Dennis Skinner - a doughty defender of his community. Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Labour’s recovery will begin by returning to its roots

It’s organisation and closeness to community, not a magic policy solution, that will rejuvenate Labour

It was on this day, 37 years ago, that Margaret Thatcher took the Conservatives to a second election victory, only this time with a landslide.

In 1983, Labour was led by a left-wing leader presiding over a party at war with itself, running it to a decisive defeat, losing not just the general election but a big chunk of its working-class voters in the process. With some obvious differences, it is remarkable how similar the challenges facing Keir Starmer are today to what Neil Kinnock was dealing with in 1983. Just like today, Thatcher’s landslide victory saw the retreat of Labour’s voter base to the inner cities where it controlled councils (and now mayors) while formerly traditional safe Labour seats fell to the Tories. For the next eighteen years, Labour struggled to get back in the game.

So we have been here before and there are many lessons we can learn. But the most important one by far is that if we are waiting for Keir Starmer to make a transformative policy offer to win back the new Tory seats, then we’re barking up the wrong tree.

Just like in 1983, it wasn’t just policy that lost Labour the election. It was organisation. And it’s getting organised – that laborious process of getting rooted back into communities, that will help Labour win again.

Organising is the beating heart of the Labour Movement. It was what created trade unions who in turn gave birth to the Labour Party. Trade unions were an innovative solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem. By banding together, workers changed factory practices which meant that they lived longer, on liveable wages and eventually with time off at the weekends.

In the same spirit of creative problem-solving, working-class men (as they were then) saw that the only way they could make improvements beyond the workplace was by being able to change laws – and for that they needed representation in Parliament. They organised in constituencies and eventually returned enough MPs to form a government.

Both in Parliament and at on the shop floor, this all worked very well for many decades as a system of shop stewards developed to co-ordinate trade union members in their own workplaces to negotiate with the management.

Where it started to go wrong was when a professional network of trade union officials moved in from their head offices and started pay-bargaining with management (not always with the knowledge of the members they were negotiating for). This had the disastrous effect of severing the relationship between worker and workplace.

With no direct input into what was happening at work, and with trade union policies thrust on them that often had nothing to do with their day-to-day lives, trade unionists started walking away – exactly as happened with Labour voters both in 1983 and with the crumbling of Labour’s “red wall” constituencies in 2019.

Just as head office sent officials into factories that they knew little about, so today’s Labour Party is dominated by an urban university-educated middle-class who live in cities and whose niche interests are a million miles away from the basic concerns of the wider electorate in our provinces.

The Labour Party has become, in the words of Gloria de Piero who used to represent a constituency of former pit villages in the Midlands, “way too posh”. It’s the circle that no-one knows how to square: how can a middle-class party attract the working-class voters that it needs to win elections?

Our answer to that in 1983 forced us into one of our biggest mistakes – one that kept Labour out of government for eighteen years. And we’re in danger of doing the very same now.

We thought it was just about finding the right policy that would bring working-class voters back to Labour, that it was simply finding out the sorts of things that voters in previously safe Labour seats want. Just like today when we are asking, is it Brexit? Should the Labour Party be more positive about leaving the European Union? Should we talk more about immigration? Manufacturing, maybe?

It is not just that this kind of second-guessing doesn’t work. It never does – and not just because people see right through it. It is that it won’t help us find the right policy because policy isn’t what gets people’s attention.

Dennis Skinner may divide opinion as much as his arch-nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, did, but amongst his fans, he was one of the most popular politicians of his time.

His nickname, the Beast of Bolsover, came not just from how he savaged people in Parliament (a popular part of a Labour MP’s induction for new staff was to see how they would cope with calling Dennis Skinner’s office). It also came from his infamous and often fruity policy disagreements with his local constituents.

People loved it. It showed that he was listening and cared enough about what others were saying to engage with them. They might not agree, but they certainly respected each other’s opinion.

It wasn’t just the shouting at them that endeared Dennis Skinner to his electorate. He was what is now called “authentic”. When Jeremy Corbyn found himself on the ballot paper for the Labour leadership in 2015, he stood out from the others. He was the only one who hadn’t been a Special Adviser before entering Parliament, but he was also the only who wasn’t “spinning” or “messaging” when he talked. Like Dennis Skinner, he spoke from the heart about things he believed in and he used the sort of language that normal people do.

Until age caught up with him, Dennis Skinner shared many of the experiences of the people who lived in Bolsover. Like them he had been to the local school. He knew why people were upset when it closed to make way for a larger, more modern, building. He had sledded down the same slag heap in the winter (until it made way for housing) and had worked in the same coal mines (and understood what it meant to close them) alongside the people he now represented. He was in every sense like a shop steward.

It has been many years since Labour has really been working class.

But just like the trade unions before it, the Labour Party professionalised. It selected politics postgraduates who were not part of the towns they represented. It has been many years since Labour has really been working class.

Just as the professionals in the trade union movement had done before them, so a rupture opened up between the people in charge of the Labour Party and those they claimed to be speaking for. And now the Labour Party has reached an important crossroad.

Just like a shop steward at work, the Labour Party can go back to living among the people that it hopes to represent again one day, in the communities that have been left behind by today’s Labour Party. It can select the modern version of Dennis Skinner, someone who is part of their community’s history and lifeblood. Rather than working in coal mines they are probably warehouse operatives or call centre workers.

Or the party can choose a different path, true not to its working-class origins but to its well-educated middle-class city dwellers by becoming an all-out pro-European Social Democratic Party on a high-tax-and-welfare model like Scandinavia. The thing that arouses the most heartfelt passion in many Labour MPs is the UK’s membership of the European Union. It’s sincere and authentic. Perhaps that’s where the Labour Party now needs to go.

Ideally, of course, Keir Starmer will want to do what Tony Blair did and combine the two – but that was in 1997, a long time after Neil Kinnock and John Smith had established Labour back in its communities.

There’s a lot of work to be done before we can get there. As the trade unions saw in the mid-1900s, and as the Labour Party found in 1983, getting organised is a thankless slog but it’s something we used to love doing and something we always did anyway: setting up tenants and residents associations, sitting on school governing bodies and hanging around for coffee after church.

Getting organised means talking to and being with the people we want to represent. That means the Labour Party should get back in touch with the trade union movement that created it. And that doesn’t mean the General Secretaries or the people who sit on the NEC. It means talking to trade union members – normal people with normal jobs worried about normal things in life.

Keir Starmer could do a lot worse than start there.

Natascha Engel was Labour MP for North East Derbyshire 2005-17 and a Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons

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

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

Critic magazine cover