Early results matter. They matter when TV pundits are required to fill hours of overnight election coverage, and they mattered especially during the 72-hour period that followed the UK-wide elections held on 6 May, during which results continued to trickle in. Labour was expected to lose the Hartlepool by-election, but the margin of its defeat, announced in the early hours, set the story of a ‘heartlands catastrophe’ rolling. Ben Houchen’s crushing Conservative victory in the Tees Valley mayoralty and, later, the loss of scads of council seats – sending a totemic council like Durham into no overall control – built the momentum. Commentators slotted these events into their pre-prepared explanations, blaming them on the long shadow of Corbyn, or his absence; on inept and patronising flag-waving, or the capture of Labour by decadent metropolitans. Others argued that the volatility of recent years has simply masked the longer-term decline of the Labour vote since 2001. Whatever the reasons, everyone agreed it was a disaster: the party soon began its routine of self-abasement and mutual recrimination.
Yet this wasn’t simply a Labour wipeout. The party retained and won mayoralties, and expanded its reach in Manchester, aided by a phenomenally popular mayor, Andy Burnham. Preston, long regarded as a test bed for the Labour left’s vision of local government, remained solid in support of the party. In Wales, Labour recaptured Rhondda and took nearly half the seats in the Senedd. In London, Sadiq Khan exceeded both of Boris Johnson’s mayoral victories, in vote share as well as final margin of victory. There were also positive micro stories: Labour made gains in southern coastal towns such as Worthing, university towns such as 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. In the Assembly elections, Labour closed to within one point of the Conservatives in the West Central Tory heartlands – the gap was ten points in 2016 – and consolidated its hold in once blue Merton and Wandsworth. Havering and Redbridge is a microcosm of the national picture. It had been one of London’s most marginal constituencies, the reddening of its western, urban end counterbalanced by Tory consolidation in its eastern reaches, where it resembles many of the towns in which Labour is diminishing. In May, the Tory candidate finished nine points ahead.
It was a disorientating election. Incumbency was obviously an advantage. The yardstick of what ‘ought’ to happen in a ‘normal’ political cycle is less useful when the opposition is faced with a government that has branded itself the liberator of its people from European bondage, overseen a vaccination programme that (for now) has eclipsed its culpable failures earlier in the pandemic, and which hasn’t yet turned off the economic life-support. None of these facts is discernible behind Labour’s stagy embrace of sackcloth and ashes, and they haven’t yet troubled the assurance of the party’s instinctive factional fighters, who scent advantage in the wind.
For a less tribal left, the apparent 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 is a tempting prospect for the next general election. In Scotland, Green MSPs will look forward to extracting concessions from an SNP government, while helping it form a pro-independence majority; Scottish Labour remains inexplicably cheery about its gradual evaporation and slide into irrelevance.
The left-wing Labour MP Jon Trickett argued that the Greens’ success reflects a squeeze on Labour’s vote from the middle class (93,000 voters registered a Green first preference in London before backing Khan). But the story is more complex: Green wins in Tynedale, Alnwick, Stockport and Derbyshire suggest they are vying for the 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; Labour has already begun attacking them, not always accurately, for alleged alliances with the Tories.) As the results came in, Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the English Greens, dashed across the country to cheer his party’s achievements; Keir Starmer 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 (and perhaps infectious); since the end of its last term in government, Labour has lamented those abandoning the party while treating those who actually vote for it with hostility and contempt. Not long after the Hartlepool result, the former Labour front-bencher Khalid Mahmood announced his new fellowship at Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank, by attacking his party’s London-centricity, its ‘brigades of woke social media warriors’ and its ‘tech-utopianism’. By the latter, he didn’t mean any starry-eyed theory of postcapitalism but merely 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. That this was all nonsense 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 – it may eventually persuade those still loyal to give up.
Labour has often been the victim of vigorously propagated media myths: the myth of its fiscal profligacy is now being supplanted by the myth that its support base is split into two irreconcilable camps, with no interests in common. The party does itself no favours by agreeing with these stories, chasing after one camp while excoriating the other: it merely risks making that irreconcilability more real. It is in the interests of the right to depict contemporary politics as a battle between, on the one hand, a formally diverse but elite caste of prosperous ‘woke’ metropolitans who preach equality but are 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 urban centres and overheated south-east, 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 established Labour councils – themselves no strangers to venality. It’s pointless for Labour to complain that voters don’t understand that many of these councils have been destroyed by enormous cuts from central government, when the party long ago gave up attempting to give a clear picture of the way the state works. It’s unjust that Labour local administrations have been tarnished by the austerity years and that the same old Tories at Westminster, now volubly splashing some cash, should be reaping such excessive rewards, but politics is often unfair. Corbynism and Brexit may have accelerated a process of change and realignment already underway, but it is economics that will cement these emergent new voting blocs. Focus groups and listening exercises are expensive ways for Labour not to think about this reality.
The elections also provoked another of Tony Blair’s near-weekly ‘rare interventions’ in British politics, with a smattering of TV interviews based on an essay in the New Statesman. Blair’s retainers dutifully lauded the essay: David Miliband, the king over the water, described it as a masterclass in political argument. In fact, the piece is an embarrassment, a mixture of reheated Blairite cliché, regurgitated Silicon Valley TED talks, and analysis of the British cultural landscape as found in the comment pages of the Times. Nonetheless, his diagnosis will carry weight at the executive end of the party. The consistent hallmarks of Blair’s thinking are all present: the desire for a small, executive, technocratic party free from democratic control by its membership; loathing for the trade unions; wistful comparison with the US Democrats. He sees the Labour Party’s original sin as its schism from New Liberalism, citing its estrangement from ‘Gladstone, Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge’. A moment’s thought reveals the fatuity of the diagnosis: Beveridge and Keynes have been the touchstones of the party’s thinking on welfare and economics for most of its existence, such that Labour MPs occasionally forget Beveridge wasn’t one of their own. Its departures from Beveridge-influenced universalism and Keynesian orthodoxy were made under Blair: were either figure in today’s party, he might consider them rather too left-wing.
Added to these complaints is an especially vapid technological prometheanism: technology will change everything, it could be good or bad, and no traditional ideology is adequate to understanding it. This might be forgivable in a sixth-former, but it is risible in a former prime minister. Blair’s attitude in this regard is longstanding, but its current form is revealing: technology effaces politics, unfolding like the world spirit riding on a silicon chip, and the role of politicians is merely to administer the ‘solutions’ it provides. Twenty-five years of real-world technological politics disappear into the eternal optimism of the mid-1990s. Blair offers no hint as to how technology might actually solve the crises of housing or climate, merely his faith that such solutions exist. Anthony Crosland, to whom he gestures in the piece, was at least a master of detail. In his technological fixation Blair resembles no one in modern politics so much as Dominic Cummings, though Cummings understands that technology intensifies, rather than removes, political divides.
The most startling outcome of Labour’s drubbing was Starmer’s headlong plunge into panic. His interviews had all the tetchiness of late-period Corbyn without anything in the way of discernible principle or substance; one shadow cabinet minister said: ‘He looked like he’d been fucking tasered.’ Starmer’s public professions of responsibility were rapidly followed by an attempt to shift the blame onto his deputy, Angela Rayner, and to 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. She is also the only sitting MP who could easily garner the forty votes (20 per cent of the PLP) needed for a leadership challenge. That is vanishingly unlikely for now, but it’s hardly sensible to antagonise her so clumsily. It’s a reminder that Starmer, though he has serious professional experience, is still a newcomer to politics: he was only elected to Parliament in 2015.
The disastrously trailed reshuffle of the shadow cabinet proved 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 disobliging remarks about benefit claimants and the unemployed, perhaps not a boon in a period characterised by an 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 who has 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 would need a clear answer to the question, still pressing, of what Starmer actually believes in.
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 party’s internal dynamics, without taking account of the political system as a whole. This is especially foolish now, given that the central fact around which English (and therefore much of British) politics revolves is the Tories’ consolidation of the entire right-wing voting bloc under their 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 2016 referendum that ultimately 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 scrambling around is that ‘austerity’ was already an inappropriate attack against this government in 2019, and is entirely pointless in 2021 – however enduring its consequences. Attempts to find a new line in challenging incompetence or ‘sleaze’ have so far yielded little reward. ‘Sleaze’ worked against Major because it highlighted the hypocrisy of the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, but Johnson’s politics is already avowedly cynical: the theme of Johnsonism is that all politicians are avaricious, insincere and self-seeking, and he merely conceals it a little less than others. Pointing this out to the public, who have in many cases enthusiastically endorsed this anti-political view, does not seem an adequate strategy.
But the new Conservatism poses deeper problems for Labour. Best represented by Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor, it is unafraid of spending and not even averse to some strategic nationalisation. As well as sounding eerily like Labour, there are shades of Michael Heseltine, a reminder that Johnson once described his own politics as ‘a Brexity Hezza’. And we shouldn’t imagine that Houchen lifts phrases only from the Labour right. In a recent piece for the website Conservative Home, he envisions the development of carbon capture technologies and hydrogen power, bringing the UK ‘closer to net zero while creating good-quality jobs in the places they’re most needed’. The ‘Green New Deal’ beloved of the Labour left is perfectly available for right-wing rearticulation, detached from the public ownership its architects hoped would spark wider economic change. Houchen campaigns forcefully for a deregulated freeport at Redcar, but equally vociferously for new offshore windfarms; he also grasps the value of potent symbolism in a part of the country long neglected by Westminster – the nationalisation of Teesside International Airport was a strong propaganda coup for him.
So too is the move of 750 Treasury jobs to Darlington, on Houchen’s patch. Having friends in high places helps: the major feature of the new Conservatism is its brazen clientelism. It is usually euphemised, but a councillor standing in Southend West printed it on a leaflet. He quoted David Amess, the Tory MP who said 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 pending for Londoners (TfL’s most recent emergency bailout expires on 28 May). It is cold comfort to Labour that there are internal limits to this approach in the Tory Party: for now, it works.
Labour’s problems are about to concentrate in Batley and Spen, its next by-election defence, triggered by Tracy Brabin’s election as mayor of West Yorkshire. Labour has a better chance of holding this seat than it did Hartlepool, though the party would be wise to avoid scheduling the vote for the nationwide reopening on 21 June. Batley and Spen was held by Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered by a far-right terrorist in 2016; local opinion is cooler towards her successor, who has been accused of chasing press coverage rather than attending to local issues. The most high-profile potential candidate is Kim Leadbeater, Cox’s sister, who professes a strong interest in local issues, though she has only just joined Labour. The national leadership will want to stay out of the selection process, having imposed Hartlepool’s ultra-Remain candidate via a one-person shortlist. Labour’s majority is vulnerable, and right-wing independents performed strongly in the last election on the basis of a vigorously anti-Labour position – much will depend on whether their voters transfer to the Tories or simply stay home. With a third of constituents economically inactive, the Tory offer may look increasingly alluring. The simmering school protests in Batley – in March a teacher showed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in class – suggest it may well be an ugly campaign. If Starmer can’t win it, his days as leader are surely numbered.