All at sea. Keir visits Hartlepool. tefan Rousseau-WPA Pool/Getty

May 8, 2021   7 mins

It has long been evident to me, as someone involved in the Labour movement for over a quarter of a century, that many of my colleagues on the Left have no comprehension of what is going on. They have no idea about the extent to which traditional political tribalism has broken down in our country and the old certainties no longer apply.

This conviction struck me most forcibly during a pivotal debate on Brexit at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Liverpool in 2018. Before the discussion, I had wandered around the city’s pubs and conference fringe speaking to delegates and visitors. There was an undue chirpiness in the air. Labour was now the largest political party in western Europe, people would remind me. The glorious leader was playing to packed houses everywhere. Ergo, we stood every chance of forming the next government.

Then, during the Brexit debate itself, the conference rallied enthusiastically behind a motion explicitly putting a second EU referendum on the table. I remember gazing around the hall in despair as speaker after speaker pledged support for the motion, each drawing wild cheers and applause from delegates. That the adoption of this policy was almost certain to result in electoral oblivion seemed lost on virtually everyone present.

At that moment, I tweeted that the conference was effectively handing a P45 to every Labour MP in the North and Midlands. I knew then that this self-inflicted wound would take years — possibly a generation — to heal. Images from the debate would that evening be beamed into the homes of loyal Labour voters across the party’s pro-Brexit heartlands, and millions among them would perceive the outcome as the ultimate kick in the teeth. Labour had betrayed its already-diminishing traditional working-class base and would pay a heavy price.

Nearly three years and one general election annihilation later, and the relationship remains in a serious state of disrepair. That point is proved by what we know so far of Thursday’s election results, and what we may reasonably predict will unfold in the coming days. That Labour, in a set of ballots two years into a parliament, appears to have lost so much ground in working-class communities against a Tory Party that has been in power for over a decade — and during that time imposed a programme of economic austerity which inflicted financial adversity on many of the nation’s poorest — speaks to the magnitude of the former’s estrangement from its one-time core vote.

That Labour’s losing Hartlepool — a seat which, since its creation in 1974, it has held at every general election — came in the end as no great surprise, itself speaks volumes. What was striking, though, was the plunge in the party’s share of the vote there by nine percentage points, and the increase in the Tory share by a remarkable 23 points.

At the time of writing, the picture looks bleak for Labour in the local authority elections, too, with the party in retreat in many areas. Heavy damage was sustained in the Midlands and North-East, and the party has lost control of at least four councils — including Harlow in Essex, a 1960s new town often described as the home of White Van Man.

The mistake — and some among Labour’s ranks are already making it — would be to lay the blame solely at the door of Sir Keir Starmer. The devastating results are attributable to the leader’s attempts to shift the party to the “centre” ground, argues the radical Left, adducing, among other things, the fact that Labour held Hartlepool under Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 (though ignoring the inconvenient truth that it did so only as a consequence of thousands of would-be Tory votes being redirected to the Brexit Party).

For their part, the Starmerites blame the Corbyn legacy, as though the rot set in only with the latter’s elevation as leader in 2015.

Both camps are profoundly wrong. The schism between the party and the working class began to materialise as long as three decades ago. The historical coalition in which Hartlepool had for generations rubbed along contentedly with Hampstead — blue collar and white collar united in the struggle for social and economic justice — started to fall apart as Labour began to be dominated by the latter, transforming itself into a party of the managerial and professional classes, graduates and urban liberals. Not only was the party abandoning those in provincial and post-industrial Britain, it started to privately — and sometimes publicly — scorn them.

The inevitable result was the steady flow of working-class votes away from Labour. Some were swept up by the likes of Ukip and even the BNP; millions more from that point simply went uncast.

For a long time, disillusioned working-class voters in the Labour heartlands were reluctant to throw in their lot with the Tories, conscious of the stigma that often came with voting for the traditional enemy. It was only in 2019 that these voters, still brimming with anger over attempts to reverse the referendum result, decided in huge numbers to back a Conservative Party that had pledged to “Get Brexit Done”. The taboo had been broken. Having voted Tory once, these voters would — as we have seen — have no hesitation in doing the same again.

