Much has changed in the Labour Party over the past decade, but there have been two constants: general election defeat and a position that culture wars are best avoided. Whether under Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer, the leadership’s preferred response to divisive issues such as immigration, crime, minority rights and Brexit has been to move the conversation on to the condition of public services and the British economy.
Under Miliband, the central problem was that half of the voters that Labour needed to win an election wanted an end to the free movement of people – something that couldn’t be done without leaving the European Union. As one shadow cabinet minister despairingly said to me when Miliband was leader: “We know what the problem is, we know what the solution is, we just can’t deliver it.” As a result, the best Labour could offer in the 2015 election was to restrict the ability of new arrivals from other countries to claim benefits – a welfare policy, therefore, more than an immigration policy. The approach was a disaster politically, but without a sudden, party-splitting conversion to backing a Brexit referendum, there was no plausible better option.
The lesson Corbyn’s inner circle took from the 2017 result – the only election since 2010 in which Labour gained rather than lost seats – was that to win, the party needed to bank its gains in England’s great cities and make advances in the towns and small cities. That meant swerving culture war entanglements and trying to avoid being pinned down on the Brexit debate.
[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]
Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the 2019 election resulted partly from Labour MPs being forced to participate in the Brexit process (their votes in parliament were needed to help navigate a way out of the mess). It also resulted partly from Corbyn being unable to put aside unorthodox foreign policy positions – particularly concerning the 2018 Salisbury poisoning, when he was publicly sceptical about the government’s condemnation of the Kremlin.
Now, under Starmer, Labour is attempting to marry economic radicalism with relative silence on culture war issues – debates over law and order, British history, and campaigns for gender or racial equality – an approach criticised by Tony Blair in his recent New Statesman essay. Blair believes Labour must loudly assert a centre-ground position, while Starmer’s strategy is to avoid commenting on these divisive issues, and for other shadow ministers to make warm noises in favour of various liberal causes. Starmer believes the shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy’s leadership campaign came unstuck when she was plunged into a row after signing the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights’ pledge. He has impressed upon allies his determination to avoid a similar fate.
Even if Starmer’s tenure is brought to an abrupt end, it is unlikely his replacement will have a significantly different approach. Starmer’s position is shared by his deputy Angela Rayner, who reminded the shadow cabinet on 10 May that one of the party’s problems in Hartlepool was that it lost voters over immigration.
Indeed, the main explanation given for why Starmer replaced Anneliese Dodds with Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor was that Reeves is more willing to make big spending commitments early on, while Dodds preferred to prioritise establishing Labour’s credibility on economic competence. In order to maintain its silence on culture war questions, Labour must, the argument runs, be louder on economic issues.
Why would an approach that failed for Corbyn and Miliband work for Starmer? The current leader’s supporters suggest Starmer is more trusted by the public on security and culture issues than both his predecessors. But beyond the confines of Westminster, it is far from clear whether the silent treatment works.
That is probably the biggest challenge that Blair set out for Labour in his essay: Labour cannot win if its policy on cultural issues is to not have one. Everyone in Labour agrees that the party needs to be both radical and credible, but they disagree fiercely about how those two things are defined. And the party is divided on whether it should highlight the economic themes, such as housing or jobs, which unite broad swathes of voters, or take clear positions on cultural issues rather than deflecting to economic ones.
Some point to Wales – where Mark Drakeford’s ambitious programme of LGBT rights did not prevent Welsh Labour retaining power – as a sign that a bold position on issues of gender or sexuality, coupled with an unashamed love of the nation and flag, and radical policies, need not mean defeat. “The difference is that Mark hasn’t outsourced this stuff to the fringe,” says one shadow cabinet minister. “There is a clear Labour position which is settled and defensible.”
Others think Labour would be better off opting for an outright repudiation of what they perceive as the excesses of the fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement, and an abandonment of the pro-LGBT positions outlined in the party’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos. Both schools of thought feel their argument was validated by Blair’s essay, which encouraged some level of engagement with culture war issues.
The problem for Starmer is that neither of these schools believes his heart is with them. Labour’s affiliated liberation movements fear that the leadership regards them as an impediment to electoral success, while many inside the party think Starmer is too attached to what they perceive as “metropolitan” distractions, such as LGBT issues, Black Lives Matter and campus debate. Starmer may be ambivalent about Blair’s record in office, but he will soon have to accept that on the culture war question, his predecessor might have a point.
[see also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy