Steelworkers march though Port Talbot in February 2024

The future is blue

With Corbynite leadership and conservative members, Unite embodies Labour’s identity crisis


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sir Keir Starmer has some ambitious objectives for when he takes power: he wants to bring back sustained economic growth, achieve net zero by 2030, restore public services and devolve power to local government.

It would be wrong to fault Labour for aiming high when fiddling around the edges is unlikely to save Britain from its current discontents. What is less defensible, however, is the lack of specificity. The goals are lofty but there is little sign, with such a small and modest pile of policy proposals (its uninspiring economic policy can be summed up by the coinage “Securonomics”), that Labour is prepared to will the means to its desired ends.

Labour’s lack of a plan may be a canny recognition that it is folly to go into an election making spending commitments that can be torn apart by the other side. The focus upon “fully costed” policies reflects a Labour Party still traumatised by years of having to defend itself from charges of being fiscally irresponsible.

A narrow, technocratic narrative will do little to help Labour govern

Nevertheless, greater than Labour’s lack of an ambitious plan is the absence of an ambitious philosophy, hence the threadbare story the party is currently selling to the nation. Favourably contrasting themselves as more competent and compassionate than the Tories is easy enough, but this approach has a short shelf life. Even if it wins Labour a commanding supermajority, it’s a narrow, technocratic narrative that will do little to help them govern.

Just what is the Britain of 2024? Who are we? And who are Labour? These were once not questions the party would struggle to answer. It was the party of the working classes, and the working classes were the primary source of support, as voters, members and funders through millions of union and affiliate subscriptions. Founded by a Methodist lay preacher in whose memory Starmer’s parents named him “Keir”, Labour has long had a sense of the church militant about it. It is a party that likes to describe itself as a movement.

Yet whilst the moralising hasn’t gone away, the party’s weakened relationship with working people means Labour is no longer such a broad church. In 2019, four in ten members of its largest private sector-affiliated union, Unite, voted Tory.

Since 1995, the proportion of workers in trade unions fell from nearly a third to just 20 per cent. Increasingly, union jobs are concentrated in the public sector as public-sector union members have overtaken those in the private sector. Furthermore, unions have had more women than men as members since the early 2000s.

The cultural transformation of Labour from a party of the proletariat to one for doctors, nurses, teachers, lecturers and council workers has inevitably altered its priorities. Nothing about the contemporary state of the unions inspires much confidence. Unite is an unwieldy goliath, built of a 2008 merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), numbering more than 1.2 million members as of 2021.

Under the leadership of its left-wing general secretary Len McCluskey, the union tried to boost its membership by offering cut-price rates to students, single parents and the unemployed. Though he has now retired, McCluskey’s decision to spend £98 million of union funds on a hotel and conference centre is now the subject of two inquiries, and it has been referred to the police.

With a Corbynite leadership and a conservative membership, Unite embodies Labour’s identity crisis. If Unite feels stuck in the 1970s, then UNISON, its public sector sister (just over 1.2 million members as of 2022), is fully up to date.

UNISON describes its union reps, shop stewards and branch officers as “activists”, and it is closely integrated with the Labour Party. It has a “campaigning fund” and aims to “transform public service employers into explicitly anti-racist institutions”. UNISON is also pushing for “a net-zero carbon economy in the UK at the earliest opportunity” and for the decriminalisation of abortion.

UNISON encourages its members (which it boasts are 70 per cent female) to “self-organise” into membership groups on the basis of race, disability, sexuality and gender. Led by an ex-Communist Party member, Christina McAnea, it supported Jeremy Corbyn before switching to Starmer in 2020.

None of these elements (including conferences with pronoun badges and an officially circulated “Trans Equality Factsheet”) should come as any surprise to anyone familiar with the cultural and institutional changes in the public sector, especially in schools and universities. If any group forms a “core” and an ideological mission for Labour, it is embodied by UNISON — middle-class, professional, university-educated, public sector, predominantly female and desperately right-on.

