If not Labour, then who?
In football you write off teams that miss open goal after open goal, and that is precisely what Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has done for the past year. Remember the centrists’ mantra during the Corbyn years, “with the Tories making such a mess of things Labour should be at least twenty-five points ahead in the polls.”?
Just consider the Tory shenanigans over the past twelve months: botched Covid response, multi-billion PPE scandal, Dominic Cummings scandal, record-breaking inequality, Carrie Symonds’ Marie-Antoinette impersonation, below inflation wage rise for nurses, Robert Jenrick property scandal, Brexit bungling, Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson, Liz Truss, Dido Harding, Matt Hancock… The list of disasters could go off the bottom of the page, yet Labour has failed to make any capital from them.
Leave aside the fact that Starmer has by and large supported most Tory measures over the past year (or otherwise abstained), one would think that just not being the Conservatives would be enough to gain support after the pigs’ breakfast Johnson and his chums have made of running the country. But a look at current polling shows that Labour are slipping further and further behind the Tories, and Sir Keir’s personal rating is also in free-fall.
Whether Starmer is setting out to destroy the Labour Party on purpose or whether his poor showing is down to a mixture of misguided personal ambition and muddled vision I don’t know, but the party’s lurch to the right clearly isn’t having the desired effect. My own opinion is that Starmer is probably simply power-hungry and morally bankrupt rather than a deep state plant (in spite of belonging to the Trilateral Commission), but his leadership has only exacerbated a trend that was set in motion in 1979.
A recent poll has shown that among working class voters over fifty percent back the Tories while only twenty-seven percent are for Labour. Among middle class voters the split is nearly even, with a majority of Labour supporters being graduate level city-dwellers. Even taking Brexit into account, this is a shocking reversal of the demographic that existed prior to the 1980s.
Created to further the cause of democratic socialism, and borne of the trades unions’ struggles, the Labour Party oscillated over the decades of the Twentieth Century between democratic socialism and social democracy, carrying the working class with it. Its mandate was to serve the interests of the working class and promote greater equality. As a rule one’s politics were determined by one’s class. Of course there were always exceptions: working class Tories in the Alf Garnett mould, and upper class socialists such as Tony Benn (not to mention my father). But if you were working class you probably voted Labour.
So what changed all that? I would suggest the influence of neoliberalism is the chief factor, with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as its figureheads. Wrecker Thatcher destroyed industries, blitzkrieged unions and devastated working-class communities. At the same time she dangled the carrot of a stakeholder society (a word she detested) in front of anyone with two brazoos to rub together in the form of shares in the public utilities that were being flogged off. She also began the selling off of council houses. The grand plan was to create a nation of shareholding homeowners, each clamouring for their little portion of crumbs from the proceeds of Great Britain plc. The exponential expansion of Little Britain. And if you couldn’t afford take part in the clambake, tough – you didn’t matter anyway.
Traditionally the Labour Party had always (supposedly) represented the interests of working class people. Thatcher said you too can aspire to more – believe in better – and plenty did. Many of the old communities either no longer existed or became neglected backwaters of no consequence. While still considerable, Labour’s working class base was shrinking. And while Thatcherism created victims – by the million – it succeeding in creating a more aspirational, materialistic Britain. The price of everything and the value of nothing.
With the shrinking of traditional working class support, Tony Blair and the New Labour architects rumbled that in order to take power Labour needed to woo a new demographic. The nation had tired of the Conservatives, the wheels had eventually fallen off a party that had run out of ideas. With shiny teeth and slick publicity Tony Blair, and his seductive brand of social democracy, wooed the middle classes. The message was: we’ll create a better society, and what’s more we’ll do it without redistributing your wealth or upsetting the City oligarchy. For all those who found voting Tory a bit of an embarrassment, New Labour was a godsend.
We all know Thatcher regarded Tony Blair as one of her proudest achievements. Under New Labour inequality continued its relentless rise, and the shift from manufacturing to service and high-tech industries continued unabated. And in the process Labour became the servant of Capital and continuously ignored the needs and aspirations of working-class people. In the areas where industry had once flourished and provided real jobs, there was a shameful and myopic lack of investment and regeneration. No longer could it be said that Labour was the party of the working class.
As stated at the beginning of this piece, polling shows that 27% of working-class voters are still loyal to Labour. In recent years I’ve canvassed for Labour in three very different constituencies – Stroud, Swindon, and Newport West – and that statistic is borne out by my personal experience at least. Brexit had an effect on voting intentions in 2019, but the number of people who stated that they no longer voted Labour because they felt it was a middle class party was startling. I often met real hostility, only slightly tempered by the fact that I’m an old man with glasses. And although there was always a core of working class socialists, most of the Labour supporters I met were middle class.
(Mea culpa. While canvassing in Newport West I earned the nickname Champagne Sherpa. Sherpa because I was happy to ascend the steepest hills to knock on doors, and Champagne because as soon as I open my gob it’s very easy to place me. I’m an idealistic Corbynista – shoot me.)
The wheels should have fallen off the Conservative Party bus by now (not the least because of that big red bus), but this time it isn’t happening. Keir Starmer is making his pitch at the middle classes because one thing he has got right is that working class support for Labour is poor. But it isn’t working a second time. His more Tory than the Tories strategy has gone belly-up. His boast that he’d unite the party is deader than a kipper. His purge on the left has been so toxic that floods of members have torn up their cards – including me.
Those of us in our various political bubbles are frequently out of touch with what the rest of society is thinking. That’s why canvassing and running street stalls is such a valuable insight into what people really feel. Again, Starmer has half understood problem, insofar as he appears to rely very heavily on focus groups. The trouble is, his apparatchiks only seem to draw the most crass conclusions from the results. What his focus groups won’t tell him is that what people are missing is vision, the prospect of a society that doesn’t just meet their aspirations, but which is fairer too.
The Tories hold sway by appealing to people’s more selfish instincts. It has worked for forty years, and Starmer’s instinct to buy into the same mindset offers little cause for optimism. If that’s the best our two main political parties can offer us then we’re in deep trouble. The Project for Peace and Justice understands the problems we face and offers a range of non party-political solutions. But surely Labour should be better than it is now, surely we should have a major political party that actually offers some hope. Under Corbyn the party was blitzed by a hostile media and subverted by many of its own MPs and party workers. The cunning plan to lead it back into the “safe” centre ground is failing miserably, and probably condemning it to many more wilderness years.
I’d be interested to know more about the idealogical make-up of the party membership, ie, what is the proportion of genuine left-wingers? It’s easy to lose perspective when one’s in one’s own bubble, and to complicate matters further some people have a distressing habit of telling fibs. Is a member-led revolt remotely possible (not me any more, sorry), or would it be stillborn in the face of lumpen party machinery control-freakery?
The country is in the hands of the most morally corrupt brigands to have ruled since Henry VIII and it appears there is no real party political opposition. Labour in its present incarnation is impotent, but if not Labour then who?
Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.