When Labour was obliterated at the ballot box in December — an outcome that a handful of us within its ranks saw coming a mile off, but which left most dumbstruck — it should have represented a moment of profound realisation within the party. It should have been the catalyst for an immediate recalibration of thinking and priorities.
The Party’s offer of a cocktail of liberal globalism mixed with a generous dash of revolutionary student activism — an unappealing blend of Lennon and Lenin, if you will — had alienated its once-loyal working-class base. Millions of its former supporters voted, instead, for an old Etonian in charge of a party which had spent the past decade imposing austerity on them and their communities.
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Working-class voters — particularly in England — emphatically rejected the destructive creeds of identity politics and class war into which Labour had become so immersed, throwing their lot in with a party that many had hitherto regarded as their traditional enemy. Labour’s values were no longer their values.
Yet, five months on, there is little sign that Labour has learned any real lessons from the rout. The post-mortem, such as it was, largely sought to pin the blame for the party’s worst general election result since 1935 on Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity, or on a hostile media. All these things unquestionably had an impact — but none tells the whole story.
And the refusal to examine the wider causes — principally that the Party’s ideology, priorities and shifting demographic have increasingly taken it away from its working-class roots — means there is little chance in the near future of the organisation undergoing the radical transformation necessary to regain electoral credibility. In the eyes of many activists, it was the electorate that failed Labour — not the other way round.
Thus, these foot soldiers continue to obsess about fringe issues, in which most voters have little more than a passing interest, while relegating to a sideshow the everyday concerns they see as relevant to their lives.
A telling example of the party’s misplaced priorities can be seen in the reaction (or, more pertinently, the lack of it) to the release last week of a report, Manufacturing a recovery from Coronavirus, on the dire state of British manufacturing and the measures necessary to revive it — and the wider economy — once the impending crash has done its worst.
The report, published by the Institute for Prosperity, a new think-tank headed up by veteran Labour economist, donor and businessman John Mills — one of the finest economic minds on the Left — charts the decline of our manufacturing base (in 1970, it accounted for nearly a third of our GDP; today less than 10%), pinpoints the reasons for it (chiefly a lack of competitiveness caused through a perennially over-valued pound), and provides a road map for reinvigorating it. By anyone’s standards, it is a thoughtful and analytical piece of work deserving of the widest debate.
In the report’s foreword, Caroline Flint — who lost her ‘Red Wall’ seat of Don Valley at the election — rightly articulates the case for tackling regional inequalities through a ‘muscular economic nationalism’. As we emerge from the straitjacket of the EU, and as the downsides of globalisation — not least our over-reliance on global supply chains — are laid bare by the pandemic, people are looking again to the protective state for economic security. The report could not, therefore, be more timely.
There was a time, of course, when this type of debate would be meat and drink to the Labour party, for it goes to the heart of what the party ought to be about, namely shielding working-class communities from economic turbulence, setting the conditions that allow for the creation of thousands of solid blue-collar jobs in thriving and sustainable industries, and rebalancing economic priorities away from finance capital and towards the real economy where goods are produced and wealth created.
What better way to show lost Labour voters in post-industrial and small-town England — who are, after all, among those most afflicted by the phenomenon of deindustrialisation — that Labour gets the message and is now on their side than to place issues like those raised in the Institute for Prosperity report at the centre of the party’s agenda and messaging?
Yet, on the day the report was released, just two Labour MPs — so far as I could see, at least — showed any public interest in it (bravo Stephen Kinnock and Stephanie Peacock). The rest of the wider labour movement — including trade union leaders — appeared indifferent, or oblivious, to it.
That such a vital report seemed to pique the interest of so few inside the Labour Party is profoundly depressing — though it should really come as no surprise. It has over recent years become blindingly apparent that only a handful in the party ever venture to discuss these sorts of macroeconomic questions. Matters of employment, growth and prosperity can jolly well take their place behind the campaign for trans rights and Palestine in the queue of priorities.
As it happens, the publication of the report coincided with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. You can guess which took precedence on the Twitter feeds of Labour MPs during those 24 hours.
For all the responsibility he bears for December’s crushing defeat — he was, let us not forget, the architect of the disastrous second referendum policy — Sir Keir Starmer has at least offered some encouraging early indications that he understands what needs to be done to recover lost working-class Labour votes. The appointment of Claire Ainsley — a pro-family campaigner who has written positively of Brexit — as director of policy, and his own video call with voters in Bury, during which he emphasised the importance of patriotism, suggests Sir Keir recognises that there is no path back to power for Labour that does not pass through its old heartlands and win back the hearts and minds of the voters residing there
But if that is the mountain to be climbed — and it most certainly is — then the party itself remains stuck in the foothills. And until it throws itself wholeheartedly and full-throatedly into discussing the issues that matter to working-class England, it will stay there.