It feels like we never had a chance to come to terms with just what happened on 12th December 2019.
From the rush of Christmas, to the excitement of a new decade. The roaring 20s, they said. A new future, beyond the political trench warfare that had consumed the country for the last three-and-a-half years.
How naïve that turned out to be. On the day the UK left the European Union, on 31st January 2020, the nation’s first case of a new disease was confirmed. A disease that would sweep across the world like wildfire, and instantly consume the energies of the world’s governments in fighting the flames.
Indeed, the Labour leadership campaign faded into darkness. The eventual victor, Sir Keir Starmer, gave his victory speech in an empty warehouse, praising the community spirit being shown in the weekly ‘Clap for Carers’. A London barrister - a lifelong party member, but distant from where Labour’s heartlands had recently been breached by clear blue water. The Red Wall no longer.
Starmer seemed to promise everything. He was a socialist to the party membership, a trade unionist to Labour’s powerful union backers, a moderate to its New Labour predecessors. Figures from Peter Mandelson to the Unison trade union welcomed Starmer to his post with open arms.
Indeed, he quietly and forensically got on with the job of criticising the government. Where its pandemic response fell short, as it increasingly did, Starmer made his move. He seemed like the constructive, competent opposition the country needed – and in his early days far outpaced Boris Johnson at PMQs. And slowly but surely, he ate away at the government’s lead in the polls. From 26% on the day he became leader, the parties were level-pegging in October. Starmer seemed to be the answer, 2024 looked rosy and the next Labour government finally seemed visible on the horizon.
But now, in April 2021, Starmer is again 8 points behind. His personal approval is falling. The government is appearing jubilant, from its vaccine bounce, looking once more secure and infallible. The rumblings of a leadership challenge on the Tory backbenches has all but disappeared. A clear path to a 2023 snap election is coming into view.
So what has Starmer done wrong? Could he have done anything differently? Will it, in fact, take more than a competent, smartly-dressed human rights lawyer in his late 50s to transform the party’s fortunes? I would argue so.
I believe the party’s focus is completely wrong. Indeed, the upcoming Hartlepool by-election, which the Tories will probably win (only the second government seat gain in decades), will serve as a shock to the system. Hartlepool is a Red Wall constituency, which voted 69% to 30% to leave. Its people are small-c conservative. They appreciate the vaccine rollout, are sympathetic to the culture wars which the Tory party is waging with increasing ferocity and are receptive to the more liberal, big government, high-spending approach that the Treasury has taken during the crisis.
Why would they instead want to vote for a liberal, “woke”, London-centric and overwhelmingly Remain-supporting Labour party? Indeed, they very likely won’t. So Starmer’s focus on winning back Red Wall constituencies is flawed, and destined for failure. If the Labour membership wanted a candidate who could win back the Red Wall, they would have voted for Rebecca Long-Bailey or Lisa Nandy. But they didn’t. They backed the horse that most represented them. The modern, Corbyn-era Labour membership. Many are not economically socialist, but moderate centrist. Most are socially very liberal, with an enhanced focus on issues such as racial, gender and environmental justice. Many more are Southern, and from large towns and cities. The void between them and the former Labour voters of Hartlepool has never been greater. Indeed, the only reason the Tories didn’t win Hartlepool in 2019 was because of the Brexit Party splitting the pro-leave vote.
But, many would argue, how can Labour win at all without winning big in the Red Wall? Especially given the party’s demise in Scotland, it seems unfathomable that the party could attain a governing majority without its heartlands. I would agree – it looks difficult. Some sort of confidence and supply agreement, perhaps with the SNP, seems more plausible. But Labour would be short-sighted to sign up to a second Scottish independence referendum, with the consequences for the party that “breaks up the union” likely to be catastrophic. So where can the party go?
I believe that the way has already been shown. The 2017 result indicated the direction of Labour, but some still don’t subscribe. The natural area of expansion for Labour is, in fact, the South East. The most electorally rich region, with half the country’s population, it offers ample ground for expansion but, outside London, has long been conservative-dominated. Tony Blair saw an opening here, and won previously unwinnable seats, many of which now have comfortable majorities.
In 2017, this strategy yielded further results. Seats such as Canterbury, conservative bastions for decades, and full of wealthy, middle class, university-educated, moderate voters, fell to Labour. Some may argue that such anomalies were due to the so-called “Brexit effect”, where Remain voters voted tactically to win. But Rosie Duffield’s majority grew in 2019, even as the “Remain vote” fractured nationally. And that is because Middle England can feel represented by the modern Labour party. Socially liberal, and economically sensible, they feel threatened by the more aggressive, populist Tory party, and don’t mind paying a little extra in tax to feel satisfied they’re helping out the poorest in society.
London is the epitome of this transformation. Conservative strongholds, like Winston Churchill’s old seat, Chingford and Woodford Green, are now potential Labour pickups, alongside Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley constituency and the Prime Minister’s own seat: Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Even the Foreign Secretary’s deeply conservative seat, Esher and Walton, was reduced to a wafer-thin margin by a Liberal Democrat surge, and with more tactical voting, could have been taken.
Indeed, in 1992, the Tories held roughly half the seats in London – now, they hold just over a quarter. They could be down to a handful within a decade. And the Labour shift will only expand outwards into wealthy, southern, Middle England. Wycombe, Watford and Wantage (featuring unintended but unapologetic alliteration) are the battlegrounds of the future. Labour only need to reach out and grab the prize.
But Labour strategists look at the numbers. They forget that majorities of 15,000 were overturned in 1997. They see instead majorities of hundreds in Blythe Valley and Bury North as easier options. But the Red Wall is no longer what it seems to be. It is having what I would call an “Ohio moment” in terms of the shift to the right in voting patterns. Just as Ohio went from a comfortably Democratic state in 2012 to a near-safe Republican state in 2016, seats like Mansfield, Labour until 2017, now have Tory majorities of 15,000+. And as much as Joe Biden campaigned in Ohio on the last day of the 2020 presidential election, Labour HQ holds out hope for places with which Labour no longer shares its values. Such seats are lost, and that must be accepted.
It is such a mindset that means Labour will not win in 2024. They may massively eat into big Tory majorities in the South, but most of the Tory gains in the North will hold. Hopefully, Labour will then get a leader, like Blair, who understands that the party can now reach out to new voters – the Southern, well-off, remain-voting middle class. They are the key to the next Labour government - but it’ll take a whole another election cycle for Labour’s leadership to realise it.