Public-sector Labour is where MPs and members naturally feel most comfortable, but it is not a narrative that can survive contact with the naked political reality beyond. In the private sector where only about a fifth of workers are unionised (rather than the nearly 50 per cent of public-sector workers) and jobs and workplaces are more fully exposed to the shifting whims of the market, the idea of a benign Labour government providing improved standards of living through regulations and initiatives appears risible. Taxpayer-funded jobs are one thing, taxpayer-funded ideas — around pronouns, sexuality, race and disability — are met with greater incomprehension.

The traditional labouring class has shrunk. More low-paid work is in the service sector or office, whilst surviving traditional working-class jobs have been casualised or deunionised. New divides have opened up. There is now a gulf between young people, desperate for housing and security, and older voters with bulletproof pensions and significant housing wealth but looming, underfunded health and social care needs.

Likewise is the gulf between a forgotten, overwhelmingly white (and older) “regional” England, with limited funding and political power, and an increasingly diverse (and younger) set of urban centres, led by London, which drive growth but suck up infrastructure investment, too. On top of all these fractures, there is an increasing divergence of male and female opinion, with the former trending right, the latter left.

One can manage such bitter rifts (as the current Tory government has) by ignoring them, distracting from them or simply picking a side. We know where that has ultimately ended up: at the time of writing, YouGov is projecting Labour will win more than 400 seats at the next election. Issues such as housing, growth and decentralisation, all of which Starmer has prioritised, are critical faultlines.

It is not impossible, of course, to overcome such divides and stitch fractured electorates back together. To build that kind of solidarity in a post-industrial, post-devolution Britain will require something more than Labour is offering, however. Starmer’s goals require reconciling opposed interests, demanding real sacrifices and compromises of people, and, most importantly of all, a long term vision and the sort of sustained trust from voters that is not easily won.

To keep as well as win power, Labour has to recover a sense of evangelical mission, whilst simultaneously reconnecting with communities and voters that have long ceased to be native Labourites. Most of all, as hundreds of Labour MPs suddenly find themselves tangled in the machine of government, Labour will need a guiding star to lead them away from the paralysis and inertia that has afflicted their predecessors for the past decade.

There is only one tendency or idea within the party even halfway up to the job: Blue Labour. A relatively new group plugging back into some very old Labour ideas, Blue Labour emphasises economic justice over identitarianism, communitarianism over individualism and patriotism over globalisation. By stitching the Labour tradition back together with both national and local identity, it offers not only a narrative framework for Labour policy, but something more ambitious still: a story that can rebuild the lost solidarity on which previous Labour settlements were built.

Whatever the rational case for social democracy, it was only ever achieved in practice because it was constructed on the foundation of the sense of national unity and confidence following the Second World War. This feeling of moral community, closely interwoven with social organisation through the churches, helped produce one of the most sustained periods of economic growth and equality in British history.

It was torn apart by the failure of our industrial economy — and the political organisation built upon it — to evolve or compete with a challenge that had scarcely existed in the age of Attlee and Gaitskell.

This challenge was the pursuit of globalisation in all its forms when the terms of international trade were shifting fundamentally towards Asia’s superior competitiveness in products, labour costs and cheaper raw resources.

Combined with the disintegration of civil society in the face of cultural change, the demoralising consequences for British working people were underestimated by conservative free marketers and left-wing progressive internationalists alike.

Labour will not be reversing such monumental shifts overnight, but if the advocates for a more equal society — “public-sector Labour” — really mean it, they will have to give serious consideration to building solidarity in the ways still available to most British people. One does not have to describe those who dominate the left as “anywheres” to recognise they have a sense of solidarity and moral purpose derived from their education and jobs, rather than their geography and background.

It’s not enough, either, to nod unconvincingly towards some ironic Blairite patriotism and move on as fast as possible. Labour has to go back to being the party that fluently drew on the language of the Bible and the lexicon of British patriotic symbol and rhetoric.

Building the sort of trust necessary not only to govern, but to continue or expand large scale economic redistribution is a project that is utterly dependent on how far a Labour government can speak the language of national and local identity, rather than the alienating and divisive talk of race, gender and sexuality. If Labour wants to save the public sector, they must first unite the public behind the flag.

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