The Independent Labour Party was established by Keir Hardie in 1893. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Labour’s lost cause

Despite recent successes, the party is still leaving working class voters behind

Even before Brexit, the attitude of many in the Labour party towards traditional working class voters had been closer to contempt than camaraderie. Last week was not only the sixth anniversary of the result, but the point when the left momentarily ditched minority issues. Trade unionism replaced transgenderism as a priority, in support of the RMT union an organisation left-wing Remainers previously condemned for urging its members to vote Leave. 

These workers were once again comrades-in-arms, because the industrial action was an opportunity to create chaos and, possibly, bring down a Tory government. Labour has failed to do as much via the ballot box for over a decade. Last week the party also clawed back a seat in the red wall which it lost in the 2019 general election, and failed to reclaim in the recent council elections. Yet the Wakefield by-election may be a false dawn, as many former Labour voters disenchanted with the Tories stayed home. The working class remains Labour’s lost cause. 

Minority topics have replaced issues once synonymous with the party, and beneficial to the majority. Labour spent years highlighting these. In government it made headway in tackling them: housing, education, health, employment. These now finish a poor second to identity politics. For the first time in its history, Labour is the party of students and graduates, of London, of a wealthy liberal middle class and poorer ethnic groups, from Westminster to Whitechapel.

Modern identity politics doesn’t build on the legislation of the past that brought change, which Labour first addressed in government in the 1960s. It doesn’t erase this part of the past — it desecrates it, by failing to acknowledge the progress that has led to an enlightened present. Those who have re-written race, gender and history are now setting their sights on class. Privileged young Labour supporters declare that class has nothing to do with where you were born, where you went to school or what your parents did for a living. It’s a subject neither their pedigree nor their degrees prepared them for. Class is about where you start, not where you end up. This viewpoint is an indication of how the modern left differs from those the party represented in the past.

The story of the British Labour party begins and continues with a man named Keir. Keir Starmer was reputedly named in honour of Keir Hardie, its original leader. But is that where the similarities start, or end? Hardie believed in democracy, women’s suffrage, national borders; he was wary of the impact of immigration. Starmer attempted to reverse Brexit, is unable to define what a woman is, and leads a party of MPs that rally for open borders. He says he wants to change lives instead of chanting slogans.

Presently Labour appears to be stuck with the slogans. Environmentalism is the issue of the day, when it’s a slow week for racism. There’s the demonisation of whitey and the canonisation of everyone else. Legislation bolsters transgenderism and bans misogyny, making it easier for a man to call himself a woman, and harder for a man to catcall a woman. Meanwhile MP Stella Creasy attempts to turn the House of Commons into a crèche, documenting her struggle on social media. No wonder #labourlosingwomen trends on Twitter (a place where politicians are more likely to be than parliament).

Leaders like Clement Attlee never had a problem with patriotism

Is the calibre of MPs in the House of Commons worse than it’s ever been? In the Prime Minister we have the relics of privilege that belong to another age, while a modern form of privilege persists on the opposition benches. Minority status trumps merit to present a veneer of diversity.

Historically, the Tories have been a party exhausted by government, with Labour exhausted by opposition. Division has often defined the Labour movement. It now has to bridge another divide: how to court the middle class professional, appease the rising generation of students and coax back working class voters. The question of who is the working class, is as relevant now as when the party started. It is being recast, by the young, posh and privileged with social media followings.

To social anthropologists, one common characteristic was patriotism. But there was a deeper aspect to this patriotism, beyond the nationalistic overtones: sharing a collective memory, an attachment to community and the folklore, localism and the insularity identified with it. Labour tapped into patriotism on the eve of an election, if at all: Peter Mandelsohn embracing a British bulldog the day before Tony Blair triumphed; the crass immigration mugs from Ed Miliband’s campaign. When Keir Starmer got off his knee as the Black Lives Matter circus left town, he was photographed with a union jack. 

