Early results matter. That’s true when TV pundits need to fill time in overnight election coverage, and it was especially true in the 72-hour trickle of results that followed last Thursday’s country-wide local votes. Labour was expected to lose the Hartlepool by-election, but the margin of its defeat set the story of ‘heartland catastrophe’ rolling. Ben Houchen’s crushing Conservative victory in the Tees Valley mayoralty, and, later, scads of council seats falling – including Labour’s loss of control in such totemic councils as Durham – seemed to confirm the story.
Commentators slotted it into their preferred explanations: the long shadow of Corbyn, or his absence; inept and patronising flag-waving, or the capture of Labour by decadent metropolitans. Others argued that the volatility of recent years simply masked the longer-term decline of the Labour vote since 2001. Whatever the reasons, the narrative struck home: the party soon began its routine of self-abasement and mutual recrimination.
But the results are more interesting than a simple Labour wipeout. Alongside the misery, Labour retained and won mayoralties, and expanded its reach in Manchester, under a phenomenally popular mayor; Preston, long regarded as a test bed for the Labour left’s vision of local government, remains untroubled. In Wales, the party recaptured the Rhondda and took half the seats in the Senedd. In London, Sadiq Khan outperformed both of Boris Johnson’s mayoral victories, in vote share as well as final margin of victory. There are also interesting local stories: Labour made gains in southern coastal towns like Worthing, university towns like Falmouth and commuter-belt towns around London; the Tories underperformed in parts of West Yorkshire; and there were shifts in the geographical spread of the Labour vote in London. (Rory Scothorne will be writing about Scotland in the next issue of the LRB.)
It was a disorienting election: incumbency was obviously an advantage, and the yardstick of what ‘ought’ to happen in a ‘normal’ political cycle is less useful with a government that has branded itself the liberator of its people from European bondage, overseen a vaccination programme that eclipsed its culpable failures earlier in the pandemic, and not yet turned off the economic life support. None of these facts are discernible under Labour’s stagey embrace of sackcloth and ashes, and they have not yet troubled the party’s instinctive factional fighters, who scent advantage in the wind.
For a less tribal left, the election’s Green renaissance is a silver lining. In London, a well-executed campaign by Sian Berry – perhaps profiting from Khan’s embrace of the polluting Silvertown Tunnel – positioned the Greens as London’s third party; in Bristol they attracted substantial parts of the city’s left-wing vote and now have the same number of council seats as Labour. Bristol West will look tempting in the next general election. In Scotland, Green MSPs will look forward to extracting concessions from an SNP government, while forming a pro-independence majority; Scottish Labour remains inexplicably cheery about its gradual evaporation and irrelevance.
The left-wing Labour MP Jon Trickett suggested that the Green spring represents a squeeze on Labour’s vote from the middle class as well as the working class. But the story is more complex than that: Green wins in Tynedale, Stockport and Derbyshire might suggest they are vying for a third-party role in English politics more generally. (They risk, therefore, the blithe ideological chaos that the Liberal Democrats long fomented at a local level.) Over the weekend, the English Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley dashed across the country to embrace, cheer and flag up his party’s achievements; the Labour leader locked himself in his reshuffle bunker.
Labour has developed a singular inability to appreciate what it gets right. The enthusiasm with which the Conservative Party welcomes its new voters is obvious; since the end of its last term in government, Labour has lamented those abandoning the party while dismissing those who actually vote for it with hostility and contempt. It responded with injured entitlement to the 93,000 voters who registered a Green first preference in London before backing Khan.
Not long after the Hartlepool result, the former Labour front-bencher Khalid Mahmood announced his new fellowship at the right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange by attacking the party’s London-centricity, its ‘brigades of woke social media warriors’ and ‘tech-utopianism’. He wasn’t referring to any starry-eyed theory of postcapitalism but the rise of home working during the pandemic – an unambitious utopia, which has hardly been central to the party’s thinking over the past year. You might think this sounds like vapid duelling with strawmen, and you would be right, but the content isn’t the point – what matters is the mood music of self-loathing. Describing your members as the scum of the earth has never looked like a good way to attract new voters, and may eventually persuade those who are still on board to give up.
Labour has often found itself prey to vigorously propagated media myths: the myth of its fiscal profligacy is now being supplanted by the myth that it contains two irreconcilable camps with no interests in common. The party does itself no favours by simply agreeing with these stories, and chasing after one camp while excoriating the other: it merely risks making that irreconcilability ever more real. It is in the interests of the right to depict contemporary politics as a battle between a formally diverse but elite caste of prosperous ‘woke’ metropolitans, on the one hand, preaching equality but happy to siphon off the benefits of urban asset inflation and corporate cash, and, on the other, dispossessed instinctive nationalists, rabidly distrustful of any social change and pining for lost glories.
