Just over a year ago, Labour was in deep fallout following its general election defeat. The worst result since 1935, this election was made worse by losses in its supposedly secure heartland seats in the north and midlands. Gone was Bolsover and the veteran Dennis Skinner, gone was Sedgefield the former home of Labour prime minister Tony Blair, and so fell West Bromwich East which was the seat of the departing then deputy leader Tom Watson. To put it bluntly, the 2019 election was a disaster for Labour and it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The mainstream commentary may have been ignorant of trends in Red Wall voting behaviour but in the background, many warned of this outcome. They include Matthew Goodwin, Paul Embrey and former number 10 chief of staff Nick Timothy.
Majorities in many of these Red Wall seats have slowly eroded since the 1990s. Often these seats are towns, suburban or semi-rural and include many former or present-day industrial areas which are made up largely of the skilled working class and non-university educated residents. These people are, in large numbers, turning away from the Labour party which seems to have forgotten its intended constituents in favour of a more metropolitan, middle-class, university educated and urban electorate. As such, whilst majorities in the Red Wall have reduced, vote share in urban and university seats has increased. This is an element of the hidden toxicity of the 2017 election result: whilst seats such as Canterbury were gained, seats such as Copeland and North East Derbyshire were lost.
This gets to the heart of Labour’s electoral problem. The left-wing coalition, which for half a century has produced transformative Labour governments, has been eroded; the bigger issue, however, is that the side which has deserted us - the skilled working class and former industrial workers - has never done so before. The question now is, has the party moved in the right direction under Keir Starmer?
The short answer is it's moving slowly in the right direction though by no means has Labour gone far or fast enough. The three key problems in 2019 were leadership, values and its position on sovereignty.
Let’s deal with these individually.
First, it's obvious Jeremy Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep. I’m sure he’s a good man who’s very principled, but the fact remains he was unpopular and unwanted in many of these Red Wall seats. He was seen as incompetent, weak and in some cases dangerous. Keir Starmer has moved quickly on this topic and adopted the pointed slogan “a new leadership”. Even more explicit is his suspension of the whip from Corbyn - whether you agree or disagree with it, from a strategy perspective it plays well with Red Wall voters and signifies a clear break from the past. This, all in all, is a positive step forward for a party which has struggled with its leaders’ image for a decade now. Starmer isn’t exciting and possesses little flair, but he’s a safe pair of hands and that might be what Labour needs for the time being.
The second problem is Labour’s values. Values, not partisan allegiance or hereditary intent, seems to be driving voter behaviour in this early part of the 21st century. It’s no coincidence that traditional partisan alignment is being eroded and, at the same time, Labour is losing Red Wall votes. The two are part of a wider jigsaw puzzle which is visualising a different form of voter behaviour to the last century and, as such, a different form of politics. The values of the Labour Party have diverged sharply with their Red Wall constituents. This divergence has largely taken place on cultural issues relating to immigration, national identity and, for want of a better phrase, “wokeism”. Red Wall voters are more patriotic than the average Labour member and the language of radical liberalism is not one they generally subscribe to. It just so happens that this radical liberal identity politics agenda has become part and parcel of mainstream Labour culture. Starmer has, in the last year, made some rather weak attempts to move the party onto better ground in this regard. He has certainly made an effort with regards to patriotism and issues of national security but he still faces a mountain to climb. These voters are yet to be convinced that the party will talk about jobs, police and education as opposed to gender fluidity, socialism and positive discrimination. It serves no purpose to give the party’s membership a pat on the back.
The final, and most important key problem, is that of sovereignty. The Left has a proud history of celebrating the power of the state and also of redistributing that power to the average Joe. These last twenty years, the Left seems to have forgotten that heritage. Brexit provides Labour with a real opportunity to reignite our belief in a sovereign nation state as the best arbiter between labour and capital. But it isn’t grasping this opportunity. Still, Labour does not have a convincing message about the principle of sovereignty and Brexit. The act of getting a deal seems to be more important than the political principle of having a sovereign state untamed by an inherently neoliberal institution. Though, this week, Starmer has made some movement on devolution and the redistribution of power, it seems pretty in-authentic if Labour continues to reject the notion of sovereignty and power in favour of economic preservation. The left must once again embrace the nation state as its champion, devolution as the mechanism for the redistribution of power and Brexit as the catalyst for such a change to occur.
For if we don’t there can be no hope of a Labour government or, more broadly, the left remaining a relevant force in years to come. As it stands Labour will struggle to win, and in all honesty such a result will be a tall order but it’s important for those that believe in the power of leftist ideas to see that the Labour Party can once again become the party of labour.
Daniel is a political activist and an Associate Editor of Liberal Base. His interests are in populism, democratic crisis, western party politics and automation. He tweets @danny_hod and blogs at dannyhodson.com