All of this means that Labour faces the prospect of being out of power for another decade or more — perhaps forever. That’s why the battle that currently rages for control of the party, between its liberal and radical wings, is the proverbial two bald men fighting over a comb. If either side wins, it will find that the instrument over which it had struggled for possession turns out to be of little practical use — at least as far as forming a government is concerned.

That is because Labour’s problems are structural, cultural and elemental. They run far deeper than questions of party management and whether or not free broadband is a vote winner. If the objective is to win back the Red Wall, then neither the liberal nor radical Left has the correct prescription.

In fact, the war between the two camps is, in many respects, a phoney one. There is far more that unites them than either would care to admit — or even seem to comprehend. Both are imbued with the same bourgeois, metropolitan, globalist worldview. Both aim their pitch at the student, the social activist, the fellow middle-class progressive, at Twitter. Both obsess about identity politics and “diversity”. Both hitch their wagon to every minority crusade and then afford to it an undue level of prominence. Both are largely ignorant — and often contemptuous — of the lives and priorities of those in small-town Britain, of their communitarian impulse, traditional values, desire for belonging and sense of national pride.

For these reasons, changing the face at the top would be pointless. In fact, given that Sir Keir has personally shown signs of understanding what needs to be done to win back the Red Wall — focusing much of his language since ascending to the leadership on the themes of family, community and nation — his defenestration would, if anything, prove counter-productive. What Labour needs is a root and branch ideological overhaul, not regicide. As matters currently lie, any leader attempting to take the party in the right direction would find himself or herself shackled by a membership and activist base — as well as the greater part of a parliamentary cohort — which simply has no intention of going there.

In the more fashionable cities and the university towns, Labour continues to thrive. Witness, for example, Sadiq Khan’s predicted comfortable victory in London. And therein lies the party’s dilemma. Any organisation seeking to hold together a coalition of interest groups must be wary about indulging one part of it to such a degree that its other elements begin to feel neglected. The greater the success of Labour in the citadels of cosmopolitan liberalism, the more likely it is that the old industrial heartlands will become fretful. That is precisely what has happened.

In the way that the working-class component of Labour’s coalition was expected to — and did — make concessions in the 1990s to enable the party to broaden its appeal among the upwardly mobile middle classes, so the obligation falls today on the latter to compromise so that the party stands at least a chance of recovering the support of the former. That doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning any commitment to a radical (but nonetheless credible) economic programme: there are deep wells of support in working-class communities for a more egalitarian economy, a higher minimum wage, investment in public services, reductions in income and wealth inequality, and so on. But it does mean understanding the small-“c” conservatism and proclivity for social solidarity and cultural attachment that exists across large parts of provincial and post-industrial Britain.

It also means being prepared to put front and centre the doorstep issues — law and order, immigration, national security — which Labour activists are usually uncomfortable discussing. If that means that topics such as LGBT rights, climate change, gender identity, Palestine and the next woke cause that comes along must take more of a back seat, so be it. The party must begin to look and sound again like those who have abandoned it and reflect their priorities. Until that happens, it will be relegated to the status of a middle-class pressure group.

I have heard some inside Labour’s ranks argue that the old blue-collar vote has gone for good, and the party must now throw everything at consolidating and widening its new young, liberal, metropolitan, university-educated, pro-EU base. But so far as such a strategy would be electorally viable — and that is doubtful — what would be the point of it? If Labour could not bring itself to speak for its old working-class base living in some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities, it would have betrayed its very reason for existing. The objective — and it may never be realised — must be to win back the hearts and minds of those whose votes it must recover if it is to win power and fulfil its historical mission once more — not to write those voters off as a lost cause.

While polls are rarely useful as tools for predicting the outcome of general elections three years into the future, these latest results will prove valuable for revealing just how bad things have become for Labour. The party’s banishment from large swathes of its former strongholds, and the dogged resistance of voters in those places to all attempts at reconciliation, cannot be attributed to the standard ups and downs of electoral fortune or a desire on the part of those voters to deliver a well-deserved warning shot across Labour’s bows before returning to its fold in due course.

This is much more. The entire axis of British politics has moved. Even in 1983, when under Michael Foot it suffered a crushing election defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, Labour managed to retain much of its working-class base. What we are witnessing today, by contrast, is a paradigm shift. Thursday’s elections were the latest evidence of it. The rules have been rewritten, the landscape has changed utterly. For Labour, this may yet prove terminal — only most of the party still doesn’t realise it.

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