Yet leaders like Clement Attlee never had a problem with patriotism. Ernest Bevin, minister in the Attlee government, and regarded as the greatest trade unionist of his generation, was described by Attlee as a great Englishman: “He understood the people of this country which he loved, and I believe he interpreted the British idea with great fidelity.” From the beginning, working class Labour voters didn’t adhere to the internationalism of socialist counterparts overseas.

For purists the party’s high watermark is the Attlee government; the landslide victory of 1945 introduced radical social reforms that resonate today. His was a government, a Labour party, that understood the working class, and their needs: a health service for Britons, which didn’t anticipate the health tourism of later years, or the bloated, bureaucratic monolith the NHS would become. Social housing for those with local ties, built on a fair points system rather than one based on need which Labour introduced in the 1970s, which left the system broken and open to abuse, even before the Tories big sell-off in the 1980s.

’The more we expose the inadequacy of this government,” Keir Starmer said during these last three years as party leader, “the more it presses the question back on us. If they are so bad, what does it say about us.” This applies to numerous times the party’s been in opposition. When Labour formed its first government in the 1920s, the Annual Register heralded it as “A revolution in British politics as profound as that associated with the Reform Act of 1832”. Two decades later it noted that Labour had been in opposition longer than any political party since the reform act of 1832. “We assumed too readily an instinctive loyalty to Labour,” said opposition leader High Gaitskell, addressing the party conference in 1959, “which was all the time slowly being gradually eroded.” The party was applying a constitution from 1918 to a working class of the 1930s in the 1950s. 

The left emerges more parochial and outmoded than those they target

Starmer’s line also resonates with the 1980s when the party began to surpass its previous record of years in opposition. In 1983 party leader Michael Foot campaigned with a manifesto described as the longest suicide note in history. Party veterans had absconded to become the nucleus of the SDP. The Militant tendency infiltrated the movement but failed to take over the show, when Neil Kinnock took the helm. Where Militant failed, Momentum succeeded decades later with the election of Jeremy Corbyn. A party that prided itself on diversity; that failed to elect one female leader, let alone two — found its socialist saviour in a prep-school educated, upper middle class, elderly white man. 

In the aftermath of Labour’s loss in 2019, surveys revealed that the problems were the party’s animosity towards Brexit, and the choice of party leader. The manifesto was the most left wing since the 1983 document, with possibly one major difference. In 1983, it stipulated Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union without a referendum. This was in keeping with the left’s historic hostility to the organisation and our membership of it, in the view of veteran left-wingers Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Anthony Wedgwood-Been. 

The party has been out of power for twelve years; there have been thirteen Labour ministries in the last hundred years. Its high seasons were Harold Wilson’s four stints between 1964–1979 and Tony Blair’s three consecutive terms from 1997. As Starmer rightly points out, failure to win elections is a comment on the Labour party rather than the Tories or the electorate. The left’s refusal to understand why its voters would defect to other parties (or opt for apathy and not vote at all) does not result in introspection, but name-calling. As Labour MPs struggle to define an antisemite or a woman, they never have trouble in rashly defining a racist or a xenophobe. In levelling these charges so freely, the left emerges more parochial and outmoded than those they target. 

Keir Starmer has said he wants to build on the “radicalism” of Jeremy Corbyn, while his predicament has been compared to that of other Labour leaders. Like Hugh Gaitskell he leads a party that’s lost several elections. Like Harold Wilson he could take office from a Tory party exhausted by government. Starmer’s plight has been compared to Neil Kinnock, with the task of ridding the party of extremists. Kinnock makes another comparison: “Attlee had three or four years in which to demonstrate his trustworthiness as a leader in government. Keir is going to have to do it without getting that.”

However ambitious his vision when it comes to changing lives, or changing the Labour party, the policies now dominating appeal to the few and alienate the many. If the working class voters lost to Labour now return to the fold in the wake of the Wakefield result, it won’t be because of these issues, or an invigorated and proficient Labour party; it will be by default. It will be because, as Labour MPs have pointed out in the past, they have nowhere else to go. 

Watch HERESIES: LABOUR’S NEW CLASS WAR on You Tube at The New Culture Forum channel.


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

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover