Is a London lawyer the right person to fix a Northern wall?

by Kevin Meagher

Rifling through the thick piles of paperwork on my desk just now, I happened across Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign leaflet. Evidently, I had secreted it away for further inspection at some stage, but given the events of the past week, it perhaps bears early re-examination.

On the front there’s a moody black and white picture of the new Labour Leader. A side-profile shot of him looking pensive. No tie (a depressing affectation of modern Labour politics) and the message: ‘Another future is possible.’ A serious man for serious times, no doubt.

When you unfold it, there he is again! Much bigger this time. A3. (Presumably the hope was that members would stick his image in their windows?) Still tieless, alas, but smiling this time, head slightly askew. The words ‘Integrity, authority, unity’ hang in the bottom corner – underlined – so you get the point.

Keir Starmer’s abiding message is that he’s a grown-up.

He’s already a knight of the realm and has had a proper job as director of public prosecutions. The hope is that he’s a return to the likes of John Smith, people of gravity who resonate beyond the Labour tribe. He certainly looks the part. Tidy hair and a decent suit. Not charismatic, per se, but reliable. Competent. Efficient. Ready for the task ahead.

But what is that task?

To become Labour prime minister in 2024? Surely that is beyond anyone. Of course, you can never say never in politics and the legacy of coronavirus might well be to shift the political centre leftwards. But it might just as readily be to pull it the opposite direction. Either way, Labour’s task is epic.

The party needs to bag 124 more seats to achieve 50%+1. This requires the complete collapse of the Johnson government. It requires a crisis for Conservatism at least as great as that which propelled Tony Blair to power nearly a quarter of a century ago now. Worth remembering, then, that the latest polls have the Conservatives 30 points ahead (and we still have an outstanding boundary review that is projected to cost Labour dozes of seats).

Anyhow, the one thing we know for sure is that Labour has to repair its so-called Red Wall – that brilliant pollsters’ term that emerged during the election campaign to encapsulate the party’s heartlands – stretching across northern England and dropping down into Wales and the west and east midlands.

Geography isn’t the point; it’s that many of these seats had been Labour’s for decades and were the backbone of its parliamentary representation. Voters here had been, hitherto, the most loyal of the loyal.

Now many of them are gone.

Former mining areas like Bassetlaw, Don Valley and Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover seat. Steel industry redoubts like Penistone and Stocksbridge (on the Sheffield/Barnsley border) and Scunthorpe. Former Pennine mill town constituencies like Burnley, Hyndburn and Bolton North East. The fishing stronghold of Great Grimsby – Labour since 1945. And a wipe-out in the Potteries, with all the Stoke seats now returning Conservative MPs.

Oh, and Tony Blair’s former Sedgefield seat in County Durham and Gordon Brown’s in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (but Scotland’s a separate crisis for another piece).

If it wasn’t for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party standing in Labour-held seats and therefore splitting the potential Conservative vote, the rupture Labour suffered would have been a haemorrhage, with places like Barnsley – epicentre of the Miner’s Strike – turning blue.

The losses were about more than Brexit – or even Jeremy Corbyn. Neither helped, but there was an underlying disconnection, which has been evident now for years. Labour is too London. Too middle-class. Too liberal. Too woke. Too sneering. Too disregarding of its working-class heartlands. And too willing to relegate their interests to a distant second place.

If the seats lost last December are not won back in short order, then any hope of ever seeing another Labour government simply evaporates. Not unreasonable, then, to examine Starmer’s approach and assess his appeal to these critical lost voters.

His leaflet again.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have much to say on the touchstone issues that are understandable preoccupations for voters along the wall.

No commitments on housing. Not a single word, in fact. No pledges whatsoever. It was the same story on jobs. Nada. Not much, in fact, to stir the soul among working class communities that have borne the brunt of forty years’ worth of political disappointment: Twenty years of Thatcherism, a decade of New Labour and 10 years of grinding austerity.

He did make a commitment to ‘abolish’ Universal Credit and end the Government’s ‘cruel’ sanctions tests, which is good to hear. But his entire pitch, expressed through his ten pledges, was a masterclass in appealing to the unrepresentative, hyper-liberal party membership.

There was nothing on crime. Or any mention of schools. Or of limiting immigration. There was, however, room for a commitment to ‘defend free movement’ and an elliptical reference to creating an immigration system ‘based on compassion and dignity.’ (Code, presumably for allowing more of it). Migrants’ rights make an appearance, as does John McDonnell’s lunatic commitment to nationalise ‘rail, mail, energy and water.’

There is still the belief in Labour circles that December’s losses are merely cyclical. In an election dominated by Brexit and given Labour’s utterly confused message (at once, accepting Brexit, opposing Brexit and reversing Brexit) it was a blip and normal service will duly resume.

Of course, Sir Keir was shadow Brexit secretary and the party’s bizarre position was his invention – an assumption, in that Blairite tradition – that working-class voters will have to suck up whatever Labour gives them as they have nowhere else to go.

But they have; they’ve shown that. They now vote Tory in unprecedented numbers and they’re not sorry. In fact, they will probably do so again. In which case, Labour is doomed. If the Red Wall become the new Scotland, its curtains for Labour. It’s that simple.

Many us have been warning about this for years. The worry is that the party under Starmer isn’t going to respond in the way it needs to. In the Daily Telegraph earlier this week, Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former chief of staff revealed a likely Tory attack line over coming years:

‘If you were a Labour candidate seeking to regain a Red Wall seat, you would be more than happy talking about nationalising the railways and increasing public sector pay. But asked for the three scariest words in the English language, you would almost certainly say “human rights lawyer”. And that, to his fingertips, is what Sir Keir Starmer will always be.’

The erosion of Labour’s core vote and a relentless focus on winning back these communities and seats must surely be Keir Starmer’s top priority.

Is a London lawyer capable of fixing a northern wall?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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8 Responses to “Is a London lawyer the right person to fix a Northern wall?”

  1. Anne says:

    A short answer Kevin – yes. I like the sentence ‘Kier Starmer’s abiding message is that he’s a grown up.’ That says it all. It really does not matter if you are from the north or the south because Kier is the man for the job – he looks the part and sounds the part. He would also hold his own on the world stage.

  2. John P reid says:

    I’ve had a few run ins when I was running local parties with Corbyns team while I can’t justify the leaking of the whats app, or even the fact that it was said, and I had no time for the people running HQ, Ian Mcnicols is a good man, and Region nor corbyns office didn’t care about traditional white working class seats”

    and in some repsects I wouldn’t care about seat that should be traditionally labour either, but they let this bullying go onm on both sides at a local level and to be honest having bene on the bullying end of the Corbyn office, all I can say is Good on Emilie allknow
    and it made me laugh

  3. Vern says:

    Starmer was the only thing close to “leadership” material amongst the poor choice of candidates. Will he encourage the working class, those in the north or those that voted to leave back in to the fold – unlikely.
    The best that can be hoped for is that he unites the party and removes the detractors. My concern is that I don’t think he has the balls to do that. Much like The Magic Grandad in that respect.

  4. Alf says:

    If we had a decent leader, we’d be 20pts ahead in the polls. Tory-lite Keir is useless.

  5. Wavertree Red says:

    Starmer is an utter disaster, unfortunately. Not because of his politics, he appears not to have any, which could be a useful trait, but because he looks a big dope in a suit who can’t talk anything but Posh London. It’s frustrating, because he is a working class lad, but still.

    Either of the women would have been better choices, as would Rayner.

    So, are we not commenting on the demonstrated Blairite conspiracy to stop Labour winning in 2017. Time for a purge of the right.

  6. Tafia says:

    You are not going to regain the northern wall until you start supporting us leaving the EU. People up here are deeply suspicious that if you got a sniff of number 10 you’d drag us back into the EU.

  7. Tafia says:

    Latest monthly Polling Wales (formerly a Labour stronghold). Change from March.
    Conservatives: 46% (+5)
    Labour: 34% (-2)
    Plaid Cymru: 11% (-2)
    Liberal Democrats: 4% (-1)
    Brexit Party: 3% (no change)
    Greens: 2% (no change)
    Others: 0 (-1)

    Conservatives: 25 (+11)
    Labour: 12 (-10)
    Plaid Cymru: 3 (-1)

    Conservatives: 38% (+2)
    Labour: 32% (no change)
    Plaid Cymru: 19% (-1)
    Liberal Democrats: 4% (-1)
    Brexit Party: 4% (no change)
    Greens: 3% (no change)
    Others: 1% (no change)

    Conservatives: 37% (+4)
    Labour: 29% (-2)
    Plaid Cymru: 18% (-1)
    Liberal Democrats: 4% (-1)
    Brexit Party: 4% (no change)
    Greens: 3% (no change)
    Abolish the Assembly: 3% (no change)
    Others: 2% (no change)

    Conservatives: 26 seats (15 constituency, 11 regional)
    Labour: 23 seats (18 constituency, 5 regional)
    Plaid Cymru: 10 seats (6 constituency, 4 regional)
    Liberal Democrats: 1 seat (1 constituency)

  8. Wavertree Red says:


    I’m afraid you are probably right about the EU. It’s insane that we went back on our 2017 promise to implement the referendum. I am in one of the most pro-EU places outside the South-East, and I heard it time and time again during the election campaign.

    I admit, trolling Lib-dem members on their doorsteps by telling them the only way to stop Brexit was to vote Labour was fun, but it doesn’t really make up for the total abandonment of democratic principles by my party.

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