
Moreover, the demographics of many of these areas have changed. The labour movement there has retreated as industries with a strong trade-union presence have declined or shut down. In Hartlepool the number of 16-24 year olds dropped by 25% between 1981 and 2011 as young people left to find work in cities, while the number of retirees rose 27% (it seems overwhelmingly likely this trend has continued). Retirees are, of course, both more likely to vote and increasingly more likely to vote Tory.
In their cuts since 2010 the Tories have been careful to hit retired people substantially less than younger people. Hartlepool has a sizeable number of relatively well-off homeowners, who will be pleased by the rise in house prices over the last year.
Labour’s lack of policies and vision
In terms of the immediate problem, you don’t need opinion polls to know there is a widespread feeling that Starmer’s Labour stands for very little. But opinion polls reinforce it. Data from interviews conducted straight after the election found that among those who did not vote Labour by far the most widespread reason was Starmer’s leadership and the close second was “do not agree with policies / policies not clear”. Quotations from interviewees published by the pollsters make clear these two categories are closely interlinked.
The Labour right’s cringe-inducing accolades to Starmer, and attempts to pin Labour’s problems on Jeremy Corbyn, should not wash. The reality is that Starmer seems to be increasingly regarded by the voters as insubstantial and untrustworthy. This must be in large part because he does not want to advocate anything much, or cannot work out what to advocate.
The problem is both concrete policies and the wider “vision thing”.
We criticised Corbyn’s Labour leadership for announcing left-wing policies shortly before the 2019 general election without serious longer-term attempts to explain, popularise or organise around them, or to develop a cohesive wider narrative. The two years since the June 2017 election had been largely wasted, with only minimal anti-cuts agitation, and that often focused narrowly on an opposition to police cuts.
But Starmer’s Labour has neither narrative nor, seemingly, any policies to speak of. Beyond talk about “competence”, its basic theme has amounted to variations of “We’re not Jeremy Corbyn”. Well, neither is Boris Johnson.
We do not expect Starmer to be a socialist. Even leaving aside for now how the Labour leaders might have raised issues they no doubt regard as politically difficult in much of the country, like migrants’ rights and climate change, notice that with local elections in many places the party said nothing about the virtual destruction of local government which the Tories are still pushing forward.
The record of Labour councils, overseeing brutal cuts while doing nothing to fight them and in many cases coming to be perceived widely as self-serving local and regional establishments, is surely a factor in the crisis of Labour’s support. Far from leading a fightback, the party nationally cannot even bring itself to advocate reversing the cuts, or in fact even more money for councils from central government.
After the disasters of the last year, there was nothing in the campaign about sick pay or about social care. There was a lame attempt to make the election about NHS pay, presumably in order to avoid having a policy on council funding. It was abandoned when it became clear that people wanted to know what Labour was actually advocating (and it certainly wasn’t healthworkers’ demand of 15%). Nothing about the NHS in general – after the last year!
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner is reported to have argued to focus campaigning on improved sick pay and a living wage for care workers – totally inadequate positions, but at least something in the right direction. She was not only vetoed but ostentatiously removed from her position as the party’s campaigns coordinator.
Blairite ex-MP Alan Milburn, who ran a “Social Mobility Commission” for the Tories under Cameron, has been on TV to demand Labour “changes its policies”. What policies does he have in mind?
Polling commissioned shortly before the election by the Communication Workers’ found that Labour’s 2019 general election policies were very popular in Hartlepool. It does not follow that advocating those policies would have brought Labour victory, certainly not if it was done just at the last minute. Clearly a failure to advocate any clear pro-working class policies (or really any sort of policies at all) was worse on every level.
A record of failure
The background since Starmer became leader has been a consistent refusal to challenge the Tories over their response to the pandemic. The attempt to rely on Starmer’s supposed “competence” collapsed when the Tories managed to pull off, or at least take credit for, an impressive vaccine program (achieved through extensive public funding for development and effective use of the UK’s socialised healthcare system for delivery).
The Tories’ good luck with the timing of the vaccination successes - somewhat reminiscent of electoral success following victory in a war, despite everyone knowing about horrors and blunders during it - is one thing. The frittering away of Labour’s supporter and activist base through pandering to the Tories, the abandonment of any left-wing policies or message, the attacks on party democracy and all the rest are another.
Turnout in Hartlepool was very low. There is a lot frustration and apathy around but – in so far as it takes active expression – it is mostly being channelled in a right-wing direction, at least in parts of the North East and Midlands. The stance of Starmer et al reinforces this channelling.
Labour has done better in some parts of the country – notably Wales, many cities and towns in the North West, the Bristol-area and (though more weakly than expected) London. In none of these areas is the party’s record particularly left-wing; but they are generally places where Labour at least managed to carve some distinctive political narrative against the Tories and run an active local campaign. (We will comment on Scotland soon.)
In Bristol the ground Labour lost was not to the Tories but to the Green Party. In many parts of the country there was a significant increase in support for the Greens. We advocated and campaigned for a Labour vote and will continue to do so. But it is not hard to understand why so many, particularly young people, might back a seemingly more left-wing alternative to Starmerism.
