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8 May 2021updated 10 May 2021 10:59am

Labour and the Conservatives have a shared disease: sentimentality

Labour romanticises the voters it needs to win, while the Conservatives engage in fantasies about debt and tax.

By Stephen Bush

Who are the voters Labour is struggling with in England? Sometimes they are described as the party’s traditional working-class core: voters without which there is no point in the Labour Party existing.

Figures as politically diverse as Gloria De Piero, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jon Cruddas have made this argument: in the current shadow cabinet its more forceful advocates include Lisa Nandy and Jim McMahon, the shadow foreign and shadow transport secretaries respectively. It is also the preferred register of several in Keir Starmer’s inner circle, and his closest allies see their political mission as to save Labour as a party for these voters.

But sometimes these same voters are described as owner-occupiers who, whether they live in Swindon, Surrey or Hartlepool have one thing in common: whatever their income, they are asset-rich and lead lives of relative comfort.

This side of the argument has few who are willing to make the argument publicly, and for the most part when people do it is in order to justify or minimise the party’s failure to make a breakthrough.

I take the perhaps crude view that your heartlands are the places you have won for the longest period of time by the biggest margins: in other words, Labour’s heartlands are and always have been the inner cities, which have had the longest run of electing Labour MPs and have done so the most consistently. Tony Blair tells the story of a Labour activist who, in 1994, asked him: “The voters have rejected us four times what’s wrong with them?” All too often in the 2010s, Labour MPs and politicians from across its traditions and factions seem to have instead been asking, “180 or so seats have stuck with us through four successive defeats: what’s wrong with them?” At times, Labour seems actively ashamed of the people and places who have voted for it as it has lost elections from its right flank in 2010, the centre in 2015, and its left in 2017 and 2019.

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To make matters worse, Labour often seems even more ashamed of the new voters it has won in that time. This set of local elections are a case in point: Labour has won the only “open” metro-mayoral race (that is to say, the only one without a defending incumbent), with Dan Norris winning the West of England mayoralty by a heavy margin in the second round. Yet the Labour Party – including Starmer’s allies! – have preferred to engage in a performative bout of wailing about how the party is awful, needs to change and has had these results coming to it for a long, long time, rather than, say, celebrating the gains it has made and acknowledging, even briefly, that perhaps the vaccine roll-out is part of the story in England.

It is unclear to me why people who cannot get on the housing ladder across Bath and Bristol are less morally deserving of a Labour Party than owner-occupiers in Hartlepool or elsewhere, or that they are any less the “working people” Labour seeks to represent.

But I also think the argument is often a bit of a red herring: it doesn’t really matter if the voters of Swindon, Stevenage or Hartlepool are Labour’s “real” heartlands or if the party wouldn’t be “the same thing” if it didn’t win these seats: seats such as Swindon and Stevenage hugely outnumbered essentially any other type of seat even before the Conservatives successfully managed to start winning in these seats in the north as well as in the Midlands and the south. There is no path to a parliamentary majority for Labour that doesn’t run through winning these voters.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving your voters or the voters you are targeting an inaccurate name: one element of Labour’s internal discourse is that clearly large chunks of the party find it easier to talk about having lost the party’s soul and purpose than how it wins votes from people who are comfortably off  its perennial problem in its two last prolonged periods of opposition in the 1950s and 1980s. (Albeit this is now happening in an ultra-low-interest-rate world, where “comfortably off” is a much weirder category and therefore much harder to work your way around than it was for Labour in the 1990s and 2000s.)

And one reason why the Conservative Party likes to talk about how it is winning the “working class” is that it is a good way to attack Labour, and also because almost everyone in the United Kingdom thinks of themselves as “working class”.

The difference is that when the Conservatives actually discuss the voters they’ve won be it this excellent long 2016 piece from James Frayne, or this flippant but useful description of “Deano” – they take their target voters out of the box. The voters they are targeting no longer flit between their emotional and perceived (by themselves and by others) status as “Labour voters” and they instead become, recognisably, a post-crisis version of the voter the Tories won in the 1950s and 1980s. It’s hardly a coincidence I think that many “Red Wall” heartland seats have actually been Labour since 1987 or 1959: two landslides when the Conservatives were successfully squeezing Labour out of conversations, and ones where, albeit in ways that are almost unrecognisable to today, Labour’s struggle was to appeal to the comfortably off. (And many of the 1959 ones were within millimetres of going Conservative in 1983 or 1987, and vice versa.)

I’m not saying the Conservative Party is free of this doublethink: Labour’s biggest (perhaps its only) strategic advantage is that there is a huge gulf between the modern Tory party’s penchant for listing things its new voters want and then inserting the kicker “and taxes to be as low as possible”. This, coupled with Rishi Sunak’s ambitious austerity programme, means I am unconvinced that its political project is as stable as the current consensus thinks, but it’s not clear if its failure would necessarily mean a revival for Labour or just that the Tories pivot back to the Cameron coalition (perhaps with Sunak at its head).

But a big priority for Labour has to be to be able to think about the voters it wants in a less sentimental way, at least some of the time, and to be able to celebrate the voters it is winning over.