By: Leif Sutton-Williams
In the 2019 British general election, the Labour party suffered a devastating landslide defeat, winning the fewest seats it has held since 1935. The so called ‘red wall’ of northern and midland working class seats collapsed and ushered in a large majority government for Boris Johnson and the Conservative party. This was the fourth election defeat in a row for the Labour party.
How did the Labour party go from 13 years of majority government to finding itself locked out of large portions of the country from north to south? Although then leader Jeremy Corbyn had to contend with a generally hostile right wing media, he was mostly unpopular because he held unpopular positions and did not connect with voters up and down the country, including working class communities in former Labour heartlands. Corbyn was an historically unpopular leader of the opposition. The party leadership had a murky, unclear message on Brexit. Voters took a look at Corbyn as Prime Minister and said ‘no thanks.’
However, the solution to this is not abandoning the party’s values. The idea that a Blair style socially liberal, fiscally conservative leader would put Labour in landslide victory territory is as absurd as was the hard left’s electoral strategy that a majority could be achieved by increasing non-voter turnout. The Tories ate up the Labour party’s margins among working class voters in communities that have been ravaged by globalisation for decades and too often ignored by New Labour’s laser focus on the aspiring middle class. These were the kinds of towns and communities that once had quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that were stripped away and exported to developing economies like China and replaced by part-time, minimum wage, service sector jobs or even worse, replaced by nothing at all.
So when the Conservative party came along, pretending that the problem was immigrants from Europe stealing their jobs and that Brexit would bring back prosperity and patriotic pride to their communities, voters believed the false promises because there was nothing else that offered them hope. It may have been a lie, even a racist lie, but it was a clear narrative that proposed clear promises, harking back to a Golden Age of Britannia (similar to Trump’s MAGA) that never really existed, and if it did, it certainly didn’t include women, people of colour and working class men.
Meanwhile the Labour party was busy tearing itself apart in factional struggles, dominated by London-centric urban metropolitan cliques who spoke down to working class communities. Labour under Corbyn spent its time engaging in a circular conversation about socialist theory and identity politics rather than aspiring to create a broad coalition of working and middle class voters from urban, rural and small town communities, failing to offer tangible solutions. The consequences will be almost 15 years of Conservative governments implementing devastating austerity, botching Brexit and fanning the flames of right wing nationalistic racist politics.
Kier Starmer, the new and popular Labour Party Leader, has a huge task on his hands if he is to lead Labour to victory in the 2024 election. He is going to have to gain almost as many seats from the Tories as they did in 1997, the best electoral result the Labour party has achieved in its entire history - and that’s just to get to the smallest of majorities. It is frankly a herculean task that will require the party to radically broaden its base of support while simultaneously winning back ‘red wall’ seats. It also has to overcome the almost total monopoly on Scottish seats, held by the SNP, and take back seats in the south that Labour hasn’t been competitive in since 2005.
How is Starmer going to do it? For a start, he should be praised for putting Labour back into a competitive electoral position. The polls are finally showing Labour neck and neck with the Conservatives (something Corbyn never managed) and even more crucially, in our leader-centric media environment, polling far above Boris Johnson’s now dismal approval ratings. Starmer is coming across as the problem solver, while Johnson is the problem creator.
Even though Labour won socially liberal, urban seats like Bristol-West by huge margins in 2019, the party lost by a landslide in rural communities and towns across the country. The task now is to appeal to those working class voters who either voted Tory, Brexit party or didn’t vote at all. Labour needs to have a credible message about how it can re-build Britain.
When Labour proposes a hopeful, future-orientated message, aimed at creating a broad coalition of both working and middle class voters, it can win and win big. That doesn’t mean sacrificing socialist values, it means adapting them to find common ground with voters who have abandoned the party and win back those communities who were once the bedrock of Labour. If the Labour party can’t win a majority, or even become the largest party in terms of seats, all those progressive policies that would help working people become meaningless.
It’s time for Labour to decide, does it want to become an effective election winning machine or a glorified debating society, forever talking about various policies that they have no hope of implementing without power.
Elections have consequences. It’s time for a Labour government that can implement a New Deal for Britain that works for the many, not the few.