In the coming months, the need for a serious fight against the government will become more pressing. Perhaps Covid-19 will continue under control in the UK, in which case the Tories’ drive for cuts, currently masked by huge pandemic spending, is likely to emerge into clearer view: an NHS in crisis, schools cut, Universal Credit cut, local government decimated... Or there will be a big third wave, and more emergency spending, with the Tories likely discredited for yet further negligence.
The idea that it is is already and automatically game over for Labour for years to come is false.
The idea that Labour lost in Hartlepool and elsewhere simply because it was too anti-Brexit does not stand up to scrutiny. The election came after a year in which Starmer enthusiastically backed Brexit, urging the Tories to “get it done”; insisted on support for their hard-Brexit deal; and since then has desperately avoided the topic.
The day after the election the Guardian published a belief-beggaring account of the lengths to which the Labour hierarchy went to drape the party in the garb of nationalism during the Hartlepool campaign. Such antics are repugnant, but it should also be clear why they cannot possibly work to win support.
Third place in Hartlepool, with almost 10%, was won by an independent candidate, business-owner Sam Lee, whose campaign was very far from left-wing – but, startlingly, well to the left of Labour’s, abstaining from flag-waving and criticising cuts and growing inequality.
Peter Mandelson has demonstrated that his criticisms of Brexit are for him, like support for Labour, strictly secondary to defeating the left – by calling for the party to get behind “Brexit values”, ie to accommodate to nationalism and reactionary social policies. Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood has gone even further by denouncing the left as a “London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors… rich urban liberals”, who have alienated “the working class”. There is more to say about Mahmood’s outburst and we will return to it.
The course Mandelson and Mahmood advocate would be morally, politically and electorally disastrous. We should fight more “left-wing” versions of the same argument, namely that everything would have been rosy in 2019 if Labour had more enthusiastically supported Brexit.
Labour appears shifty and evasive on Brexit, to both Leavers and Remainers – because it is, and one way or another has been since 2016. Now, by refusing to criticise what the Tories are doing, Starmer is helping them present Brexit, even their extreme and botched Brexit, as a great success.
Appealing to “get Brexit done” has been central to the Tories’ victories since 2019, and at present the Brexiteers appear all-conquering. It is hard to see where they go next. They do not even appear to have the stomach for a serious trashing of EU-origin regulations over issues of workers’ rights.
In the months ahead it seems very likely the negative consequences of their Brexit policy will become more prominent and entirely possible they will cause significant political disruption. The Tories are vulnerable here. Labour should be attacking them on these issues, not huddling in terrified silence while attempting to protect itself with flag-waving.
Build class politics
Despite an in many ways dismaying situation for and in the Labour Party, supporting and working within Labour remains the only viable electoral option for those who want to revive and develop independent working-class politics.
The Socialist Party’s “Trade Union and Socialist Coalition” (TUSC) did okayish in a few areas (2.3% for Bristol mayor, up from 1.3% last time; 2.9% for Liverpool mayor, but down from 5.1% last time). Generally it did very poorly. The Northern Independence Party, touted by many on the left but no kind of vehicle for working-class representation and socialist politics, crashed.
Clearly to win an election Labour needs to make progress in areas which it lost heavily on 6 May. Still, for reasons discussed above, it may be that the route to reviving Labour’s fortunes does not run mainly through places like Hartlepool.
For sure it does not run through a demoralising focus on trying to coax older voters who have been won over a long period to the nationalist right – and alienating the young, the socially progressive and the internationalist, including in the working class, in the process.
Despite its extensive and, ultimately, decisive failings, in the 2017 general election Corbyn's Labour showed that it is possible to rally a new generation for left-wing politics. The younger generation of the working class – in big cities and small towns, in all parts of the UK, from all backgrounds and communities – is where the left must focus its energies.
The deeper and harder task is to organise the widespread but diffuse and atomised left-wing sentiment that exists in society into a radically strengthened and renewed labour movement, to create new networks of working-class institutions and a working-class political culture that can sustain a genuine revival of left-wing and socialist politics.
Not only but particularly in the areas of the country where Labour has retreated, the younger generation has little contact with a much weakened labour movement and little impact in politics. Those are the basic things that need changing.
We must at all costs resist and combat the argument made by the current represented by Neal Lawson that this election must be the signal for the left to finally abandon class politics.
Class politics – reinvented for the economy and society of today, as indeed effective class politics has always been – is precisely the narrative and organising principle which can point the way out of the labour movement’s current political impasse, because the fundamental interests of workers in all parts of the country (in fact the world) are the same. The problem in Labour, the wider labour movement and the left has been too little in the way of class politics, not too much.
It is very limited, but the approach advocated by the Communication Workers’ Union points much more in the right direction than Neal Lawson does:
“The Labour leadership team must now fulfil the promises they made… a bold policy platform, unity in the party and above all, support for working-class people...”
“It’s time for the trade union movement to step up and shape the post-pandemic world with its own distinct agenda. We cannot wait for a Labour government. That is why I call on all unions to come together and campaign to deliver a new deal for workers in the UK.”
The need for a strong working-class and socialist narrative is not at all counterposed to the need to fight for clear and specific policies. For honest working-class politics, unlike the compelling but dishonest narratives of Brexit Toryism, the question of what policies we advocate is key.
Too much left-wing energy has been expended on sniping at or mocking Starmer and too little on building struggles, educating for class politics – and fighting for clear left-wing, pro-working class policies which can begin to rally the labour movement.