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5 May 2021

Labour isn’t working – why only radical change can save Keir Starmer’s project

The Labour leader has disowned the left but has offered nothing of substance in return.

By Paul Mason

Britain’s politics, like its coastal geology, have become a long process of erosion punctuated by dramatic rockfalls. In 6 May’s elections, two such rockfalls are about to happen – both of which have profound consequences for Labour and progressive politics.

The first is a likely outright majority for Scottish independence at Holyrood. The second – whatever happens in Hartlepool – will be the continued erosion of Labour’s vote in northern English towns. 

The geothermal process causing both the Union and Labour hegemony to crack is pretty clear: the emergence of cultural identity as a driver of politics, and the failure of political bureaucracies and elites to face it, and above all to theorise it.

There will be much wailing in traditional Labour circles on Friday if, as expected, the party suffers further reversals in the north of England while finishing third in Scotland. Both Scottish Labour and Keir Starmer’s operation in London have pinned much on the offer of fresh-faced technocracy combined with the absence of left-wing policy commitments.

Whatever the details, it is already clear the strategy hasn’t worked. It might, just, push Labour into second place in Scotland; and it might – against all polling evidence – push Labour’s vote share higher in Hartlepool, even as the right-wing vote consolidates around a Tory barrister and land-owner.

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But “working” has to mean creating a viable route to a Labour-led government. So everything then depends on what happens in Scotland.

On the face of it, if the SNP, the Scottish Greens and Alex Salmond’s Alba hold a “supermajority”, there is a moral case for a swift and decisive independence referendum. For certain, you would want to wait until Covid-19 is decisively suppressed before launching it, and the preliminary skirmishes with Whitehall will take time, as both sides use court cases to shape the battlefield.

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But this time around, the obstacles to Scottish sovereignty are bigger than during the 2014 referendum. First, there is the aftermath of Covid-19, which leaves UK debt above 100 per cent of GDP. No Westminster government could let Scotland walk away debt-free while taking what’s left of the North Sea oil reserves and enjoying indirect subsidy through quantitative easing. 

The English, Welsh and Northern Irish electorates would demand and deserve either compensation (impossible), debt sharing (politically unacceptable to Holyrood) or punitive conditions that could sink the Scottish economy as it left the slipway. And that’s before you even consider the border issue.

Brexit has created a soft border across the Irish Sea but a hard economic and political border at Dover. For all factions of the Conservative Party, Brexit means divergence from Europe, and therefore the hardening of borders – both physical and regulatory. 

On independence, therefore, unless there is a progressive, EU-oriented government at Westminster, there has to be a hard economic border at Berwick-on-Tweed, as there is at Dover. Nicola Sturgeon’s flat refusal to admit this is one of the most unwise and fragile positions ever espoused by a political leader.

If I was Scottish, and supported independence, I would want that hard border – because Scotland’s only viable future is to be part of the EU, its single market and its foreign policy and security regime, and to win the backing of its central bank. A Europe with technological sovereignty and strategic autonomy is in the making, and Scotland has to be part of it.

Otherwise Scotland will have independence but not sovereignty. For the absence of doubt: without a hard border, economic and monetary sovereignty over the new Scottish state will lie in London.

Is there a majority for a clean and decisive break with the UK on these terms? Is there appetite for the social confrontation with Scotland’s Unionist communities, concentrated at the border, which would inevitably be stirred up? I doubt it. And that’s why, despite the momentum generated by a supermajority, it would be more sensible to wait.

The rising Scottish generation is firmly committed to independence; it is for them wrapped up in a wider project of “cosmopolitan nationalism”, tolerance and technological modernity. What the author and academic Keir Milburn calls “Generation Left” in Scotland might mellow as they move towards the life phase that produces centrist dads. But they are not going to love the Union again in their lifetime.

So the brave thing for the SNP and Scottish Greens to do is to announce a pause: to commission a new White Paper, which unflinchingly lays out the choices for Scotland in light of Brexit and Covid-19, and wins the argument for the radical change independence would bring.

Labour’s problems, by contrast, look deeper. The party leadership has spent the past year clutching at the straws held out to them by various Blue Labour thinkers. They could bank the urban, progressive vote, they were told; stick a Union Jack in the corner of Starmer’s office; spend time on the road in hi-vis jackets; take weekly punishment beatings from irate racist callers to LBC; and eventually it would filter through that Starmer is not only “not Corbyn”, but not a luvvie and ultimately a good bloke.

It’s been clear since January that this strategy is not working. When Starmer’s ratings dipped, those around him assumed things would get better once the Tories’ vaccine poll bounce receded. They had grounds for optimism as the government became mired deeper and deeper in corruption: in particular because one of the few truly effective Labour front-bench operations during the pandemic has been the anti-sleaze offensive led by Rachel Reeves.

But there’s a political void at the heart of the project that can only be filled by policy and narrative. The most influential figures in Starmer’s team – David Evans, Labour’s general secretary, Claire Ainsley, his policy chief and Jenny Chapman, his senior aide – have committed to a strategy of attacking the left, while operating a Blue Labour-lite strategy in northern England.

Their justification is that, without winning back the 60-odd seats in towns characterised by elderly demographics and right-wing cultural politics, Labour cannot form a government. They are correct in that. 

But by Friday we are likely to find out that Blue Labour-lite does not beat the full-throated xenophobia and targeted back-handers on offer from the Tories. 

There are two reasons: first, this strategy does not mobilise Labour’s new heartlands, nor protect them from attack by the Greens and progressive nationalists. Indeed, the current politics of the Labour front bench are a massive turn-off for that part of the UK population, which  though a significant part of the working-age electorate  has been stigmatised as woke, irrelevant and unpatriotic.

Second, this strategy cannot satisfy the legitimate questions asked by socially conservative voters who might come back to Labour. Are you for migration or against it? Do you want to deport convicted rapists to Jamaica or launch court cases to protect their human rights? Does that flag in your office signify your love not just of the country but of its bloody history as a colonial power? Should Edward Colston’s statue be dumped in the Bristol docks or resurrected as a shrine to anti-wokeness?

The politics of Labour’s soft left always wilts when faced with such questions on the doorstep. Corbynism, for all its failings, had a robust answer rooted in moral socialism – albeit of the wrong type for many on the Labour right.

There is still a chance that Starmer’s original project could work: uniting Labour’s left and right around a common programme for government that is radical in economics, traditional on social and foreign policy. But it won’t work unless the left are part of it, which means Jeremy Corbyn back in the Parliamentary Labour Party, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Clive Lewis in the shadow cabinet, and a radical economic offer as the policy centrepiece.

Whatever happens on 6 May, Labour must come out fighting: for a radical green industrial plan, backed by investment far above that envisaged by the Tories. And with a narrative of hope shaped by the values of the people who actually vote for the party, not those of the people who loathe it.