Labour’s poor performance in recent local elections show how it’s still failing to learn lessons that have been decades in the making. WILL BROWN sifts through the all-too-familiar responses and seeks a route to recovery that embraces all parts of the fractured party.
Labour today is the living embodiment of the old cliché that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. For the sixth time in just over a decade, the party is responding to the gut-punch of defeat with a factional blame game and bewildered search for routes out of the abyss.
Left and right, in a disfigured mirror image of each other, reach for singular explanations of defeat that further their own sectarian purposes, be it Jeremy Corbyn or Brexit, Keir Starmer or the unions, moderation or radicalism. Others reach for the comfort-blanket of the usual responses – the need to reconnect, review policy, campaign more, modernise, listen rather than lecture, look outwards not inwards.
Little progress will be made unless the opposing wings of the party can engage in a sensible dialogue, one that doesn’t presume they possess all virtue and the other all fault; one that recognises that the causes of the party’s problems run deeper than betrayal by venal right wingers or deluded lefties.
Yet, while Labour’s electoral challenges are large scale, dynamic and increasingly difficult, the internal battle continues along tired old lines.
Merely comparing the two most recent periods – the slow-motion car crash of Corbyn’s last two years and Starmer’s inglorious first 12 months – familiar mistakes are clear to see: failure to define a clear message that connects with enough voters; a leader’s office increasingly isolating itself from MPs and the wider party; indecision over the party’s position on vital national challenges; confusion and factionalism in party HQ, leading to confused and misdirected campaigning; an inability to adapt to a shape-shifting and electorally adroit Tory party.
It’s not as if we don’t know about these failings. In their respective books on the Corbyn years, Owen Jones (author of This Land) and Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire (authors of Left Out), show us in exhaustive detail the hopeless response of the party leadership to the electoral conundrums it faced between 2017 and 2019.
The books tell remarkably similar stories, drawing on many of the same sources, although they come at the subject from very different standpoints. They tell how Corbyn shied away from confrontations and responded to difficult decisions by disappearing.
Facing opposition from outside the party and from its own MPs, the leaders’ office retreated into its inner sanctum, which itself eventually dissolved into ever smaller factions. Short-term accommodations replaced clear strategic thinking, messaging was confused, critics were demonised, allies were lost and new alliances were never built. As for Corbyn, so too Starmer?
For more than a decade, Labour has struggled to find a clear message that unites its fractured support base on the pre-eminent political challenges facing the country, whether they be austerity, Brexit, national security or the pandemic.
Unlike his predecessor, Corbyn (left) seemed to resolve one of these dilemmas, only to be impaled on others. He made a decisive shift in opposing austerity, and the 2017 election appeared to show the widespread popular appeal of more radical economic policies as he achieved that rare feat of moving the Tories leftwards. Yet, not only did his leadership fail to understand the limits of this achievement – Labour continued to lack voters’ trust on economic matters – it then became paralysed in the face of Brexit and tone deaf on security threats, such as that from Russia.
Underlying his problem – as well as Ed Miliband’s before him and Starmer’s afterwards – is a historic electoral challenge that has been decades in the making. A number of studies attempted to identify the factors behind this, and started to chart a way out, but themselves fell foul of factional distortion or were sidelined amid the fray.
The Fabians’ For the Many?, for instance, published after the 2017 election, pointed out that the party continued to lose votes in heartland constituencies and that many long-standing Labour seats were retained by thin margins. Most tellingly, it warned that a ‘one more heave’ approach would not be enough to get Labour into power.
The Corbyn leadership and the left had no time for such sober analysis. Cock-a-hoop that they’d done better than expected, they shunned the idea of a serious review and rejected naysayers as outriders for the party’s right wing. Andrew Fisher, Labour’s executive director of policy from 2015 to ’19, rather belatedly acknowledged this mistake when he was quoted in Labour Together’s Election Review 2019 :
“I think that probably when most of the mistakes were made, looking back, is actually in the aftermath of 2017… At that point we probably should have sat down very soberly and gone ‘Okay, how do we now win, because we’ve done the easy stuff, we’ve won the low hanging fruit?’… Somebody should have just gone ‘Woah, we haven’t actually won anything yet.’ … Looking back we should have been a lot more strategic after 2017 than we were.”
That report laid bare, in even more impressive detail, the long-term trends that no leader – neither Gordon Brown, nor Miliband, nor Corbyn – had managed to reverse. It showed how, over four decades, Labour faced a decline in voters’ party loyalties, a shift in Labour’s class base away from the ‘traditional’ working class, a rise in Conservative support across England (London excepted), and an increasingly sharp generational divide as older voters moved rightwards.
Academic studies, such as Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford’s Brexitand, have reinforced the point. Dr Paula Surridge of the University of Bristol, deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe, emphasises Labour’s difficulty in uniting disparate support bases.
