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6 May 2022

Labour’s mixed night shows it needs a progressive alliance to win

Keir Starmer’s party is not strong enough to form a transformative government without support from other centre-left forces.

By Paul Mason

Labour’s victories in Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster will be written off by the pundits as part of a big-city advance that does not solve the party’s national electoral problems. Seats gained yesterday (5 May) in the Red Wall, for example in Leigh, Dudley and Cumberland, were partially offset by losses elsewhere.

But there are significant positives here for Labour. The new working class of London is going more decisively and enthusiastically red. Taking Wandsworth and Westminster — two giant central London boroughs that were gerrymandered to stay Conservative for decades — is just a reflection of that wider fact. These results would translate into seats at a general election, with the symbolic prize of Cities of London & Westminster now within reach, and — even more symbolically — Boris Johnson’s own seat.

The new urban salariat is staring at 10 per cent inflation, rising mortgage costs and a government that relishes waging cultural warfare against it. In this context, the only challenge for Labour is stemming losses to the Greens in cities where people feel that Labour’s dominance makes it safe enough to vote that way.

In the Red Wall, however, Labour is still having to grind out votes using competence, professional election techniques and hard work. And that’s what it’s done, even starting from a 2018 vote share that would have put it in power, had it been translated into a general election vote.

There’ll be a lot of focus on the negative impact that Johnson and partygate have had on Tory turnout. It clearly led to some Tories not only staying at home but defecting to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Yet Starmer — who’s been called a “plank of wood”, and whose handling of the so-called beergate allegations lacked poise — should take a lot of credit for Labour’s advances.

I was out campaigning briefly for Labour in Wandsworth. Beyond all the material issues driving the vote, there is the intangible factor of sentiment. I found no hostility to Labour; rather, voters responded to our presence with looks of relief that the party might be on the verge of providing respite from decades of property speculation and neglect.

If you translate that into a national metaphor, it’s about replacing shambolic, corrupt, elite-enriching politics with something competent, honest and accountable. Starmer may lack charisma but he’s created teams that embody that story and can turn it into a successful electoral operation.

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By successful, I mean that the leader doesn’t screw up in major interviews; the campaign chief has levers to pull across the party and does so with flair and insight; the policy decision-makers listen to the polling; the message is simple; the party volunteers are diligent and know how to respond to the hard knocks you inevitably get on the doorstep.

None of this was true at the 2019 general election. Back then, I was among hundreds of volunteers who travelled from London to the Midlands to flood target seats with door knockers. Hostility to the message and the leader were so strong that all we really achieved was to remind our former voters to go out and vote against us. However, the route from tonight to a general election victory will require mental toughness from the Labour leadership team.

What they’re still lacking is the Momentum factor. On the night that Marsha de Cordova took Battersea at the 2017 general election, there were so many enthusiastic young people out campaigning for Labour that, at times, residents thought it might be some kind of demo or street party. Many of the activists who made that happen are deeply alienated from the Starmer project. Some have left the party or been kicked out. Momentum itself focused on supporting a couple of hundred “socialist candidates”, as its pre-election circular so engagingly put it, implicitly denigrating thousands of others.

Starmer’s path to victory lies, first and foremost, in creating a buzz and an infectious narrative: the “hopey changey thing” that the right always likes to deride but which is unstoppable if channelled into a viable electoral project. Between now and the summer that’s probably his number one task.

Second, the professionalisation of the party is only half complete. Boring stuff such as rebuttal and targeted negative campaigning is only being done patchily. If you live near Wakefield, for example, you may have seen a brutal video takedown of Tory complacency over Imran Ahmad Khan, who was appointed by Priti Patel to a child sexual exploitation panel while the party knew he was the subject of a complaint (he has now been convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager and has resigned as an MP). But large parts of the Labour apparatus, especially at local level, still have no expertise in landing these kinds of punches.

Third, Labour’s going to need money. It is still dogged by legal actions and, lacking a positive offer, the trade unions are in no mood to stump up cash.

Fourth, and equally important to the narrative, Labour needs an electoral strategy. Winning back the Red Wall is not a strategy. It’s the essential element but it doesn’t put you into government. Labour still has no answer to the Greens’ national vote share of up to 7 per cent — among voters who would struggle to name either of the party’s two leaders.

Plus, despite signals of electoral “understandings” in recent by-elections, there is no guarantee that the Lib Dems can pull off a major advance in the 50-plus seats where Labour looks minded to take its foot off the campaign pedal. The Lib Dems’ own polling is, I’m told, pretty pessimistic on that score.

So Labour’s urban breakthroughs, and slow advances in the Red Wall, are not enough to create a transformative government at the next general election. In response, the party needs an open electoral agreement with the Greens in a few constituencies: Bury St Edmunds, Brighton Pavilion and Stroud might be enough to limit the challenge elsewhere.

And — when Gordon Brown’s commission on constitutional reform finally reports — it needs a convincing offer to Scotland. I doubt any offer of federalism would be strong enough to dent the SNP’s support, but it would be the reference point for negotiations to form a Labour-led progressive government with supply and confidence from the Greens and SNP.

The big picture is: a transformative government, achieving green growth, redistribution, devolution, proportional representation and active re-engagement with Europe is well within the grasp of Britain’s progressive majority. It’s the party leaderships that still won’t seize the moment.

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