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How patriotic Labour could crush Boris If Keir Starmer can steer clear of identity politics and close the values gap, his party will reclaim lost ground

Kier Starmer: rebuilding the red wall. Credit: Darren Staples/Getty

Kier Starmer: rebuilding the red wall. Credit: Darren Staples/Getty

September 21, 2020   5 mins

There’s an uphill struggle, and then there’s a mountain to climb. The task of winning back the so-called Red Wall seats that Labour lost to the Tories at last year’s general election probably falls somewhere between the two, depending in part on which constituencies you are looking at.

It’s hardly surprising then, that those hoping for a Labour government might be looking elsewhere — searching for an alternative route to power that runs not through former mining and industrial seats, but instead through the quote-unquote leafier suburbs of Britain’s big cities and some of its commuter belts. Think Guildford, not Gedling. Think also, for instance, Chingford, Uxbridge & South Ruislip, and Wycombe — places where Labour’s vote has increased substantially since 2005 and where it’s now over 25%.

Are those doing the hoping right? Well sort of. Talk to some of the Tory-inclined analysts of the UK’s electoral dynamics and geography, including those whose work first alerted the Conservative Party to the potential gains on offer in the Midlands and the North, and they will freely acknowledge the flipside.

As values and culture become as important to British voters as valence and competence, then there are seats in southern (but not exclusively in southern) England full of well-heeled, increasingly well-educated voters which could eventually fall to the centre-Left. Canterbury as canary in the coalmine, if you like.

But ‘eventually’ is an awfully long time in politics — and, with a few exceptions, probably too long for any Labour supporters hoping to turn things around in just four years. The term ‘centre-Left’ points to an important caveat, too. Not all of what we might call the leafy liberal seats, if they do flip in the future, will flip to Labour. For instance, constituencies such as Wimbledon, Esher and Walton, and actually Guildford itself, are far more likely to turn orange than red.

That needn’t, of course, be a deal-breaker — indeed, it could turn out to be a deal-maker. The chances of Labour making it into office in 2024 on its own and without the support of other parties are, frankly, slim — since even a small overall majority would require a swing of the size last seen in 1945 and 1997, elections which back then delivered the kind of monster majorities that not even the most optimistic of optimists working for Keir Starmer can possibly hope for — especially now Scotland is all but lost.

If the best, then, that Labour can do in four years’ time is to become the largest party in parliament, it will (even if there are still Scottish seats in the Westminster parliament) have to depend on the Lib Dems capturing or recapturing at least the 13 seats that Ed Davey (presuming he’s still leader by then, too) stands to snatch from the Tories on, say, a 5% swing.

On the upside — for both of England’s ‘progressive’ parties — there is now next to no electoral competition between them. There are now just nine seats in the entire country where the Lib Dems are the key challengers to Labour, down from 76 in 2010. And none of the 11 Lib Dem MPs currently sitting in Westminster faces a credible threat from a Labour challenger.

In fact, a division of labour between Labour and the Lib Dems may, some might argue, be no bad thing since it would theoretically allow Starmer to leave the socially-liberal, pro-European stuff to Davey, while he beats a more patriotic, even authoritarian drum in order to win back the seats the party has lost since 2005.

But there’s a problem with that horses-for-courses, red-orange strategy. Not all the leafy liberal seats that might swing away from the Tories — especially if they really do decide to wage the kind of ‘culture war’ that some Conservative MPs clearly see as their best bet — are winnable by the Lib Dems.

The hard truth is that Labour will have to try to win a whole bunch of seats outside the Red Wall by itself, whether they be leafy liberal or, perhaps more promisingly, some of the socially-heterogeneous seats in home counties towns that it managed to win in 1997. And doing so almost certainly rules out a transparently desperate (and as such probably ultimately unconvincing and internally divisive) attempt to embrace cultural conservatism in order to close the yawning ‘values gap’ between Labour and the voters who switched from it to the Tories in 2019.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Labour need give up on most, all or even any of the seats in which those switchers live.

In part, that’s because those more culturally conservative, provincially-minded voters are not the be-all-and-end-all of those seats. Some of those constituencies contain significant proportions of ethnic minority voters still inclined to vote Labour. And even those that don’t are not, believe it or not, like those small towns in a sci-fi movie where all the kids, the teenagers, and the young adults have mysteriously disappeared. Moreover, you wouldn’t know it to read some media commentary, but some people living in them — yes really — have even been to university. And even some of those that haven’t share the broadly ‘progressive’ views of the majority who have.

In any case it’s a common misconception that, when it comes to elections (and referendums) demography is somehow destiny. Of course it matters that many of those seats have (or can certainly be caricatured as having) large number of older, less educated, white working class voters who were repelled by Labour’s London-Left-liberalism — especially when it appeared to accelerate under Corbyn. But that doesn’t mean that at least some of them can’t be brought back into the fold by a palpable change of direction or at least an emphasis under a Labour leader savvy enough to steer clear of the supposed excesses of identity politics and away from any suggestion that Brexit can be unwound.

It’s an equally common misconception that all or nearly all of the northern seats that switched had never before elected a Tory MP — many of them (Barrow-in-Furness, Bury North and Bury South and Bolton North to name but the ‘b’s) did so in the 1980s before going back to Labour again in the late nineties and early noughties. In other words, a fair few of the seats that Labour needs to win back are seats that the party has lost (and often lost quite badly) in before but won back, sometimes with seemingly stonking majorities.

Nor should we discount the economic shocks resulting from both Covid and Brexit, deal or no deal. By the time the next election rolls around, the UK might not be firing on all cylinders, let alone have been ‘levelled-up’. As a result, there is really no earthly reason why Labour — decently led and with a little bit of luck — can’t snatch back many of the seats Boris Johnson captured back in 2019, in addition to winning a bunch of home counties and leafy-liberal constituencies further (but not always: think Rushcliffe and Altringham and Sale) south.

Keir Starmer would doubtless deny being a Blairite. But he is going to have to pull off basically the same trick as the man who only a small minority of his grassroots membership still regard with much, if any, residual fondness and respect.

For all the inevitable calls for him to define himself this week, in the months and weeks to come, Labour’s new leader would be far better off becoming, like Blair, a protean politician onto whom a bewildering variety of voters can project their own aspirations and concerns — and so see in him both the radicalism and reassurance they simultaneously crave.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute.


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David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

The “canary in the mine” for Labour are two photographs. One is Emily Thornberry’s photograph of a house displaying a flag and her obvious distaste and the second is Keir Starmer taking a knee for BLM. Both show not just a disconnect to the voters outside the core areas but also an inability to understand that being patriotic also means being proud of British achievements, from the ending of slavery to defeating Hitler.

Labour appear incapable of accepting that Britain contributed anything to the world!

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

An analysis that is all possibly true, of course, but I think the chances of Keir Starmer dropping the wokery is very slim. He may up the patriotic message, but most likely he will keep his head down and wait for the Conservatives to self-destruct. In short the last paragraph is the most likely – what a depressing thought.

However, one thing not taken into consideration is the possibility of a new right of centre, patriotic party starting up. I think a new party here could win up to 30% of votes cast. It would have a Faragist message, but this time I hope Nigel Farage will be just a part of it, not all of it. A start was made with the Brexit Party and that needs to be resurrected with a new name.