Blaming the voters is a moral and political dead end for Labour

Treating the Tories’ new supporters as too selfish to resist bribery, or too stupid to choose what’s best for them, is profoundly patronising.

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On the morning of Labour’s historic defeat in Hartlepool, the term “Stockholm Syndrome” was trending on Twitter. 

How, asked despairing critics of Boris Johnson, had the Conservatives triumphed in the seat after presiding over 128,000 deaths from Covid-19 and the economic disruption of Brexit? What about the string of revelations of Tory sleaze that have made front-page news even in right-wing papers? In the past month alone, we have had news of a former Conservative prime minister using his connections to try to win special treatment for his friends, a report finding that a fifth of Covid contracts awarded by the government raised red flags for corruption, and the launch of multiple inquiries into potentially illicit Tory donations to pay for Johnson’s flat refurbishment.  

How could the voters of Hartlepool, a constituency that has voted Labour since its creation in 1974, look at all that and decide they wanted more of it? Answer: something must be wrong with them. And not just with voters in Hartlepool, but across the country. According to Chris Emmas-Williams, the defeated Labour leader of Amber Valley council: “the voters have let us down. I hope they don’t live to regret it.”

As Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee put it in a column published two days before the elections (getting the excuses in early), “while politicians are obliged to pretend the voter is always right… the rest of us are under no such constraint to pretend the voter can’t be wrong or irresponsible, gullible or pork-barrel bribed, without checking basic facts available at the click of a mouse”. 

Blaming the voters has been something of a theme since the Brexit referendum, epitomised by repeated calls, protest marches and, indeed, party manifestos in support of rerunning the contest. It has resulted not in Brexit voters changing their minds, but in two general election defeats for Labour and what looks likely to be a second decade of Tory government.

There are multiple interlinked explanations for why Labour’s most recent performance, in Hartlepool and elsewhere, was so parlous: the vaccine poll bounce enjoyed by the Conservatives, the ghost of Corbynism, Boris Johnson’s charisma, Keir Starmer’s dullness, demographic shifts, continued Brexit tensions, Labour’s failure to present a coherent vision, to name just a few.  

[see also: Do Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner realise how much they need each other?]

It is possible to argue from the overall results – which included gains for Welsh Labour and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham – that Covid-19 gave the Conservatives an incumbency bonus that will fade with time and that Labour should stick to its current strategy. Or it is possible to pinpoint specific weaknesses, to interrogate why the party no longer resonates with its heartlands and ask difficult questions about what can be done to change that. 

Both these approaches have merit. But they rely on courting the votes of the electorate that actually exists, not the one Labour might wish for.  

That electorate has always been susceptible to being “pork-barrel bribed”. The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act 1883 may have banned candidates from direct bribery, but from Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy to New Labour’s winter fuel allowance to the coalition government’s triple lock on pensions, less overt forms of incentivising voters are standard practice. The argument that Labour is losing support because the Conservatives offer something more appealing to voters in target seats is a basic electoral tautology; that some in Labour consider this a problem with the voters suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how politics works. 

Cries of “Stockholm Syndrome”, meanwhile, are even more insulting. They imply not that people in Hartlepool and elsewhere have made a calculation that their lives would be materially improved by being served by Conservative MPs and councillors, but the opposite: that they have been somehow tricked into voting against their own interests.  

It’s a patronising doublethink: voters are simultaneously too selfish to resist Tory bribery, and too stupid to choose what’s best for them. 

Which is telling, because one of the fundamental ideals of the left is that people should be willing to relinquish some degree of personal wealth or control for the greater good: higher taxes to fund robust public services for all, curbs on energy use to safeguard the planet for future generations, short-term self-interest put to one side for the sake of “values”. If that weren’t the case, why would anyone earning above average ever vote Labour at all? 

So if the educated middle classes are encouraged – expected – by the left to make sacrifices in pursuit of something bigger, why not "Red Wall" voters who see in the Brexit project and Boris Johnson’s vision for levelling up a goal worth gambling on? It might mean overlooking a few sleaze scandals and putting immediate economic interests to one side, but if voters decide that’s a price they’re happy to pay, that’s their calculation to make. Or are values something Labour apologists think the working class can’t afford?  

It should not be a revelation that shaming and patronising people you want to convince is unlikely to pay off. The Conservatives know this  in the debate following the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, Johnson mocked the voter-blaming rhetoric epitomised by Emmas-Williams, saying Labour wanted to change not themselves but the electorate. As one Tory insider told me just after the 2019 general election: “The right looks for converts, the left looks for traitors.” Or perhaps, the right looks for converts, the left looks for people too evil or too stupid to make the right decision, and then wonders why they won’t vote for them. 

Whether Labour decides to change course or to stand firm and trust that Johnson’s support will wane as the furlough scheme and other crisis measures end, it won’t get far by turning the blame game outwards. Voters do not need rescuing – and treating them as in the thrall of their Tory captors, too gaslit and bewildered to know what they want, won’t win them back.

Rachel Cunliffe is deputy online editor of the New Statesman

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