It has been a torrid three months for Boris Johnson’s Government, having to fend off accusations of serious hypocrisy and impropriety — two sins always sure to rouse the ire of the electorate.
Perhaps inevitably, subsequent polling has shown Labour moving ahead of the Tories. This has been seized on by some within the ranks as evidence that the Party is heading in the right direction and actually reconnecting with millions of lost voters.
We would do well to exercise some caution before assuming that any sort of decisive shift is occurring. A statement of intent made to a pollster at a time when one’s dander is up is one thing; following through with it in the privacy of the ballot box another. History tells us that.
I immodestly lay claim to having been one of a small number inside the labour movement who — often to the derision or fury of comrades — publicly predicted in advance of the 2019 general election that the Red Wall would crumble. My political antennae tell me now that, while fortunes have improved marginally for the party since that calamity, reports of an incipient Labour resurgence are greatly exaggerated.
For one thing, any opposition party that can truly be seen as standing a decent chance of heading for power needs to have enjoyed reasonably consistent poll leads far out from, and right up to, a general election. A clutch of favourable polls when the sitting administration is navigating choppy waters does not a government-in-waiting make.
It is barely-remembered that Labour, under Michael Foot, polled consistently higher than the Tories throughout the first half of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. And we all know what happened, in 1983, when it really mattered.
Though it pains me to say it, I see no compelling evidence that the political realignment which has taken hold in British politics over recent years is about to fracture. The Labour party, as with all opposition parties, must, if it is to win power, rely on something more than the ephemeral bouts of unpopularity experienced by all governments.
And while Sir Keir Starmer has gone some way to positioning Labour on territory that will afford it wider appeal, the party remains a million miles from sealing the deal with the electorate — especially those once loyal voters who jumped ship to the Tories in 2019. Refocusing the party’s messaging on themes such as family, community, patriotism, security, prosperity and respect is unquestionably the right thing to do, as is pledging to make Brexit work, rather than continuing to allow that particular sore to run. But the fine words need to be anchored in hard policy, and that is where Labour must be more audacious.
Never was it more necessary, as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic, and with a general election perhaps a little over a year away, for Labour to set out a bold, though coherent, economic narrative. It must resist all calls for the literally counter-productive measures of retrenchment and constraint. Starmer must ensure the party does not strap itself back into the intellectual straitjacket that restrained it during the new Labour years, eschewing its own tradition of economic radicalism to make its peace with neoliberal orthodoxy.
Rather, he would do well to emulate one of his predecessors, Clement Attlee, who, upon assuming power in a nation ravaged by war, gave no quarter to those agitating for deeper austerity and embarked instead on an ambitious programme of economic justice and reform.
Similarly today, tinkering at the edges won’t do. Instead of limiting itself to arguing about the odd tax rise or benefit cut, Labour must champion a profound reordering of the economy. Yes, it must present itself as the party of business — in fact, it needs to do far more to show that it understands the private sector and those who work in it — but it should also be prepared to challenge vested interests and what has become the conventional economic wisdom.
Why, for example, should Labour, with its radical tradition, be shy about advocating full employment over price stability as the prime goal of economic policy? Let’s hear what the party has to say about reviving our industrial base. Where is the clear-eyed industrial strategy for a post-Brexit Britain? What about some ideas for closing the gap between rich and poor or rebalancing the economy away from the interests of finance capital and towards those who work in the productive sector? And instead of placing undue faith in the “wisdom” of bankers, how about tackling the virtual monopoly of the banks over the creation of new money — a state of affairs that has seen an explosion in mortgage lending and contributed significantly to the housing crisis? It’s about time Labour put the case for ending the overvaluation of sterling, which has caused untold damage to our manufacturing sector over recent decades, made British goods fundamentally uncompetitive in the international marketplace, retarded productivity and seen thousands of blue-collar jobs vanish overseas.
This kind of programme — call it “credible radicalism” — would befit any party of the mainstream Left serious about economic reform. It would also be well-received across the hard-pressed, post-industrial areas of the country that Labour needs desperately to win back.
But as we saw in 2017 and 2019, promises of economic justice are not enough for voters in these places. For Labour to even begin to reconnect with this cohort, it must recognise the obvious truth that the hyper-liberalism and globalism it and the wider Left embraced so enthusiastically and saw as the end point of all human progress has been rejected emphatically across much of provincial Britain. Instead, the party must readopt the politics of place and belonging — a politics that recognises that most humans are social and parochial beings who value cultural attachment and desire something that transcends money and individual rights.
That means ditching for good free movement, ending the obsession with ID politics and multiculturalism, and crafting in their place a programme that, while defending resolutely the equal worth of all humans regardless of race or background, seeks to address the profound loss of meaning and community experienced throughout so much of post-industrial, blue-collar, small-town Britain. It means fostering the common bonds, reciprocity and shared citizenship that is the essence of nation building. It means promoting unashamedly a pro-family agenda — why not a “family wage” to supersede the living wage? — and relearning the concepts of vocation and the dignity of labour.
The key question confronting all parties of the mainstream western Left is how, in an age of liberal globalisation, and with all that means in the way of societal atomisation and fragmentation, we maintain the maximum possible social solidarity. Most have no answers. Some haven’t even recognised it as a challenge, less still a priority. Little wonder that so many of these parties have seen their support plummet in recent years.
It is ultimately the question that the British Labour party must start addressing over the coming months. It’s future viability as an electoral force — and, in particular, its ability to win back the hearts and minds of voters who have abandoned it — will depend on its coming up with the right answers.