Labour’s fork in the road to victory
If Labour appeals primarily to young progressive urban supporters, can it win back traditional working class communities?
In 1936, two hundred men walked from Jarrow to London to deliver a petition to the Government to reopen its main employer, the Palmer’s Shipyard. Their victory may not have been immediate, but their march led directly to national welfare reforms and improved working conditions after the second world war.
The Jarrow Crusaders are one of many defining moments in Labour’s history, all of which describe what the Labour Party used to be about: working-class people fighting for better conditions.
The lessons of the Jarrow Marchers for political historians are that it can take a very long time to win but that if you have purpose, good organisation and are prepared to put in the hard work, you get there in the end.
Although Labour’s recent election review into why and how it lost again recognises how far the party has to walk, it hasn’t quite found the road it needs to take if it wants to get to Downing Street.
The report is thorough and comprehensive – even if we probably didn’t need 150 pages to tell us that Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit may have had something to do with Labour’s historic loss. It does, though, bring all the available data stretching back to the 1980s into one publication which makes this a good place to start Labour’s fightback.
The polling evidence, think tank reports, surveys of members and MPs who lost their seats as well as academic reviews and expert interviews stretch back decades and chart in meticulous detail Labour’s 2019 defeat.
But as useful as this will be for Keir Starmer’s leadership team, it is just as handy for election strategists at Conservative Central Office, explaining not just how many Labour seats are still vulnerable (58, according to this report) but how to win them at the next election.
Lose another 58 seats? That kind of loss after what will have been 14 years of Conservative government would be existential for Labour. But while Labour might be starting to understand the magnitude of the problem, the report pulls its punches on the difficulties that it faces in the former heartlands that voted Tory, in many cases, for the first time.
The core conclusion of the report should be keeping Labour strategists awake at night: “Labour needs to build a winning coalition of voters which spans generations, geographies and outlooks.”
That blithe ambition underestimates the task – especially as the report highlights, with Labour’s former voters, the older, “socially-conservative, anti-immigration, working-class Brexit voters” in the towns of Northern England, the Midlands and Wales where they are leaving Labour in droves.
Meanwhile young, well-educated, affluent professional and managerial classes in densely-populated cities are replacing them – just not in large enough numbers to allow Labour to challenge for government.
Greg Cook, Labour’s Head of Political Strategy compares the seats that Labour held in 1983 with ones the party no longer holds. The electoral map has turned upside-down. He estimates that there were about 35 seats in England and Wales (mainly in the Midlands, North West, North East, Yorkshire and Humber, that were Labour in 1983 and which are not now.
In contrast, Labour now holds about 80 seats, mostly in London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, that were not Labour in 1983.
On the surface this may look great for Labour. In fact, it’s a disaster. It’s been moving in only one direction for the last forty years. Labour can keep piling up votes in metropolitan seats it already holds, but it will keep losing in provincial towns – in its former heartlands – unless something changes.
The problem for Labour, as the report says, is that, “age, education and place are the new electoral divides even more than traditional conceptions such as class.”
This is not to say that traditional conceptions such as class aren’t significant. In 1987, 62 per cent of the electorate identified as C2DE (lower-middle and working class). Of these, 78 per cent voted Labour. Today, this C2DE group has shrunk to 43 per cent of the electorate of whom only 40 per cent voted Labour in December 2019. It is to say, though, that cultural divides (age, education and place) have left many former Labour voters in manufacturing towns in the Midlands and the North feeling that the party “no longer represents people like me” as Lord Ashcroft discovered immediately after the 2019 General Election.
This election review recognises that if Labour wants to form the next government, these are the voters that it needs to win back. And while that is almost certainly the case, talking about “transformational economic change” that “must be rooted in the daily experiences and struggles of people’s lives, in their place and in their community” really isn’t going to do it.
What the report doesn’t explore is where these two groups (former Labour heartlands and new metro students) are incompatible – the important cultural issues on which they will never agree.
The report seems to be saying that Keir Starmer simply needs to put forward a policy agenda that is attractive to socially-conservative, Brexit-voting, anti-immigration voters in the manufacturing parts of the North that doesn’t turn off its educated affluent followers and minority communities in its cities. That’s quite a manifesto.
Labour Together who commissioned this work convened a Citizen’s Panel to see if it was possible to find common ground between progressive Remainers from London and Manchester with Leave voters in Lancashire. They found significant rallying points. Everyone wanted better pay, more social housing, improvements in high streets and town centres and investment in local infrastructure and amenities.
The bridge feels much more about the Labour Party gaining access to people they want to re-educate rather than reconnecting it with the working class that created it.
These are all great policies, but they are pledges by every party at every election. On their own, they won’t win. Cultural differences are much more difficult to bridge than economic ones.
What, for example, does Labour say to the younger progressives in London and Bristol who are less concerned about the decline of industry and jobs in the North but feel that racism is the defining issue of the day? For them, nothing short of pulling down and destroying statues will get it dealt with.
Many working-class people in the new Conservative seats feel strongly that racism has no place in modern Britain, but they also feel proud of their history. For many of these voters, statues are part of their heritage.
It is difficult to see how, in the recommendations of this report, “the bridging approach across divides would need to neutralise cultural and social tensions” when they are becoming observably stronger and more virulent by the day.
This is the area where Labour really needs to ask itself some profound questions that go beyond being “more relational and less transactional” when talking to voters on the doorstep.
The report repeats again and again that “we need an agreed strategy about the voters whose support we must win to form a government to build a majority winning coalition.” If that’s the strategy, then Labour might as well pack its bags right now.
Winning elections is not an end in itself. You’ve got to know why you want to win an election and what you want to do once you’re in power. And to do that, you’ve got to have an idea of who it is you represent – and at the moment for Labour, that seems to be anyone who will get it into power. People smell this stuff and they really don’t like it for a very good reason. For voters it’s about them (that’s the point about democracy) not about the party.
Labour has got a long way to go before the people in its former heartlands are prepared to give it the time of day. Labour has let them down, has not been there for them and, they feel, don’t really like them very much. If Labour wants these voters to vote for them, they’ve got to find a way of liking them again, of wanting to live among them.
The report talks a lot about building bridges. Labour needs to decide that once it’s built bridges back into their former communities, that it is for Labour to cross the cultural divide and live again amongst the people they want to represent.
That’s not clear at the moment. The bridge, in this report, feels much more about the Labour Party gaining access to people they want to re-educate rather than reconnecting it with the working class that created it.
Judging by this report, Labour is a long way off understanding what its real problems are. It’s not about a willingness to build a bridge. It’s about recognising how far Labour has shifted from its former core. If it wants to shift back again, the party will have to find the right road and prepare itself for a very long walk.
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