In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there is an exchange between two characters. Bill asks Mike how he went bankrupt and he answers: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” The deathly disintegration of Labour is intensifying. The general election of 2019 was not the end of the story of class re-alignment but its beginning, and you only need to listen to the various responses to know that bankruptcy takes many forms.
Now in the tribal heartlands, where the Labour Party was not an argument or a policy proposal but a covenantal partner, there is the proof that the marriage is over. Seventy-three per cent of the local electorate voted for Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayoral candidate in Teesside. The Labour Party has lost its relationship with the communities who created, supported and kept it company for a century. It is a church without a congregation in which the exhausting internal politics of decline, characterised by hate and denunciation, demonisation and exclusion, mark its demise. The loss of the Hartlepool by-election was remarkable. The only parallel swing to a party of government in a by-election was to Labour in 1945, which provided a change in the consensus that lasted for 35 years. And that was in Bournemouth.
The inheritance that Labour built in its heartlands lasted for a century. It was based on local working-class leadership, in partnership with different Christian traditions in building burial societies, water boards, housing and, ultimately, a home in the world when confronted with the dispossession of enclosures and the brutality of industrialisation. It was a partnership that endured but Labour did not keep the people company in conditions of deindustrialisation.
Labour abandoned the towns and villages and its focus moved to the cities. Labour fetishised academic education along with the knowledge economy, and it called for the people to change, move and adapt. The class basis of the party changed. Peter Mandelson became MP for Hartlepool in 1992 and he was not of the people, by the people or for the people. The cultural capital of those who benefitted from the knowledge economy became a new form of domination that excluded people who had previously been the very basis of “labour”. The only form of resistance was their vote and they have now used it to divorce from an abusive marriage.
The noise that surrounds the loss of Hartlepool is the sound of a death rattle; a cry which grinds on without any understanding of its intense emptiness. Each of the different traditions rehearse their story without acknowledging that over the past 16 years they have all failed. During his recent media rounds, Mandelson has exemplified the Blairite approach – that the wrong Miliband brother won in 2010 and that Jeremy Corbyn was the principal cause of disaffection from Labour – without recognising the erosion of the working-class vote from 2001 onwards.
Not a single seat represented by the New Labour high command in 1997 remains Labour. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alan Milburn, John Reid – their former seats are now Tory or SNP. The decline bled into the soft left leadership of Miliband. The disintegration of the covenant with Scotland was completed on his watch and was not reversed with the election of Corbyn in 2015. The reality for Labour is that none of its factions offers any redemption of the ancient promise that relationships and place can be renewed through common action and democracy. All have been tried and failed.
Over all of this lies the cloud of Brexit. In many areas where a majority of people voted for Brexit Labour has witnessed a decrease in votes. It was the defining political issue of our time and it shapes the new era.
Here lies the tragedy for Labour: the new era is defined by three changes from the long period of market-driven globalisation that was initiated in 1979. The first is that the nation has a far more important role in the economy. The lockdown confirmed the trend with both the government furlough scheme and the production of the vaccine, a collaboration between the state, Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and its roll-out through the NHS. It was an industrial strategy that worked. This is fundamental to the labour tradition, and yet despite the government’s recent foolish decision to dissolve the Industrial Strategy Commission, led by Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, Labour is unable to develop a national industrial strategy and use it to express the difference between globalisation and internationalism.
The second feature is the increasing importance of the working class. Far from being a relic of past times, their vote is decisive in forming coalitions. This was the case in the Brexit referendum, the 2019 election and today. The inability to articulate the labour interest, in terms of a factor of production or as a class, is a failure of Labour, which gave itself that name so that it would never forget who it represents and what capitalism tried to eliminate. The third feature of the new era is that the heartlands, rather than the hubs, have become as central today as they were a century ago when Labour built its civic ecology and trust in County Durham and Northumbria, in the pit villages of Yorkshire and the small towns of Lancashire.
The new era should be shaped by a Labour movement based upon community, class and democracy, reconciling estranged interests and pursuing a common good. It was a blessing and an object of affection that the working class did not turn to fascism or communism but transformed the UK through its inheritance of the traditional institutions. The original success of the Labour Party came through building trust with workers and coalitions that could strengthen the labour interest. It is extraordinary that the party can no longer articulate those politics, as it remains its only hope of renewal.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die