May 6, 2021

To face humiliation is one thing. To need humiliation — for your own good — is quite another. And what Labour needs from the voters today is a truly terrifying result. A threat of extinction, in fact. Losing Hartlepool would be an excellent start.

If Peter Mandelson’s old stamping ground turns blue then seats like Doncaster North (held by Ed Miliband) and Normanton (held by Yvette Cooper) will be next. That should concentrate minds.

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Yet with the Downing Street clown show doing its best to sabotage the Conservative campaign, it could still be Boris on the ropes by Monday, not Sir Keir, and that would be an absolute disaster… for the Labour Party. If voters deliver a mixed message, then Labour won’t understand it.

Mind you, it might not understand an unmixed message. Just look at 2019. No fewer than 50 Red Wall seats turned blue at the General Election, but who did Labour replace Jeremy Corbyn with? A middle-class, southern Remainer who devised the party’s disastrous second referendum policy. Brilliant.

So don’t blame the voters if they have to repeat themselves. The first home truth that needs to get through loud and clear is the most obvious: Labour is useless at picking leaders.

A party leader has to satisfy two fundamental tests — one positive, the other negative. He (and with Labour it always is a he) has to be sufficiently attractive while also not excessively repulsive. No Labour leader has passed both tests since Tony Blair was elected 27 years ago; none of them have won a general election.

While Sir Keir passes the negative test, it’s increasingly clear that he fails the positive test. With Jeremy Corbyn it was the other way round, hugely loveable to a core of voters and extremely off-putting to the rest. Ed Miliband satisfied neither test and nor, by the end, did Gordon Brown.

So the most immediate way in which an electoral calamity would be good for Labour is forcing a choice of new leader on the basis of electability and electability alone. The membership might just be up for that, the favourite now being Andy Burnham — the former Cabinet minister and current Mayor of Greater Manchester.

In 2015, Burnham was decisively rejected by Labour members in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, who outpolled him three-to-one; if he’s now the front runner that’s quite the turnaround. Then again, if party members are willing to go back the future they might as well go the extra mile — and consider a candidate like Dan Jarvis.

A former British Army officer, Jarvis is the current Mayor of the Sheffield City Region. Unlike Burnham, he’s also a sitting MP — for Barnsley Central, a surviving chunk of the Red Wall. This is a constituency where the Brexit Party took 30% of the vote in 2019, less than four thousand votes behind Labour.

How on Earth did that happen?

Labour won’t find the answers until they accept a second home truth, which is that Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer are equal co-authors of the party’s misfortune.

The heated debate between the Corbynites and Starmerites as to which side is to blame overlooks the possibility that they both are. Labour is polarised between two kinds of wrong and unelectable — the tendencies represented by Momentum on the one hand and the People’s Vote campaign on the other. Both are failed projects, and they’ve left Labour revolving uselessly around an axis of feeble. The party cannot make progress until it declares both groups a busted flush and moves on.

Dan Jarvis hinted at just such a need in a recent essay for the Fabian Society pamphlet, Hearts and Minds: Winning the working-class vote:

“We would be naïve to think that changes at the top of the party and an end to the Brexit wars mean an automatic return to business as usual,” he wrote: “The political landscape has shifted, we must adapt or risk fading into obscurity like some of our sister parties on the continent.”

But what would that require? Jarvis pleads with his party to “better understand how notions such as patriotism, sovereignty and national security relate to people’s lived experiences.” He also observes that “local and regional pride is accepted, celebrated, even encouraged, but when the discussion moves to national pride, many in our party begin to feel uneasy.”

That’s putting it mildly. When Starmer tried to wrap himself in the Union Jack, parts of his party freaked out. It could have been his opportunity to face down those who see our national flag as symbol of hate and racism, but he clearly doesn’t have the stomach for a fight.

The Jarvis solution is to acknowledge the bad parts of our national history — “the Britain of empire and conquest”, as he puts it, while celebrating “the Britain of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and the miners’ strike.” But are enough voters interested in this brand of Old Labour nostalgia?

Matthew Parris has dismissed the Labour movement as “a gluey, opaque, illiberal freemasonry of bonkers activists, passive supporters, historical resentments, myths and legend.” Labour, he feels, is an impediment to change: “21st-century Britain will never warm to this 20th-century dinosaur, waving its banners of extinct mining unions.”

Labour’s predicament is that Jarvis and Parris are equally right and wrong. Much of the middle-class Left has no interest in Jarvis’s patriotic socialism and much of the working class has no interest in what Parris stands for. Without both sets of voters there is no path to power for the Left, yet Labour is clearly incapable of bringing them together in sufficient numbers.

And that leads us to the third, and most difficult, home truth that the party has to accept: it can’t defeat the Tories alone.

Britain today has only one major party — the Conservatives. They can be beaten, but only by an alliance of smaller parties, of which Labour would be the obviously leading member. Not splitting the non-Tory vote is hardly a new idea, but this latest incarnation of the “progressive alliance” would also serve a more radical purpose: the unbundling of the Labour Party.

It’s clear that Labour will never retake the Red Wall unless its leadership is free to develop a moderate and patriotic platform – and this can’t be done with either the Corbynites or the hardcore Remainers on board.

In order to persuade them to leave, the Labour leader needs make them an offer they can’t refuse — an electorally viable future outside Labour. Under our current voting system, Labour would stand aside to give other progressive parties a free run in a defined number of constituencies, concentrated in the big cities and university towns.

If this works — if Labour retakes the Red Wall and a progressive alliance gains a majority — then that still leaves the problem of reconciling the difference stripes of leftish opinion. But this would be less painful as part of a negotiation to form a government than as a bitter factional struggle within one party.

Denmark provides an example of how it can work. There, the main centre-left party are the Social Democrats, who govern with the support of several smaller progressive groups. Under Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the Danish Social Democrats have gained support by combining welfarist policies with a tough line on immigration and national security. Whatever one might think of these policies, they’re electorally successful — and the rest of the Left goes along with it. Indeed Denmark is one of the last places in western European with a significant centre-left to speak of.

But can we really imagine Labour embarking upon such a radically different future? Yes — but only if it has no other option, and knows it faces oblivion. Given a choice between seizing the day or clutching at straws, it will always go for the straws. It’s easier, it’s less painful, and it’s ultimately disastrous. If Labour are humiliated today, it will be the wake-up call they need.