Labour’s congenital fatalism means it’s in danger of learning the wrong lessons from 2019

by Atul Hatwal

There’s much that’s salient in the Labour Together report. The problems of Jeremy Corbyn on the doorstep, an economic prospectus that few believed, a chaotic campaign and, of course, Brexit. This is hardly breaking news, but credit is due for calling this out.

But then there’s also a recurrence of a peculiarly Labour fatalism.

The report states “The roots of our 2019 loss stretch back over the last two decades.” It cites a panoply of long term trends including deindustrialisation, demographic change and declining trade union membership, to explain the steady rise in the Conservative vote in Labour seats, since 2001.

The framing in the report paints a picture of an ineluctable growth of Tory support in Labour strongholds as a function of these deep-seated changes.

To anyone who remembers the late 1980s and early 1990s, this is pretty familiar stuff.

Much the same was written then. Structural factors. Population movement. Shifting values. All were used to explain a decade on decade decline in Labour support, a downward slope starting in 1945 that pointed to final obsolescence sometime in the early 2000s.

Labour Together’s report has a particularly striking line that epitomises the pessimism inherent in this ‘historical forces’ type of explanation.

“Many of these trends are global and have had similar and negative impacts on social democratic and centre-left parties around the world”

Unsurprisingly, Corbynites such as Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery have chimed in with support for this perspective. It’s a crime without a culprit – the politicians in charge are at the mercy of larger forces. It was the system, events dear boy, events, not individual leaders like Jeremy Corbyn or, Ed Miliband (coincidentally a commissioner of the Labour Together report).

In the early 1990s it was Labour’s challenges in the South that were insurmountable. Today, it’s the North and Midlands, exemplified in the notion of the recently crumbled Red Wall.

Certainly, it’s unarguable that Labour did exceptionally badly in its heartland seats. But the Labour Together report mistakes correlation for causation. Yes, there were losses but not for the reasons claimed.

The idea of a Red Wall is itself indicative of a mindset prone to fatalism. It’s a neat phrase that makes for great copy but bad politics. Lewis Baston broke down the detail of why the Red Wall is a myth in this piece back in December – TL;DR a significant number of these seats were always marginals and would normally follow the overall national swing. For example, Bury North has only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017). Others such as Bassetlaw have experienced significant demographic change that makes them lean towards the Conservatives just as several seats in the South have gone in the opposite direction, but history suggests both main parties are in with a chance of winning these kinds of seat on a good year.

The reasons seats in the North and Midlands swung to the Tories at the last election are the same as why seats in the South such as Peterborough and Kensington returned Conservatives. And why Labour’s target seats up and down the country returned Tories with large majorities. The eternal combination of views on the leader and the party’s economic competence, overlaid in 2019, with Brexit.

In 1996, I was one of the eager young faces around a table at Labour’s HQ, Millbank Tower, at one of the early meetings on targeting first-time voters. In keeping with Labour practice since the 1980s, I was expecting a separate manifesto for young people with measures specifically focused on them. Alastair Campbell was in the chair and his contribution was short and sweet – there wasn’t going to be a special package for young people, or minority communities or any other sub-group. People in Britain had the same basic needs – jobs, security from crime and schools and hospitals that worked.

There would be targeting around communications but the offer remained the same because people fundamentally just want the same thing from their government.

He was right.

Winning back seats in the North or Midlands won’t be based on having a leader or MPs that sound the same or come from a similar background. Diversity of representation in the Labour party is needed to draw on the widest possible pool of talent, but identity politics palpably matters less to voters – after all, the electors of the imaginary Red Wall just backed Boris Johnson, scion of Bullingdon and the most stereotypical southern Tory since Lord Alec Douglas Home. It won’t be built around a new approach that is tailored to seats like Bury North that radically differs from the offer to Basildon.

Demographic change is inevitable today just as it was in the mid to late 1990s. Industrial sectors in parts of the country will rise and fall, just as they have always done. The path back to power is simple and the same, whether in the South, the Midlands, the North or Scotland and Wales: a leader that voters can see as PM and economic policies that are practical and deliverable. In both cases, these are active choices a political party can make.

For 2024, the election is there to be won by Labour. The polling is clear that Keir Starmer looks like a Prime Minister. Labour now needs economic policies to match. Brexit will not be an issue in the same way – though if there is a hard Brexit with attendant hardship, it may yet be a millstone around Conservative poll ratings.

Labour needs to kick its fatalism, leaders and political parties have agency, they’re not just floatsam drifting in the currents of history.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut


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