Its dilemma is summarised in the diagram left: while Labour and Conservative core votes are in the top left and bottom right, competition focuses on the purple squares. Unfortunately for Labour, those in the bottom left outnumber those in the top left by 2:1. In ‘The fragmentation of the electoral left since 2010’, in Renewal, Surridge wrote:
“Since 2010 [before the rise of UKIP] … those on the left economically who are not also ‘liberal’ in their social values have become less likely to vote Labour, whilst the ‘liberal’ left have become more likely to do so (reflecting the collapse of the Liberal Democratic vote). But the economic ‘left’ are not predominantly ‘liberal’; its ‘not liberal’ constituency outnumber the ‘liberals’ by around 2 to 1.”
In this context, it’s a sign of Labour’s lack of confidence that its response to the recent 2021 elections was initially one of panic. While catastrophising the results serves a purpose for some – the left to undermine Starmer’s leadership, the right to push for faster, greater change – it’s unclear why the leadership should have reacted this way, other than from a loss of nerve. Granted, after all of Boris Johnson’s failures and government corruption, being seven points behind in the popular vote and losing historic strongholds such as Hartlepool isn’t good in anyone’s book.
The results were uneven, however. The collapse of UKIP, Brexit and Reform UK didn’t lead to commensurate rises in Conservative votes. In Wales, in particular, Labour seemed able to recoup some lost leave voters and reinforce the party’s dominance. Scotland saw some modest recovery for Labour, and mayoral elections brought some significant Labour wins. While Labour lost overall control of high-profile councils, in some places this was despite a rise in its vote share (in Sheffield, for example, where eight seats were lost despite a 5 per cent rise in Labour’s vote across the city). The Tories also lost control of some councils in the south.
Seemingly unaware of the negative impact their interventions have on of their own side, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson could not help but weigh in. Mandelson called rather nebulously for party reform, change and policy review, while Blair more hyperbolically demanded “total deconstruction and reconstruction” of the party.
Remaining hard-core Corbyn supporters have been just as quick to try and make short-term capital out of Starmer’s troubles, Owen Jones gleefully pointing out the weaknesses of this supposedly ‘more electable’ leader.
Yet while Jones is correct to point to the political bankruptcy of the right – at no point since Corbyn’s election in 2015 have they offered anything resembling a coherent political programme or strategy – neither has the left acknowledged its own political failings with the electorate, nor the decades-long task of challenging entrenched social conservatism.
Routes to recovery
Echoing previous ILP calls for alliance, co-existence and dialogue between left and right in the party, James McAsh made a convincing case on Labour List for the kind of broad church left the ILP has long argued for. He notes that the only centre left parties in Europe to have shown even small electoral recoveries recently – the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS) – have done so in alliance with more radical left-wing support.
Biden’s Democrats have also embraced, at least to some extent, the party’s left wing, not only to defeat Trump’s populism but to embark on a far more radical programme of change than many expected.
These lessons from America have been echoed by others calling for a Biden-like, radical work and jobs-focussed agenda at the centre of the Labour Party’s pitch. Jon Cruddas’ The Dignity of Labour is perhaps the most recent UK-focussed attempt to do this. Whether such an agenda can appeal to enough of the party’s warring factions, never mind be heard more widely through all the ‘culture war’ noise, is a moot point.
Others focus closer to home, stressing the gains made in areas where Labour pursued a radical local and regional agenda. In this view, Labour should take the opportunities that exist to explore local innovation and radicalism, as in Preston and a handful of other areas in the north west and south west of England.
Elsewhere, people argue for a radical change in the party’s day-to-day engagement with local communities. It’s a view we’ve heard before – reflected in Miliband’s Refounding Labour initiative, his call for activist, engaged and campaigning CLPs, as well as in numerous Labour leadership pleas to ‘do politics differently’, and Momentum’s ongoing efforts to revitalise and reconnect local parties to political struggles.
Paul Mason, writing in the New Statesman, maintains that Labour still has a role to play in effecting wider, necessary social change: “Labour needs to become a party in which all sections of the working class, with all their competing values and identities, can find a voice and a place. It cannot tolerate racism, sexism or homophobia, just as it can’t tolerate anti-Semitism. But it can offer a route away from prejudice for working people in thrall to the right-wing ideologies of the tabloids and phone-in shows.”
Making any of this happen, or even having a constructive dialogue about these strategies, remains a difficult task as time and again local party business is dominated by inward-looking factional point-scoring and immediate electoral campaigning priorities.
Meanwhile, the fractures between left and right continue – the left shunning the potential of engaging constructively with the Starmer leadership, and Starmer himself seeming intent on actively sidelining the left.
As McAsh concludes: “Neither [centre nor radical left] is big enough alone to appeal to the broad spectrum of voters we need, but together we might have a chance. Making this coalition work may not be easy but it’s the only choice we have.”
See also: ‘Fade to Mauve: Starmer’s Leadership One Year On’, by David Connolly.