The supposed ‘culture war’ conceals an economic pincer movement: outside the overheated south-east and urban centres, Tory increases to the minimum wage and temporary uplifts to universal credit have been tangible, and come in the context of longer-term cuts to services, often administered by long-established Labour councils – themselves no strangers to venality. It’s no good for Labour to complain that voters do not understand that many of these councils have been destroyed by enormous cuts from central government, when the party has long abandoned any attempt to give a clear picture of how the state works. It is unjust that Labour local administrations have been tarnished by the austerity years while a Tory government in Westminster volubly splashing a little cash a decade later is reaping its rewards, but politics is often unfair. Corbynism and Brexit may both have accelerated the process of decomposition and realignment already underway in the party, but it is economics that will cement these blocs. Focus groups and listening exercises are expensive ways for Labour not to think about this fact.
The most startling outcome of Labour’s drubbing was Keir Starmer’s headlong plunge into panic and a botched reshuffle. His public interviews replicated all the tetchiness of late-period Corbyn without anything in the way of discernible principle or substance; one shadow cabinet minister suggested ‘he looked like he’d been fucking tasered.’ Starmer’s public professions of responsibility were rapidly followed by an attempt to shift the blame to his deputy, Angela Rayner, and sack her from every position from which she could be sacked. This incomprehensible and apparently voluntary reignition of Labour’s smouldering civil war is perhaps the most revealing moment of Starmer’s tenure to date. It looks underhand and discreditable, but it is also politically inept.
As deputy leader, Rayner is elected in her own right – she cannot simply be removed – and she has ended up increasing the range of her role as a result of the backlash to Starmer’s attempt to get rid of her. She is also the only sitting MP who could easily garner the forty votes (20 per cent of the PLP) necessary for a leadership challenge: that is vanishingly unlikely for now, but it’s hardly a mark of political wisdom to antagonise her so clumsily. Every move out of the leader’s office over the weekend stank of panic: it’s a reminder that Starmer, though he has serious professional experience, has never experienced a serious political defeat for which he is responsible.
The rest of the reshuffle was inconsequential, perhaps a sign of Starmer’s diminished authority: the only significant change was the long expected replacement of Anneliese Dodds with Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor. (Dodds has replaced Rayner as party chair.) Reeves is well to the right of the platform on which Starmer stood for the leadership, and brings with her a history of public antagonism to benefit claimants and the unemployed, perhaps not a boon in a period of enormous and unprecedented need for state support. But the demonology of the austerity years is of low political salience today, and Reeves is one of the few in the parliamentary party with the capacity for the role. The left fears the predictable ratchet to the right that accompanies every defeat, or a return to the Miliband years, with a left-leaning leader held hostage by a more right-wing shadow cabinet. To assess the likelihood of either we’d need a clearer answer to the question, still hard to discern after a year in post: what does Keir Starmer actually believe?
Labour politicians and thinkers often have a curiously static conception of political geography and terrain: their characteristic error is to ascribe success or defeat primarily to the internal dynamics of the party, without taking account of the political system as a whole. This is especially foolish now, given that the central fact around which English (and thus much of British) politics revolves is the Tory consolidation of the entire right-wing voting bloc under its banner, having effectively absorbed the vast majority of those who used to vote for UKIP or the Brexit Party.
The unwitting father of this new Conservatism is David Cameron, though it’s very different from the vaguely socially liberal austerity state he thought he was creating; the Brexit referendum that eventually gave the Tories their apparent 40 per cent core vote in much of England also remade them as a more aggressive, more authoritarian but also more happily interventionist party. One reason for Starmer’s scrabbling is that ‘austerity’ was already an inappropriate attack against this government in 2019, and it’s entirely pointless in 2021 – however enduring its consequences. Attempts to find a new line of attack on incompetence or ‘sleaze’ have yielded little reward. The anti-political mood gripping much of England appears not to see them as disadvantages.
But the new Conservatism poses deeper problems for Labour. Best represented by Houchen, it is unafraid of spending or even a bit of strategic nationalisation, and despite his ‘war on woke’ jibes, the Tees Valley mayor sometimes sounds eerily Labour-like. His recent writing at Conservative Home suggests the ‘Green New Deal’ beloved of Labour’s left is perfectly capable of right-wing articulation and detachment from public ownership. The major feature of the new Conservatism, though, is a brazen clientelism. It is usually euphemised, but a councillor standing in Sir David Amess’s constituency of Southend West printed it on a leaflet, as a quote from the MP: the government is ‘reluctant to go that extra mile for an opposition-controlled local council’. Amess now denies having said it, but evidence of pork-barrel politics is abundant – and will contrast sharply with the punitive measures likely for Londoners as TfL’s temporary bail-out expires this week. It is cold comfort to Labour that there are internal limits to this approach in the Tory Party: for now, it works.
All these problems for Labour are about to concentrate in Batley and Spen, its next by-election, triggered by the former MP Tracy Brabin’s becoming mayor of West Yorkshire. Labour has a better chance of holding the seat than it did in Hartlepool, though the party would be wise to avoid scheduling the vote just as Johnson reopens the country in full. With a third of constituents economically inactive, the Tory offer may look increasingly alluring. The simmering school protests in Batley may yet bode an ugly campaign. If Keir Starmer can’t win it, his days as leader are surely numbered.