(Photo credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

If the Labour Party didn’t already exist, who would invent it today?

If Keir Hardie were still around, he might ask himself why he bothered to create a political party that has now lost its purpose

One hundred and twenty-one years ago this month, on 27 February 1900, assorted delegates representing Trade Unions and Socialist societies met at the Congregational Hall on London’s Farringdon Street and voted to form a Labour Representation Committee in Parliament. It was the birth of the Labour Party.

The convenor of the meeting and the new party’s first leader was Keir Hardie, a tough and charismatic Scot. Keir Hardie was everything that his hapless namesake Sir Keir Starmer is not. Impeccably working class (his family’s poverty made him take his first job at the tender age of seven), he was also a national figure who was an MP for seats in London’s East End and South Wales.

Keir Hardie began his political career working with the Liberal party, but, concluding that the Liberals were irredeemably middle class, he decided that the proletariat needed a party of their own to represent their interests. Eventually, Labour superseded the Liberals as Britain’s second party of Government.

The rise of Scottish nationalism robbed Labour of its Caledonian heartland

It is significant that the party’s foundation meeting took place in a building owned by a nonconformist Church, as Labour was always said to “owe more to Methodism than to Marx”. The party’s Trade Union base was not even specifically socialist; they merely demanded a better deal for the workers rather than an overthrow of capitalism. Labour was a coalition of dominant working-class Trade Unionists (for they held the party’s purse strings) and a middle-class minority of doctrinaire Marxists – figures like Stafford Cripps, Harold Laski, Michael Foot and Tony Benn – with an idealised and unrealistic view of the working class.

Labour’s finest hour came in 1945 when it won a landslide victory with the votes of a working class who had endured the Great Depression, followed by a gruelling victory over Nazism, and expected something better for them and their children. For the next three decades the party alternated in power with the Tories, with both parties backing moderate centrist policies of a mixed economy, progressive social reforms, and firm support of the western alliance in the Cold War.

That cosy consensus came to a juddering halt in the 1970s when the Trade Unions overreached themselves in the strike-ridden winter of discontent. This was followed by the reaction of Thatcherism, which dealt a death blow to the Unions who have been in steep decline ever since. With increasing prosperity, and service industry replacing smokestacks, the old industrial working class withered away and Labour was left without its traditional base.

Labour’s answer in the 1990s was to transform itself into Tony Blair’s New Labour: a slick PR branding designed to appeal to all that was new in “Cool Britannia” – a young aspirant middle class, ethnic and sexual minorities, and just about everyone else sick and tired of too many years of Tory rule. The Blair trick won Labour three elections on the trot – until the Iraq war, his toxic feud with Gordon Brown, and a mounting perception that Blairism was a corrupt betrayal of traditional Labour values, pitched the party into a wilderness from which it has yet to emerge.

Whether it will ever emerge is now a moot question. For it has become increasingly obvious that Labour’s core constituency – the reservoir of votes that it needs to form a government – has shrunk like a shallow oasis under the pitiless sun of relentless social and political change. First, the rise of Scottish nationalism robbed Labour of its Caledonian heartland. There is now only one Labour MP north of the border; a prospect that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. A similar process is now eroding Labour’s influence in its second Celtic stronghold, Wales.

Labour today is confined to London, some university towns, and a smattering of seats in other big cities

As the 2019 election proved, Labour has also lost its hold on its seats in the old industrial north of England and the Midlands. The “Red Wall” crumbled like the Sorpe and Eder dams under Boris Johnson’s bouncing bombs, and now even Blair’s old seat (Sedgefield) has a working-class Tory MP. Labour today is confined to London, some university towns, and a smattering of seats in other big cities. Those who still vote Labour tend to be “progressive” members of The Guardian‘s readership, students, those who staff the public services, and members of some ethnic minorities: a large chunk of the public to be sure, but nowhere near enough to propel Sir Keir Starmer into No. 10.

Not all of this dramatic decline can be blamed on Jeremy Corbyn. If the idea was to win elections, the party’s members made a disastrous decision in choosing this cranky old throwback to the socialist student politics of the 1970s as their leader. But Corbyn was a fair representation of what Labour’s new core voters appear to want: fairyland economics based on the magic money tree, and an obsession with identity politics and fruitcake causes a million miles away from the bread-and-butter issues that matter to ordinary people.

It took a while before the wider public became aware of just how poisonous Corbyn’s politics were. Once they realised that the man did not possess an iota of the patriotism of a Foot or Benn and was a Britain-hating pal of terrorists and anti-Semites, their verdict was Labour’s most crushing defeat since 1935. To take Corbyn’s place, however, Labour have chosen another dud.

Instead of an Islington-dwelling middle-class politician with no knowledge or empathy with those on the wrong side of the M25, they have chosen – ahem – an Islington-dwelling middle-class politician with no knowledge or empathy with those on the wrong side of the M25. Sir Keir may be a smoothie lawyer who dresses more smartly than his predecessor (admittedly not a high bar), but his political instincts show the same unerring habit of hitting the wrong button, and he has all the charisma and popular appeal of a plank.

Labour is not alone in its problems. In Germany and France once mighty social democratic sister parties have withered away to electoral insignificance too, and left-wing voters are turning to the Greens. If Keir Hardie were around today, he might well ask himself why he bothered to create a political party that has now lost its class, its purpose, and its future.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover