The ‘Red Wall’ could crumble further. No silver bullets, but there are solutions

Andrew Harrop
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

Now we know that 2019 was not as low as Labour can go. The party’s grim mauling in Hartlepool is proof that even working-class seats Jeremy Corbyn won are vulnerable to Boris Johnson’s new look Tory party. Results in council contests point the same way. The ‘Red Wall’ could still crumble further.

The temptation within Labour will be to yet again ask why. Is the reason long-term drift, fury at Corbyn and Remain, a new leader still to make his mark or the sugar-high of vaccines, Brexit and the pandemic spending spree? Probably all of the above, but another round of internal Labour navel-gazing is hardly going to help. 

What matters is what Labour is going to do about it. Last month a Fabian Society report edited by John Healey proposed solutions to the party’s working-class problem, bringing together 13 Labour MPs from those newly marginal constituencies. They include Tracy Brabin, whose Batley and Spen seat is Labour’s next tough defensive by-election test.

Of course, there isn’t a silver bullet. If there were, Labour wouldn’t be in this mess. But between them, the MPs in Labour marginals have started to flesh out a roadmap for rebuilding trust in working-class seats, from southern new towns to former industrial heartlands.

First, Labour politicians and foot soldiers have to get used to listening not telling. That means tuning into what voters are saying to them and tuning out of left-on-left online warfare. Labour representatives need to reflect back what they hear in marginal seats, and if they don’t hear calls for voting reform, universal basic income or a four-day week they shouldn’t be talking about these things.

Start with the everyday and what people say matters to them. It might be crime, high streets or good local jobs. But it could equally be harder conversations about migration, benefits or Johnson’s jingoist nationalism. Except in the case of open bigotry, Labour people need to lean in not shy away when they meet worldviews different from their own, with a willingness to learn, empathise and reflect. As Brexit proves, the party’s bossy ‘we know best’ vibe has cost it dear. 

Making progress will take local leadership. Reconnecting means being rooted and visible to prove that Labour is not from somewhere else or a distant national elite. That is why winning councillors and councils has always mattered nationally as well as locally. Rebuilding and reconnecting is a bottom-up, ward-by-ward game. 

Metro mayors give another huge opportunity where they are Labour figures. Andy Burnham was dubbed the king of the north at the height of the pandemic. Where Labour mayors were elected on Thursday they can be the visible symbols of their regions against the Tory centre, joining the Labour government in Wales.

The party can surf on and accentuate strong regional and local pride in working-class communities, from the outer east London suburbs to the former fishing ports. Labour must show it is the party of homegrown answers, by each place, for each place, based on their own values and identity. It has been too easy to paint Labour as a party of outsiders, of do-gooders filled with compassion for those less lucky than themselves. It needs to feel like a party of communities solving problems for themselves, talking in terms of local ambition and identity. The party must show that it has plans to build up new local industries, create secure and purposeful jobs, rebuild the physical and social fabric of communities and give kids a reason to stay. If Labour’s local answers feel like they are just papering over the cracks, the party must think bigger.

In many places, to prosper Labour will also need to bring people from different backgrounds and communities together. The right can build support by stoking up division and resentment: the left has to demonstrate commonality, shared identity and fairness to all sides. Local Labour leaders know they need to take a muscular approach to bridge-building and integration when people from different cultural backgrounds live parallel lives. 

They also need to show that politics is not a zero-sum game where one group can only advance at the expense of another. In diverse communities, Labour needs to prove that it has answers that will make an area better for everyone, with win-win solutions to problems people share that build collective pride of place. This is the politics of power: when people feel they have agency over their lives and their communities, and confidence that the future will be better, grievance and division subside.

Locally and nationally, the party’s approach needs to be guided by values of fairness, contribution, mutuality and community. Compassion for others and empirical egalitarianism will always be part of what makes the left tick, but Labour needs to reach for broader conceptions of justice and solidarity that chime better with the common sense of apolitical people. For example, Labour’s plans for social security are likely to revive the contributory principle that has been all but ended by Universal Credit.

