There was something powerfully symbolic about the defeat of the Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner in Britain’s 2019 election. An ex-collier and standard-bearer of the Labour left, Skinner had represented the North Derbyshire former mining constituency for just short of half a century. The “Red Wall” which crumbled to the Conservatives in 2019 did not come much redder than this.
There is a tendency to see the 2019 collapse of dozens of Labour strongholds in the Midlands and the north of England as a cataclysm solely triggered by Brexit or Corbyn’s leadership ‑ or both. Yes, the Bolsover Leave vote was 70 per cent; so Boris Johnson’s central campaigning proposition to “get Brexit done” clearly resonated here. And Corbyn was even more unpopular in places like this than elsewhere in the country. Yet even Skinner’s vote share, like those of Labour MPs in similar constituencies, had already fallen sharply since 1970. Five years earlier, when I visited the constituency’s once proud town of Shirebrook to talk to ex-miners about the 1984-85 national strike, Alan Gascoyne, a former National Union of Mineworkers branch secretary, was already complaining about the hollowing out of Labour activism and the difficulties of finding a young local candidate to eventually replace the popular eighty-two-year-old Skinner.
Skinner had been defying political gravity, a demographic force at the heart of his party’s problem. Until the 1980s, and the de-industrialisation of the Thatcher years, more than two-thirds of Britons were manual workers. Those in heavily unionised mines, steelworks, shipyards or large-scale manufacturing were reliably Labour, their political identity cemented by a sense of working class solidarity which ensured large majorities for the party throughout the industrial heartlands. Now only around 43 per cent of Britons are manual workers – and only a minority of those are in a trade union. In Shirebrook, the nature of that collapse is starkly visible. Gascoyne showed me how the vast new Sports Direct warehouse, then employing 3,000 people (many from Eastern Europe, working for, or under, the minimum wage) but now increasingly automated, eerily occupied the exact site of the vanished coalmine, once the glue that held the community together. Shirebrook is now officially one of the most deprived places in Derbyshire. There have been youth disturbances, some involving friction with Polish residents. The whole town has been under a Public Spaces Protection Order since 2019.
The rout in such Red Wall seats was a grave shock to the Labour system. And the former Labour voters they think made it happen ‑ white, working class, pro-Brexit, often over forty-five, and hostile to immigration ‑ are those whom the strategists closest to Keir Starmer are most preoccupied about winning back.
Having crashed to its worst electoral defeat since 1935, Labour faces a truly daunting task. To win a majority it needs to gain over 120 seats, including in territory way beyond the Red Wall, requiring a 12 per cent increase in vote share and a swing to the party greater than Tony Blair achieved in 1997. Meanwhile, the hangover effect of the factors which led to the 2019 defeat linger in the public mind, stubbornly surviving the installation of a new leader, however plausible. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was not the sole reason for that electoral disaster; others were an ambiguous, even barely intelligible, position on the most salient issue of the election, Brexit, and a programme containing individual policies which while many electors liked few thought deliverable.
The verdict of polls, doorstep canvassers, and the post-mortem of a Labour Together enquiry commission, however, was that the unpopularity of its leader was the most important factor in the party’s defeat. It is understandable then that Starmer first set about, with unexpected ruthlessness, an exorcism of his predecessor’s political legacy, the seizure of the party’s national executive from his supporters and a purge of members who he believed Corbyn had failed adequately to discipline after they faced accusations of antisemitism in what became a dominant internal row in 2017-19.
Important as they no doubt are, it is easy to overestimate the direct impact of these intra-party changes on the wider electorate. No election-winning Labour leader ‑ and there have been only three in the hundred years that Labour has been the main alternative to the Conservatives ‑ has had to bring the party back so far so fast. Attlee came to the 1945 election after five years as deputy prime minister in Churchill’s wartime coalition. Harold Wilson won the 1964 election after Hugh Gaitskell had modernised the party’s outlook and moved it towards the electoral centre – a location, incidentally, well to the left of where it is now in many policy areas. The ground on which Tony Blair won in 1997 was prepared by Neil Kinnock’s heroic shedding both of the Militant “party within a party” and of Labour’s then two most unpopular policies, unilateral disarmament and (ironically in view of recent events) withdrawal from the EU. Starmer has been heard to complain in private that “I have to be Kinnock and Blair at the same time”.
How’s that going so far? Labour had established a respectable, if belated, poll lead by February of this year, when Johnson would probably have been defenestrated by his own MPs had he not managed to avert the full publication of a Whitehall report on the serial Downing Steet partying during lockdown. While “partygate” still hangs over him, the Ukraine invasion has narrowed Labour’s lead. But over half the voters agree that Starmer looks like a “prime minister in waiting” and he is the preferred choice for 33 per cent of voters compared with Johnson’s 26 per cent). That’s nowhere near enough, of course, especially if the Tories choose another leader, but it makes him a contender.
He has a more experienced and better deployed shadow cabinet than he started with. And with virtually zero prospect of winning an overall majority, he has proved sensibly open to an informal pact with the Liberal Democrats ‑ who would either support or join a Starmer-led government ‑ in which neither party puts resources into constituencies where the other has the better chance of unseating a Tory MP.
What seems to be missing is that elusive quality: definition. Knowing that the economy and defence are where Labour has been seen as weak, Starmer has taken significant steps by promising to “fix the public finances” and differentiating himself from Corbyn with visits to NATO HQ and its forces. But opposition also requires a certain risky opportunism. One of Blair’s most famous soundbites, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” (actually written by Brown), came when he seized on the tragic murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two other children to catch a shocked public mood. Blair once said that opposition was basically a continuous battle for “the day’s headlines”. The ditching of the party constitution’s old socialist ‑ and long ignored ‑ Clause Four was quintessentially such a moment. Every new policy was projected as a story. And, in opposition, Brown monitored the government, mining his contacts in Whitehall for damaging leaks or upcoming causes on which to attack. Starmer might have turned not only “partygate” – and Johnson’s lies about it – but also the prime minister’s addictive cronyism, relentless politicisation of public service jobs and dependence on rich party donors, including some Anglo-Russian oligarchs, into a sustained personal crusade on standards in public life. But while he has criticised most of these deformities in his precise, lawyerly way, there has been no focused campaign.
Yet definition is not just about making noise. At a deeper level Starmer has left the public – and even colleagues ‑ puzzled about what his priorities are for the country. He is said in party circles to be conscious of this, explaining that he has first to differentiate himself from Corbyn, then from Johnson, and only afterwards begin to stamp his own political personality in the public mind. But time is getting short. Johnson must call an election by 2024, but it could be in 2023.
One view of Starmer is that his strengths are not those of a driver of policy. As a lawyer, he has spent much of professional life arguing a case for a client and from a brief. It may be for these reasons that, according even to some of his supporters, he tends to “float” above the process of hammering out strategy, preferring to leave it others.
If true, this would help to explain why Starmer has appointed the experienced Labour pollster Deborah Mattinson as “director of strategy”. A central thesis of her highly influential book Beyond the Red Wall is that the party needs much more closely to reflect the concerns of working class switchers to Conservatives in 2019, including on Brexit and immigration control. There is a lot about “patriotism” and Corbyn’s perceived lack of it in Mattinson’s book, which has at its core the voices of ex-Labour switchers compellingly culled from focus groups in three Red Wall areas. The North-South divide is also much discussed, understandably since for all the solid socio- economic improvements wrought by Blair and Brown, much less attention was directed to the need for economic and social regeneration of whole areas devastated by 1980s deindustrialisation. It is worth mentioning that several interviewees – though not Mattinson in her conclusions ‑ also mention the desirability of more equality between classes and not just between regions.
Equality was the goal which animated the entry into politics after World War II of Anthony Crosland, later a leader of the party’s social democratic right wing. Crosland explicitly meant both equality of opportunity and of outcome. On the former, Labour governments have always done better than the Tories (Starmer has, to his credit, promised to end charitable tax relief for private schools, whose pupils ‑ including the old Etonian British prime minister ‑ still enjoy a massively disproportionate presence at the top of British society). On equality of outcome, however, Blair was not so forthcoming, believing the e-word would alienate the “aspiring” upwardly mobile voters it was targeting.
That argument is much harder to sustain when easily the most crippling burden of the financial crash, Brexit, Covid and now soaring energy prices is borne by the least-well-off. An estimated £2 in every £3 of spending announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak in late March, ostensibly to tackle a mounting cost of living emergency, will go to those in the top half of the income bracket. And this in one of the most unequal countries in Europe, in which the richest 10 per cent of households hold 44 per cent of all wealth, while the poorest 50 per cent own just 9 per cent.
Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, will, like Blair/Brown in 1997, no doubt pledge to stick to Tory current spending parameters. The joke in David Hare’s play on the 1992 election, The Absence of War ‑ “What he mustn’t do is to say anything which reminds people that when he’s elected he’s going to be in charge of their money” (the “he” in question being Labour leader George Jones, a stand-in for Neil Kinnock), was seriously unfair on Kinnock. But Starmer knows that Labour has perpetually to guard against the perception that it is financially imprudent. That, if anything, heightens the need for redistribution within existing totals. Reeves is making at least a start on this by reviewing the wide range of tax breaks which help only the wealthy. What is not clear is how far Starmer is ready to proclaim this as the first step towards the creation of a more equal society.
Mattinson’s advice has already had one clear impact: the leader’s persistent reluctance to lay himself open to Johnson’s charge, however false, that he is trying to reverse the 2016 referendum decision to leave the EU. So, in December 2020, Labour voted in favour of Johnson’s “hard Brexit” on the grounds that any deal was better than no deal. This February, Starmer said – a false if electorally necessary proposition ‑ that “there is no case for rejoining the EU”. And when Johnson in March made his grotesque comparison of Leave voters with the Ukrainian resistance for choosing “freedom”, the Labour leadership (unlike several infuriated Tories) remained silent until Reeves was obliged by an interviewer to respond to Johnson’s “tasteless” remarks on live TV.
Mattinson is, of course, right about the need to listen to, and try to woo back the Red Wall switchers. There are Labour Remainers whose private attitude to such voters is that of the classic English holidaymaker abroad confronted by a Spanish waiter: “Just speak slowly and more loudly.” That approach neither should nor will work with voters who had already felt ignored by an out-of-touch elite. It’s much less clear this is the only group Labour needs to win back. The eminent pollster John Curtice has pointed out that, facing pro-European competition from the LibDems, the Greens and the SNP, Labour was measurably much less successful in retaining their Remain supporters than the Tories (once Nigel Farage had effectively thrown in his lot with Johnson) were in holding on to Leave voters. Indeed while five million former Labour voters voted Tory in 2019, two and a half million others left for anti-Brexit parties. (Moreover any chance of a recovery in Europhile Scotland, where Labour badly needs to recover seats, will be jeopardised by further alienation of Remain voters.)
This seriously calls into question the assumption that Labour can afford to focus mainly on wooing back the English Red Wall switchers because the rest of its support will stay loyal. As Labour’s traditional working class base has shrunk, another has historically expanded ‑ a younger, white collar, professional and graduate cadre who are liberal, broadly pro-European, climate-change-minded and often living in cities. And that goes to the heart of why there is a currently a simmering, if subterranean, debate within the shadow cabinet over whether the Mattinson-led strategy is right.
In From Red Walls to Red Bridges, an analysis of new Deltapoll findings on “lost” Labour voters for the Tony Blair Institute, Peter Kellner, an expert close to Labour, suggests the party cannot afford to ignore either group and that it should focus instead on the economic and social common ground between them. Especially striking is the similarity between the views of all such voters on whom a government should do most to help. Large majorities of both working and middle class voters topped their lists with “ordinary working people”, “the poor” and “pensioners”. Kellner sees these shared priorities as proof that “there is an election winning coalition available for Labour”.
Kellner has written elsewhere about how Labour has always coalesced working class and middle class supporters, if in different proportions from now, and how “post-1945 causes such as abolishing capital punishment, legalising abortion and gay sex and outlawing racial discrimination were adopted by successive Labour governments. Labour’s white working class voters didn’t generally care for these policies, but on the whole they didn’t mind Labour MPs promoting them as long as the party also delivered practical improvements to their everyday life.”
So what follows from all this? Labour cannot hide either from Brexit or immigration in an election campaign, because on past form the Tories will make both headline issues. The first task, Kellner suggests, is to decouple “patriotism” from English “nationalism”, the two values which the Leave campaign so successfully fused together in the 2016 referendum, and to make it “an economic and social cause”.
Even on immigration, with its tendency to undermine the accord between Labour and its traditional working class base, Kellner cites the West Midlands seat of Smethwick in the 1964 election, which saw the dramatic Tory defeat, thanks to an astoundingly racist campaign, of Harold Wilson’s chosen foreign secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker. Labour’s attempt to neutralise the issue in the town by promising immigration controls was a failure. Yet in 1966, when “culture was less of an issue” and Labour in office was fighting strongly on its broader economic and social programme, the party comfortably regained the seat.
So far Starmer has committed himself only to “making Brexit work”, which would mean making the most of its “opportunities”. But it’s actually hard to see what these are, beyond the freedom to control EU immigration, possibly direct some public procurement at British firms and the regaining of some highly putative freedoms in financial services and robotics. The Office of Budget Responsibility has now officially predicted that Brexit will mean a 4 per cent fall in GDP, which non-EU trade deals show no sign of compensating for. A US trade deal – much hyped by the Leave campaign in 2016 ‑ is not going to happen as long the Northern Ireland protocol dispute remains unresolved ‑ and probably not even if it is resolved. This February ministers trumpeted a trade agreement with New Zealand, since officially projected to add at most 0.034 per cent to British GDP ‑ by 2035.
No serious Labour figure is arguing that Starmer should seek to reverse Brexit. But there is a strong case for signing up again to some EU standards – in veterinary for example, which could contribute to unblocking the Northern Ireland impasse as well as helping British fishermen. At one end of the Labour spectrum, one adviser to the Blair government suggests that Starmer should at least consider rejoining the customs union and/or the single market. At the other end, he is said ‑ almost unbelievably ‑ to have been urged to hold Johnson’s attacks at bay by “apologising” for his attempts in opposition to secure a second referendum. Does he really have to so overcompensate for his pro-Remain past that he cannot even commit himself to a “better Brexit”?
But the post-Brexit space is political as well as economic. In an ideal world Starmer would campaign to restore the country’s international reputation on issues where Johnson has wilfully eroded it. To take just two examples: was trust of Britain enhanced after Johnson in October 2019 cut a deal with Leo Varadkar on a customs border in the Irish Sea to save the 1998 Belfast agreement, securing the basis for a solemn withdrawal treaty which got him through his election, only then to repudiate its terms? And would it not have been sensible to sign up at least to the defence and security chapter which Brussels had wanted in the UK-EU agreement? This would have enhanced British influence by affording it a continued cost-free foothold in EU foreign policy, but was refused by London because of sheer anti-European dogma. Indeed this approach points to something Starmer should urgently do, which is thoroughly “patriotic” and is also geared to the rapidly changing geo-political landscape in the wake of Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine. This is to pledge a new era of defence co-operation with France and Germany that would also start to improve an alliance which Johnson, especially in the case of France, has allowed to fall into severe disrepair.
All these dilemmas show the dangers as well as benefits of a focus-group-based strategy. Even Blair is said to have once asked his own polling adviser Philip Gould “to re-focus your focus groups” when they had come up with an answer that didn’t fit his political intuition. Most leaders regard such groups less as a means of devising policy than of testing how best to sell the ones you already had in mind.
Starmer has great potential strengths. He looks like a prime minister in waiting. He is highly intelligent, decent, humane, with left-of-centre instincts, concerned about poverty and wholly free of any race or gender bias. He was on the right side of the argument, as a human rights lawyer, in opposing Blair’s decision to take Britain into the Iraq war. And as a former director of public prosecutions he has had more experience of running something than most politicians. But as someone who came into parliamentary politics at the comparatively late age of fifty-three he has not been defined by political rows or had to take positions on most controversies within the party ‑ apart, ironically enough, from his opposition to Brexit up to 2019. Which is one reason for the mystery around what his bedrock convictions actually are.
One powerful call which rings out from Mattinson’s focus groups is for the party leader to set out his “positive vision for Britain” or, as one respondent puts it, for Labour to “show us the Britain they want to see and the Britain they believe in”. The ultimate answer to that call lies in neither quantitative nor qualitative polling, however useful, but in the leader’s own brain. Not being Corbyn or Johnson is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of electoral victory.
Donald Macintyre is a former chief political commentator of the UK Independent and the author of Mandelson and the Making of New Labour (Harper Collins 2000).