Keir Starmer far away from Labour's metropolitan heartlands. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

December 11, 2020   6 mins

Reports of the death of the Labour Party have usually been greatly exaggerated. After the calamity of 1931, when, with the country in the midst of a financial crisis, the party’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and a handful of fellow apostates went off to join the Tories and Liberals in a national government (reducing the number of Labour MPs at the ensuing election from 287 to 52), many thought it was game over. Fourteen years later came the party’s first landslide victory.

Likewise, half a century later, this time led by the magnificent but hapless Michael Foot, Labour’s routing at the hands of a Tory leader riding a wave of popularity on the back of a war in the South Atlantic — a defeat made more crushing thanks to the SDP’s splitting of the Left vote — convinced some that there was no way back. Fourteen years after that particular catastrophe, the party stormed to its second landslide.

Prophecies of Labour’s extinction should, then, be taken with a generous dose of salt. And that applies even today, with the party still reeling from the disaster that befell it one year ago. Though Labour is wounded badly, we won’t wake up one morning to discover that it has gone out of business; its roots are — for the moment, at least – sunk too deeply into our national life for that to happen.

But there is certainly a question mark over whether Labour will remain a serious electoral force in British politics or instead become an organ of permanent protest. How that question will be answered depends on the party’s desire to win power again, and that in turn is contingent on whether it has the courage to reflect with the searing honesty demanded on why things went so badly wrong and the boldness to do what is necessary to put things right.

The first step is obvious. Labour needs to win back the trust of voters in its lost Red Wall seats. Without them, electoral redemption is a pipe dream. Every morning when he wakes, and again before he goes to sleep, Sir Keir Starmer should recite in his mind the mantra: “There is no route back to power for Labour that doesn’t pass through Don Valley.” That statement should become his personal credo.

In everything the party says and does over the next four years, it must consider how the message resonates in that former mining constituency in South Yorkshire which returned a Labour MP at every election from 1922 to 2019 and is now represented by a Conservative. That means a major shift in language and recalibration of priorities. It demands a laser-like focus on the everyday concerns of those living in our neglected post-industrial and coastal communities, and the crafting of a programme that puts those concerns front and centre.

Labour must treat the voters of Don Valley and other Red Wall seats like a lost love whom it knows it has betrayed and whose affections it is willing to go to any length to win back. There is deep contrition to be displayed and much penance to be served.

For a start, there can be no more equivocation on Brexit. The party’s vacillations between the referendum and last year’s election were in no small part responsible for its obliteration in Red Wall constituencies. If Labour doesn’t like any deal agreed by the Government and EU, then it should support no-deal. It must be one or the other. A call to extend the transition period (other than where a deal is genuinely within grasp) would go down like a lead balloon among the millions in the party’s old heartlands who voted Leave. It would also be the surest sign that Labour hadn’t learned a thing from its defeat. Painful though it will be for them, the party’s MPs must suppress their compulsive Europhiliac tendencies in the interests of electoral rehabilitation.

Labour must, naturally, commit to a programme designed to improve the lives of Red Wall voters in a material sense. But as we saw in 2017 and 2019, pledges of economic security are not enough. These voters want something more than promises of money. In an age when their communities are relentlessly buffeted by the storms of globalisation, and they fall prey themselves to the sense of dislocation and dispossession that comes with it, they want politicians to recognise their yearning for a rekindling of social solidarity and stability, to understand their sense of cultural attachment and belonging. They are parochial and not ashamed to be so. Labour must stop looking upon such sentiments as ignoble or exclusionary, and understand why they exist.

Many in these communities fall into that category of voter — significant in size, but long neglected by politicians — which is to the Left on economic issues (so they support, for example, a higher minimum wage and action to tackle regional inequalities and boardroom excesses), but to the Right on culture (so they are patriotic and communitarian in outlook, respecting of tradition and often hold small “c” conservative views on social issues).

If Labour is to be successful again, this is the sweet spot on the political spectrum it must exploit. This cohort — once upon a time the party’s base — should be its number one target, and only once it has locked them in can it even think about the necessary next step of building outwards. To achieve it, Labour will need a fresh vision that combines a more egalitarian economy with the cultural politics of place and belonging.

On the first, it can afford to be bold, for it is unlikely that Red Wall seats will be put off by a healthy dose of economic radicalism. So an interventionist programme that, for example, institutes full employment as the prime goal of economic policy, resists austerity, seeks to narrow the gap between rich and poor, takes key utilities and industries (such as rail) into public ownership, and returns the Bank of England to democratic control, while also promoting innovative polices such as workers on boards, regional banks, employee share ownership schemes and a jobs guarantee, would appeal to much of Labour’s traditional vote (as well as a layer of the middle class that has always been sympathetic to a redistributive Labour programme).

But, more importantly, there must be a decisive shift on social and cultural issues. This means understanding that Twitter and Britain are not the same thing. It means no longer treating the working class as some kind of embarrassing elderly relative, and being prepared to stand up to the shrill demands of wokedom. Labour must embrace the spirit of patriotism that runs through many working-class communities and see the nation state as a force for good and a bulwark against an ever-rapacious global market.

The party’s activists must start speaking to the working-class about the things it wishes to speak about, and not the things those activists themselves wish to speak about. That means prioritising the issues and anxieties — such as law and order, immigration and national security — that matter to working-class voters but which too many Labour activists feel uncomfortable discussing when they are raised on the doorstep. And when the party speaks about these things, it must convince voters that it isn’t just paying lip service but has well-crafted policies in its armoury to achieve their desired outcomes.

By definition, all of this will mean that the causes which middle-class Labour activists have for too long given high priority — LGBT rights, climate change, free movement, Palestine, and so on — but which many working-class voters see as, if not unimportant then certainly not central to their everyday stresses and concerns, must take their rightful place in the pecking order. That is not to say they should never be discussed (only a fool would argue that a major political party should not talk about climate change, for example). But the attention paid to these things by the party’s representatives and foot soldiers is often in inverse proportion to the significance attached to them by ordinary working-class voters. Ultimately, these are not the issues which win and lose elections.

Labour must also start speaking in a language that working-class communities understand. That means talking incessantly and in plain terms about things like family, work and community, and ending the tiresome resort to buzzwords such as “diversity”, “inclusivity” and “equality”, which mean little to normal people.

None of this means that Labour should seek to drive its middle-class liberal wing from the party or appeal only to its old blue-collar base in an effort to win power. On the contrary, the party has always performed best when it has brought Hartlepool and Hampstead together. The point, however, is that, over the past couple of decades, that historical alliance has become fundamentally unbalanced: Hampstead has come to dominate and Hartlepool has been elbowed out. The pendulum must swing decisively the other way again if the party is to ever return to government.

To his credit, Sir Keir has made a steady start. I’m quite sure he doesn’t get some of this stuff instinctively, but he has shown signs — not least in his conference speech, which pressed the themes of family, community and nation — of knowing what needs to be done. But he must know that he is still in the foothills of the mountain. Matters will not be helped if the incipient civil war between the leadership and disaffected Corbynites is allowed to overshadow every new initiative designed to reconnect Labour with its lost base. The party needs to get its own house in order — and quickly — if it is to convince voters that it is again fit to run the country.

Twice over the past century, Labour hauled itself back from the abyss after devastating General Election results. Today, with the old tribalisms fragmenting swiftly around us, that task may prove to be even more challenging. Whether the party is equal to it will ultimately depend on the extent of its willingness to change itself — and how far it is prepared to go to win back the affection of the good people of Don Valley.

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker