What’s left of Labour?
The Labour Party suffered something of a defeat in the 2021 local elections. The Conservative Party gained 13 councils, 235 councillors, where Labour lost 8 councils, and 327 councillors. That a party which has been in continuous power for over a decade keeps making gains is surprising, to say the least. It seems the last year – despite promises of a new Labour (though, assuredly, not New Labour) – has been more of the same for the party. Why? Certain commentators have offered their speculations. Typically, they’re what you’d expect – Labour is still in the claws of the radical left (viz. trade unions, ‘Corbynistas’, and other public enemies), and unless Keir Starmer steps up and frees it, it faces an existential threat.
In an article about the leadership elections in May last year we wrote that the radicalism Starmer campaigned on seemed even then to be vacuous, but what was hard to foresee was just how harsh the crackdown on the Labour Left would be. The business press weren’t afraid then, and they certainly aren’t afraid now. So, if the explanation that Labour is failing because it’s trying to pander to the radical left is incorrect, what is happening? The facts of the matter seem quite clear: voters believe Labour has nothing to offer them. People have no idea what the party stands for, to say nothing about the leader in particular, and there has been little to no attempt to lay out any concrete policy, beyond flat-footed attempts to get votes, like flag-waving and ‘dressing smartly’ (Guardian, 2 February).
The new leadership
The shadow cabinet has taken a number of stances that represent (and they are keen to emphasise this) a break from what came before. A defining feature of the current opposition was characterised by Starmer himself in his victory speech: ‘Under my leadership, we will engage constructively with the government. Not opposition for opposition’s sake. Not scoring party political points or making impossible demands’ (Independent, 2 April 2020). The campaign slogan was ‘A New Leadership’, another attempt to emphasise that this is no longer the party of Jeremy Corbyn, who has been stripped of the Labour whip since the end of October 2020. Many MPs regarded as on the left of the party, like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, have not been afforded the sort of positions they were earlier. A lot of that was to be expected. Rebecca Long-Bailey was briefly on the front bench until she was sacked in June. If there has been one thing that defines the Starmer shadow cabinet, it’s the repeated message that it is not a continuation of the Corbyn shadow cabinet.
Quite interesting is how the reshuffles and sackings have been treated. Jeremy Corbyn was often accused of ‘Stalinist’ purges (Times, 22 October 2015; politicshome.com, 24 March 2018), but the media response to Keir Starmer’s responses to the Labour Left does not at all call back to Red Scare smear tactics. On the contrary, one need only look at the sort of line taken by the London Times on the issues: Starmer must ‘face down the left of his party’ (11 May). The leading article goes on to admonish the leader: ‘He ought to have realised by now that the left of the party wants him to fail. That would allow them a perverse sense of vindication in believing that voters yearn for full-blooded socialism.’
Whether the left of the party wants him to fail or not, it seems he is doing so by his own lights. Starmer himself claims Labour has ‘lost the trust of working people’, and that he takes ‘full responsibility’ for the defeats (a day before sacking Angela Rayner). Much of the discussion is about ‘trust’ and ‘reconnecting’; very little is about the actual policies proposed, or the lack thereof.
The case is quite well illustrated by tax policy. Quite different to the Corbyn-era manifesto’s ‘harshest tax regime on business income among large advanced economies’ (FT, 22 November 2019), Labour said it would oppose any raising of corporation tax, and didn’t rule out voting against a windfall tax on supermarkets, though those were proposals by the Conservative Party (Independent, 24 February).
The platform Starmer ran his leadership campaign on was a radical platform – the 10 Pledges, still on his website, promise as the very first priority ‘economic justice’, including a reversal of cuts to corporation tax and ‘No stepping back from our core principles’ (keirstarmer.com/plans/10-pledges).
The about-face is far reaching. New Labour notwithstanding, the party has historically been intimately linked with the trade union movement – indeed, was once regarded as just the extension of the movement into parliament. Starmer refused Unite’s letter demanding an end to fire and rehire tactics (Skwawkbox, 6 May). This extends even to NHS worker demands: the Royal College of Nursing is preparing for a strike over the government’s promise of a 1 percent pay rise. They demand a 12.5 percent pay rise for all nurses, but Starmer has offered support only for a 2.5 percent increase (and promises negotiation ‘up from there’). Polling has reflected this. 32 percent of 1,843 healthcare workers intended to vote Labour in the 2021 local elections, whereas this figure was at 82 percent in polling for the 2019 general election. Other breaks include security policy – unions and campaign groups demanded the party vote against the ‘Spy Cops’ bill, which grants state organisations freedom to commit serious crimes, but the Labour leadership ordered abstentions. As a result, an amendment proposed by Shami Chakrabarti that would have denied undercover agents immunity was defeated 309 to 153 (Guardian, 13 January).
Mainstream commentary inverts the issues precisely. The BBC reports that ‘a prominent politician who spent some time campaigning in Hartlepool blamed the hollowing out of the party during the Corbyn era, with strong organisational, as much as political expertise and experience, lost’ (BBC, 7 May). The figureheads of political expertise and experience are speaking up, as it happens – both Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair have written extensive speculative pieces about how they think Labour should have acted and why it has faced yet another defeat. Mandelson criticises the ‘power of hard-left factions that abuse [the trade union link]’, such as Mick Whelan and Len McCluskey, who ‘use Labour as a political plaything to pursue their ultra-leftism, which is completely unrepresentative of both their own members’ and Labour members’ views.’ Blair’s reflections are equal in their force and content. On Good Morning Britain, he emphatically places the ‘Far Left’ seizing the leadership of the party as the cause for its defeat (Independent, 12 May).
To look at the more liberal end of the discussion, for commentators who don’t want to be quite as harsh on the party as Blair and Mandelson, another explanation has to be conjured up to deal with Labour’s defeat. Naturally, a new term is coined: ‘Pasokification’. After the Greek centre-left party, PASOK, haemorrhaged votes from 2009 to 2015, losing them to the left-wing party Syriza, the term was coined to refer to the decline of moderate social democracy. This has supposedly been ‘a continuing problem for Labour’ (Guardian, 8 May). There’s something to this, to be sure – there looks to be less and less room for centrism in politics, contra Blair. Yet it’s not so much the pursuit of centrist policies that voters are sceptical of, in this specific case, it’s more the lack of pursuit of any specific policies, easily confused with centrism. Blair and Mandelson are in a particularly apt position to make the sorts of claims they make, as they don’t have to come up with any concrete policies – none are mentioned or even gestured towards. Starmer’s problem seems to be that he touts this sort of rhetoric without any policies to back it up, and of course, unlike Blair and Mandelson, he can’t get away with that. And this is exactly what voters recognise.
Mandelson and Blair both make the claim that it is being out of touch, or unrepresentative, that led to Labour’s loss. Factual claims should be assessed as such: polling rules that analysis out conclusively. Based on a survey of 775 people, a lack of policies is by far the biggest reason people did not vote Labour in the local elections (jlpartners.co.uk/local-elections), and the biggest reason voters defected is the leadership itself. Unions were mentioned in the former survey but were as significant as the word ‘joke’, and less significant than the word ‘useless’, both quite low in the ranking. The most popular reason for voting Conservative was ‘job’, and one of the most popular reasons people didn’t vote Conservative was corruption. Those are all good indicators of where Labour went wrong.
There has been a lot of criticism of government sleaze, from flouting lockdown restrictions to simply handing over huge amounts of public funding to private power. Sir James Dyson simply needed to ask for no change in tax status for his staff, and Boris Johnson vows to ‘fix it’. Of course, this is nothing new – fresh allegations of lobbying in favour of financial services company Greensill have come out about David Cameron. Yet, what criticism Labour has made of Tory sleaze seems to be too much for establishment journalists. A column in the Times (4 May) warns Labour that ‘Starmer is making a big mistake on sleaze […] It could tarnish Labour, as antipathy rises towards politicians in general rather than the Tories in particular.’ There is an element of truth to that, but as mentioned above, the electorate is much more sensitive to Tory corruption than Labour’s. That may be partly explained by the fact that the Tories happen to be the incumbents, but it hardly amounts to an argument that opposition parties must tread lightly. This being said, the point about disillusionment with politicians and the democratic process as it stands generally is one worth pursuing, even if it is not seriously taken up by the commentators themselves.
As is often the case, none of the liberal discussion has any mention of voter turnout. In England especially, voter turnout for local elections is often low – as low as a third in many cases. The only concern is the ruthless drive for a higher vote share. People do not feel motivated, and especially so in local elections, to vote. And why would they? It’s been a well-recognised fact for a while that local government has been largely incapacitated for the last decade or more, and that this is a serious threat to a well-functioning democracy. To take one example, the LSE Democratic Audit reported in 2018 that ‘The cumulative adverse impacts of austerity [… on …] local government have rapidly increased since 2015. Civil service efficacy has radically declined, the quality of public services has significantly worsened, and local government has been hollowed out’ (democraticaudit.com).
The tack Labour has taken does little to change that. What strategies they have are pursued out of a narrow interest in increasing vote-share by appealing to aesthetics and emotion, viz. ‘patriotism’ and ‘dressing well’. A cynic might easily draw the conclusion that this is really a sort of condescension towards the working class, who are taken to be unable to differentiate substantive positions from mere play-acting. Whether one chooses to follow the cynic in that or not, the problem remains that a campaign that rests solely on the principle of ‘We aren’t Corbynistas,’ can’t work. It still can’t work if you add the principle ‘We aren’t the Tories’, either, especially when the rhetoric of the campaign revolves crucially around co-opting Conservative talking points about patriotism, traditions, so on.
Does Labour face an existential crisis? Perhaps something not quite as strong as that, but an identity crisis, certainly. It may end up turning back to anodyne centrism and wearing that on its sleeve – certainly if Tony Blair’s ideas are followed – and nothing said so far rules that out completely. However, it’s clear the immediate situation is that no one, including the party itself, seems to know what Labour stands for anymore. In some cases, it’s easy to tell what the party leadership opposes, but very little has actually been offered in terms of concrete policy proposals. It is losing funding from unions, and according to Andrew Fisher, the small donations, which poured in during the Corbyn era, ‘have dried up’ (iNews, 11 May). Perhaps the only option left is pandering to business, or turning back to Corbyn-style leadership. A good deal of the most important facts are left out by the commentariat. For instance, it is not that Labour simply is out of touch with its base – they genuinely do not feel like there is anything coherent in the programme as it stands (insofar as a programme exists). Vilification of ‘ultra-leftist’ unions and ‘public ownership of industry’ as outdated reflects a particular political stance more than it reflects public opinion, and claims that ‘All the evidence is that [Labour] can only [find a coalition] by building out from the centre ground’ are all well and good as spirited liberal discussion go, but ultimately amount to speculation from the armchair (despite the mention of evidence). Though the path that the opposition leadership will follow isn’t quite clear yet, it does seem that whatever is going to be left of Labour after this, it won’t be the Left.