Have things ever been so dire for Labour? The party’s priorities are so out-of-kilter with so many millions of voters, and its activist base so unrepresentative of them, that Sir Keir Starmer is going to have to tell his delegates at this year’s conference some hard truths.
By God, they need to hear it. And if, by doing so, he attracts the opprobrium of those who have led the party to the brink and have no desire to do what is necessary to drag it back he should wear it as a badge of honour. It would certainly do him no harm in the eyes of the millions beyond the conference hall who see Labour as having moved to the outer fringes.
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I think, in fact, it’s time we re-introduced a little masochism back into politics. A bit more bravery. So many of our politicians take every precaution imaginable to avoid the prospect of negative publicity — the unfortunate encounter with the angry voter, being heckled during a speech, enduring the brickbats that come from stating an unfashionable opinion, from within the party, as well as from outside. The age of the spin doctor has seen a generation of senior politicians wrapped in cotton wool in an effort to head off these sorts of unwelcome scenarios. As a result, politicians look like automatons, living cocooned existences removed from the lives of everyday folk, and whose public interventions are stage-managed to within an inch of their lives.
These politicians need to open themselves up a little more — to risk taking a bit of a kicking from time to time. Most voters are, in my experience, sympathetic towards —even admiring of — elected representatives who are willing to submit themselves to the hazards that inevitably go with lowering the barriers between themselves and opponents. Witness, for example, John Major’s decision in the 1992 general election to ditch his party’s slick PR strategy and, armed only with a soapbox and loudspeaker, mix it head-on with the masses in town centres around the country. Sadly for us on the Labour side, it worked a treat.
So Starmer mustn’t shy away from reminding his party that it stands where it does as a consequence of its own failings. Its predicament — heading for a future as a pressure group rather than a serious alternative for government — is entirely self-inflicted. It forfeited the support of its traditional working-class base, voters in places such as the Red Wall without whom it simply cannot win power, because it took them for granted. Worse, it privately sneered at them and thought them unenlightened. In assuming that these people would never throw their lot in with the Tories, as millions of them eventually did, the party had gravely miscalculated.
The rupture was long in the making, but it ought to have been obvious to everyone in the movement that it was coming. While Labour was embracing the new global market, blue-collar Britain was becoming angry and disorientated at the deindustrialisation and rapid demographic change that came with it. While the party saw the world increasingly from the vantage point of our fashionable cities, those in the provinces felt a deep sense of neglect. While Labour was preaching the gospel of a militant cosmopolitan liberalism, post-industrial Britain was mourning the weakening of common cultural bonds and a lost sense of community and belonging. While the party was falling under the domination of the professional and managerial classes, the working-class saw that its representatives no longer looked or sounded very much like them, nor shared their priorities. The adoption by Labour in 2018 of a policy favouring a second referendum on the EU was, for the relationship between the party and its one-time core vote, the final nail in the coffin.
The party needs to hear all this. Starmer himself — upwardly mobile, north London liberal lawyer that he is — embodies the party’s ideological and demographic shift, of course. He also unquestionably — as the architect of the second referendum policy — contributed to the breach between the party and its working-class base. But he now needs to say and do what is necessary to put things right. There really is no alternative.
Starmer must implore the party to face up to the fact that, in no longer being an object of affection for the very people it was created to represent, Labour is betraying its heritage. He must tell the rank-and-file that Labour cannot be a party only for social activists, student radicals and middle-class urban liberals, but must also understand the lives of — and speak for — those living in small-town Britain. He should remind the party that a small ‘c’ conservative thread still runs through many working-class communities and, once upon a time, voters in these places felt no compunction about voting Labour. They stopped because they sensed, rightly, that the party started to see them as embarrassing elderly relatives; it wanted their votes at election time, but it had no desire to be seen in public with them.
The party must stop obsessing over issues that have little traction in the real world — the current internal squabble over gender identity being one example — and concentrate on the doorstep issues that determine the outcome of elections.
Starmer should be bold and tell the party that, for too long, it has indulged — sometimes actively supported — those who seek to stifle freedom of thought and expression, and that ‘cancel culture’ and a suffocating woke orthodoxy are not merely contrived props in a Tory ‘culture war’, but are alarming realities. If Labour is to return to being a broad church, there must be space in the debate for those with nonconformist political or moral opinions — especially when those opinions often resonate loudly in the world beyond the political class.
Voters who aren’t supportive of taking the knee, voters who oppose mass immigration, voters who supported Brexit, voters who believe that someone with a penis cannot be a woman, voters who worry more about law and order than they do Palestine and more about national security than they do climate change: these are the people, many of them rooted in our working-class communities, whom the ranks of the Left have increasingly come to despise, but without whose support there is, for Labour, no path back to power.
The messaging from next week’s conference should be geared almost exclusively towards reconnecting with these voters. Perhaps a bit less resort to the usual buzzwords of “equality”, “diversity”, “tolerance” and “inclusion” — always in heavy supply at Labour conferences — and more focus on the themes of “family”, “community”, “work” and “nation”. If you want to win the votes of the mainstream, you have to speak their language and share their priorities.
There can be no pulling punches at this conference. Labour isn’t about to go out of business, but neither does it stand an earthly chance of forming the next government — indeed, any future government — without a major recalibration of its priorities. Starmer must make sure this message hits home, no matter the boos and catcalls it may attract from elements of the liberal and radical Left (from which most delegates will be comprised). It would, at least, be a signal to the outside world that he has the guts to do what is necessary to drag Labour back to electability.
Warm words will not be enough (as we can see from the reaction to Starmer’s prosaic essay). Any strategy designed to reconnect the party with its lost voters must also be rooted in hard policy — in particular a clear programme for delivering economic justice after more than a decade of austerity. Achieving full employment, reviving our industrial base, addressing regional inequalities, closing the gap between rich and poor, rebalancing the economy away from finance capital and towards the productive sector — all challenges for which Labour must provide answers. A recognition that, for too long, it has focused disproportionately on the public sector (crucial though it is) at the expense of those who live and work in the real economy, where goods are made and wealth produced, will also be necessary to show that the party is willing to break out from its comfort zone in its quest to be the voice for all sections of the working-class.
Most crucially, Labour must seek to answer the question confronting all political parties of how we might maintain a meaningful sense of social solidarity and community in the age of a deeply atomising liberal globalisation. It was, after all, the failure to properly consider this question that has served in no small measure to bring about a fissure between several parties of the Left across the West and their traditional bases.
If, as seems possible, next week’s Labour conference is remembered chiefly for the fact that a female MP felt unable to attend on account of her defence of women’s sex-based rights, or the ongoing internal wrangle over voting systems, it would encapsulate everything that was wrong about the party. Instead, Labour must turn outwards. It must show that it once again understands there is a world beyond the M25, that provincial Britain exists, that the private sector matters, that hyper-liberalism has proven not to be the answer to the social and economic injustices that still bedevil our country, and that many voters still yearn for something that transcends money and individual rights.
And if, in conveying that message, Starmer riles up the assembled delegates, so be it. The objective of making Labour palatable again to the wider public is all that matters.