Celebrating local and regional identity needs to go hand-in-hand with an authentic love of country. Labour will have changed when people see the party’s sense of patriotism and national pride as instinctive and unstudied. Flying the union and St George’s flags, celebrating the armed forces, and speaking with pride of the nation’s past should be so much part of the Labour Party’s culture that they are things barely worthy of remark.

The party’s patriotism does not need to be an insipid, dialled-down version of conservatism, nationalism or isolationism. Almost every other rich country has a radical tradition that links love of nation to an impatience for change and a yearning to make their nation better. As George Orwell said long ago, the English left is the exception in seeing a conflict between patriotism and socialism. At home, Labour needs to become just as good at celebrating the public service of police officers and soldiers as nurses and teachers. And abroad, the party will only be able to sell an ethical, multilateral foreign policy when this sounds like the patriotic project of people who love their country and want to make it stronger.

I’ve got this far without mentioning Joe Biden. But the manner of the American president’s victory and his first 100 days in office obviously shows what might be possible for Labour. Biden has succeeded in uniting a broad coalition that includes urban graduates, ethnic minorities and a sufficient share of white blue-collar voters. As has been said by many others, Biden is combining reassurance on values, culture and demeanour with a bold centre-left economic programme.

Labour absolutely needs to do the same. The party can only build an election-winning coalition on the basis of both big economic change and a reassuring cultural message. Keir Starmer has impeccable human rights credentials. But he has been careful to steer clear of ‘culture war’ controversies and left-wing purity-tests, which sound completely alien to people in most parts of the country. He knows he has to occupy a lot of space on the liberal/conservative values axis to build the electoral coalition he needs.

On economics, Labour strategists agree the party should stay left to unite enough working-class and urban liberal voters. Against an economically centrist Tory party, Labour will be thumped if it just seeks to compete on the same economic turf, but without the advantage of incumbency. 

So far, however, the party has done little to turn this insight into a clear offer. Rachel Reeves needs to build on her bold campaigning on sleaze and privatised public services to set out a transformative economic agenda. It needs to wrap together green transition, investment in infrastructure, active government to help businesses grow, a new adult skills system, labour law reforms to shift power to workers and unions, a rebalancing of taxation and a major boost to social security.

But how the party talks about its economic ambitions matters. If Labour is to win back working-class seats, its economic pitch must be big but also grounded. Labour politicians need to remember that most people like their country, like their work and don’t want to feel like victims. The party’s agenda must not sound scary, ideological or an answer to questions people didn’t think they’d asked. While the programme might have lots in common with 2017, it needs to sound like Joe Biden not John McDonnell. The message and the messengers need to be credible, reassuring, believable and safe.

Alarmist talk of zero growth, post-capitalism and the end of work puts Labour’s real-world social democratic radicalism at risk. The party’s economic offer must be of security, good work and a bright future. And Labour has to show it is on the side of businesses as well as workers, with a vision of active government that will build and spread prosperity. In traditionally working-class seats, Labour needs to appeal to the self-employed, small business owners and middle managers: creating crude divides between bosses and workers reflects neither social reality nor the party’s electoral interests. 

After some grim election results for Labour, it’s time for the party to pull the pieces together. Keir Starmer’s critics are right to say he has not told a clear enough story about the country he wants to lead. But the raw material is all there. Labour needs to turn off Twitter, and listen, learn and reflect back what it hears from marginal seats. It needs to lead and shape communities wherever it holds power and talk with pride about the country. And it needs to tell a big and believable story of economic change, that offers a better future with more security for people not more risk.

Hearts and Minds: winning the working-class vote was published in April. It was edited by John Healey MP, and includes chapters from Tracy Brabin MP, Yvette Cooper MP, Jon Cruddas MP, Yvonne Fovargue MP, Emma Hardy MP, Dan Jarvis MP, Abena Oppong-Asare MP, Taiwo Owatemi MP, Toby Perkins MP, Bridget Phillipson MP, Jonathan Reynolds MP and Nick Thomas-Symonds MP.

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