No one person can save Labour. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

July 5, 2021   7 mins

When the Irish academic John Pentland Mahaffy was approached on a train by an evangelist asking if he was saved, he replied, “I am, but it was such a narrow squeak that it does not bear talking about.” I thought of this when considering how Sir Keir Starmer might appropriately react to Labour’s unexpected victory in Batley and Spen. The political game dictates that no party leader could, in the circumstances, afford to be quite so candid as Mahaffy. But would there be a recognition that, all things considered, the result was hardly a roaring success for Labour?

Not really. As it turned out, Sir Keir described the outcome as a “fantastic victory”, and his acolytes in the party were quick to join in the crowing. Given what was at stake for Sir Keir personally, and what they perceived as the threat of the party passing back into the hands of the radical Left following a leadership challenge, it was perhaps no surprise that, privately at least, these people were cock-a-hoop about the result. But nobody in Labour’s ranks — at least not anyone serious about the task of winning power — could seriously consider Batley and Spen to be cause for jubilation.

I have never, by the way, been a member of the “Starmer must go!” brigade. Neither do I believe that Angela Rayner or Dawn Butler or anyone else being touted as a challenger to Sir Keir would offer a route out of the morass. In truth, the question of who leads Labour is barely relevant at the moment. What matters is whether or not the party at large is willing to undergo the kind of internal revolution necessary to make it a credible political force again. All the signs suggest it isn’t.

There is, too, the very real prospect that the Starmerites will, post Batley and Spen, make an identical mistake to that which the Corbynites made after the unexpected result in the 2017 general election: a not-quite-as-bad-as-we-feared outcome portrayed as some kind of stunning victory; an entirely misplaced triumphalism; the party’s deep-seated problems masked; the challenges unconfronted; the subsequent annihilation when the party next presents itself to the British electorate.

The clanging from Batley and Spen is a warning bell, not a victory one. Opposition parties which have not won a general election for 16 years and have just managed to cling on to a seat in a by-election in which their vote share plummeted have no reason to celebrate. All the more so when it follows hot on the heels of a devastating defeat in one of their strongholds. Batley and Spen may have granted Sir Keir a stay of execution, but it has not shifted the fundamentals in any meaningful way.

As far as I can see, the major political realignment which has been taking place in British politics for some years, and which was revealed most starkly at the 2019 general election, remains unchecked. Nothing that has happened since that election can be seen as giving Labour any cause for optimism that the outcome was merely an aberration — that the millions of working-class voters who, for the first time, turned to the Tories will at some point in the not-too-distant future realise the error of their ways and return to the fold.

Like all political parties, Labour has, throughout its history, experienced the shifting sands of public opinion, from the ecstasy of the landslides in 1945 and 1997 to the ignominy of the routs in 1931 and 1983. But the catastrophe of the 2019 election represented something different, something seismic. That particular defeat could not be attributed to routine fluctuations in political popularity; it was plainly something more. The ensuing 19 months have done little to disabuse us of this reality.

That the Labour Party is no longer an objection of affection for vast chunks of the British working class is beyond doubt. That millions among that cohort now actively dislike the party and everything it stands for is equally indisputable. And while, in matters of political discourse, it is important at all times to resist the temptation of hyperbole, it is still very difficult, even — perhaps especially — in the wake of Batley and Spen, not to draw the conclusion that the game might genuinely be up for the Labour Party; that the situation is now irrecoverable and we are witnessing the inexorable decline of an organisation that has been a fixture of our national politics for 120 years. In 27 years as a member, I don’t think I have ever felt such a sense of fatalism about the party’s prospects.

There was a time when even many Tory voters would harbour a sneaking fondness for the Labour Party. They may have been unwilling to place the levers of government in its hands, but they recognised its value in putting the case for Britain’s poorer classes and pricking the consciences of those who would otherwise be content to give primacy in all aspects of our national life to the diktats and caprices of the ‘free’ market. But, while elements of the working class do still vote for it and will go on doing so, Labour these days commands true reverence from little more than a hardcore band of dogmatic progressives, radicals and utopians whose unyielding belief in their own moral rectitude acts as an instant repellent to most ordinary voters.

The truth is that, over the past 30 years, the Labour Party was unknowingly digging its own grave. The promotion of identity politics, the embrace of a militant and uncompromising cosmopolitan liberalism, the drastic oversteer to those living in our fashionable cities and university towns, the elevation of globalism over the nation state, the sneering contempt for the small-c conservatism of large parts of the country, the rapprochement with market fundamentalism — all these things helped to drive a wedge between the party and its traditional base. At the same time, the party itself was undergoing a radical transformation: the professional and managerial classes began to dominate, while the old blue-collar element was increasingly sidelined; the priorities of provincial Britain were subordinated to those of the metropolitan elites.

Batley and Span threw into sharp relief the depth of the mire into which Labour has sunk. The contest itself was a damning indictment of the party’s trajectory — the natural consequence of an aggressively identitarian politics which divides people into ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’ on the basis of their biological, religious or ethnic characteristics. Every old hatred seemed to rear its head during the campaign, from anti-Semitism to homophobia to Kashmir and Palestine. It would be dishonest to claim that Labour was a victim in all of this; on the contrary,it was up to its eyeballs in it, even resorting in one leaflet to what appeared to be naked racism. “We are far more united, and have far more in common, than that which divides us,” said the constituency’s former MP Jo Cox in her maiden speech to the Commons. Those words seem like a bit of a sick joke after the by-election.

That so little of the narrative in the by-election focused on the socio-economic challenges facing local voters was depressing. In fact, the contest seemed to centre on anything but these issues. It’s hard to imagine that the constituency’s silent majority – many of whom surely struggle daily against the effects of inequalities in income and opportunity – would have been happy at how these questions were largely ignored. They could also be forgiven for not having a clue about how Labour intends to address these challenges on their behalf.

Batley and Spen showed us, too, the fruits of state-sponsored multiculturalism: a community divided against itself, grievance heaped on communal tension, a paucity of social solidarity, families residing just yards from each other but living wholly parallel lives, a sense of one-nationism utterly absent, the associative bonds that bind us together as humans and communities seemingly torn all ways. What did anyone expect would be the consequence of an ideology — once again, traceable largely to Labour and the wider Left but embraced now by most of the establishment — predicated on the active promotion of separateness and difference? That constantly telling assorted groups how dissimilar they are from each other would somehow bring unity and cohesion? Surely nobody can survey the battlefield of Batley and Spen and not be forced to think again about such questions.

Neither is it acceptable to dismiss critics of this ideology as bigots and reactionaries. Is seeking to break down cultural differences rather than accentuate them some kind of ignoble ambition? Are all attempts at cultural assimilation and those who strive for it somehow unworthy? What an error we made when we opted for the salad bowl over the melting pot.

Doubtless many in the Labour Party will now set about misdiagnosing the lessons from Batley and Spen. The Corbynites will blame the leader for the unimpressive performance. Sir Keir’s people will, in turn, argue that a fine victory was secured in spite of the fact that the Corbyn legacy continues to hobble the party. Some will blame George Galloway for eating up Labour votes. All will be missing the point.

Meanwhile, amid this internecine bickering, the party will plod on with no narrative, no strategy, no purpose, no sense of direction and little real leadership, with each of the warring factions – the liberal Left and radical Left – desperate to use victory in any new skirmish to assert its authority. The next of these skirmishes will be the ballot, beginning on Monday, to elect a new general secretary of Unite. Sir Keir will be hoping desperately that Gerard Coyne will triumph and rid the party of what he sees as the malign influence of Len McCluskey and his disciples. But, again, the risk is that such an outcome merely adds to the complacent belief that things are moving in the right direction. In reality, these types of victories will, unless the party can get its act together at the macro-level, prove to be pyrrhic, and will do little to turn things round in the polls.

Neither of the factions vying for dominance points the way to salvation. And it certainly isn’t within the gift of a single person to save Labour. For that to happen, there must be a radical overhaul in the party’s ideology.

The grisly campaign in Batley and Spen was a symptom of Labour’s disintegration and descent into a politics that does not resonate with large parts of mainstream Britain. That it squeaked home cannot mask that reality. Only when the party begins articulating a narrative that combines economic justice with the cultural politics of place, belonging and community will it stand an earthly chance of winning power again. We in the movement can only pray that we haven’t left it too late.

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