Nobody ever went into Labour politics to transform Chipping Norton. Maybe we can imagine Clement Attlee running under the slogan “for a slightly better Stanmore” but the rest of the Labour Party ardently wants to save the people of Hartlepool, who do not wish to be saved, at least not by Angela Rayner anyway. Last week Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election, won control of Chipping Norton council and made progress in England’s green and pleasant lands of Oxfordshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent. The Labour Party is caught in a revolution and the psychological cost will be severe.
The Labour Party is a mission, or to use Harold Wilson’s term, a crusade. There is a hint of the saviour in that description. The people, in the Labour demonology, are not fallen but they are downtrodden. The electorate are the ragged-trousered mass and Labour politicians are the philanthropists. It is important to Labour’s self-image that it was, as Angela Rayner wrote on 11 May, “founded to represent and win power for working-class people”. Rayner defined the task as reconnecting with “the places that we are here to fight for”. She doesn’t mean Tunbridge Wells, and the sentimentality and the sense of rightful ownership is audible in the sentence. These are our people.
It just might be tilting at windmills. Maybe losing in Hartlepool and winning the mayoralties in the West of England and Peterborough and Cambridgeshire is an omen of the Labour Party’s future rather than a fleeting eccentricity. Ever since the shadow-setting triumph of 1945, the Labour template of politics has been organised by class. Labour, the party that came out of the bowels of the trade union movement, as Ernest Bevin put it, existed to improve the material lot of the least well-off in the industrial settings, the towns that built ships, forged steel and mined coal.
This coalition has been a long time dying. In 1960, in a book called Must Labour Lose?, Richard Rose and Mark Abrams argued that the connection was already fraying. By the time of the Hartlepool by-election in 2021, after industrial decline and after Brexit, it had gone.
Social class was once the source of political affiliation but that is no longer true. Income and occupational status were of no value at all in predicting the vote in 2019. The electorate divided predictably along lines of age, education and cultural attitudes, but not class. There is a core vote available for Labour as the party of open values, the party of the urban young in rental housing, the party of the cohort of graduates that its own university reforms has created.
Yet Labour politicians are sentimentally rooted somewhere else. Among the many flaws of Jeremy Corbyn, the most damaging was that he was so out of date. He was fighting the 1959 election 60 years too late.
Politics is turning on its axis and the one politician who has got this by instinct is Boris Johnson. Look at how the Tory party has turned full circle since 2010. The Cameron and Osborne pitch was social liberalism and fiscal restraint. Johnson blithely reverses both. His government is a blend of cultural conservatism and high spending and, when delivered with the Johnson charm (which Labour people cannot see), it works.
Like teenagers whose love has turned to another boy or girl, Labour feels jealous and betrayed. Labour politicians sound like Joe Jackson singing “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and that cultural reference is about as topical as they are.
None of this means abandoning the north-east of England to its Tory conquerors. Labour needs these seats if it is to have any hope of victory. But it is likely that Hartlepool will never again be counted as a Labour place in the old-fashioned sense. It will be winnable, by a party that looks and sounds competent, but it is no longer “ours”. It will pass from core to periphery, from core vote to swing seat.
Perhaps if Labour had an established and reliable vote elsewhere in the cities it could afford to spend all its time, effort and argument winning back the once industrial working class. But it has no such definite fallback position. The Greens and the Lib Dems will compete with Labour for its new vote in England while the SNP already holds it in Scotland. This is one of the many ways in which 2021 is not at all like 1997, the year of the first Blair landslide.
This all sounds depressing for Labour people, but needn’t be, necessarily. The pandemic will pass and the jab in the arm that vaccination has given to the Tories will disappear. Furlough will unwind. Johnson and Rishi Sunak will fight about spending.
Yet, when a moment arrives at which the nation might consider Labour again, what party will emerge? Angela Rayner’s account of Labour, which is a good expression of the common view, is all about the trade unions and the workers. “Our country has changed and our economy has changed,” she says, “but that founding purpose has not changed.”
Yes, but what if it has? What if it really has? There was another group in the original Labour coalition who were practising identity politics from the start. The middle-class intellectuals were indispensable in the formation of the party and they were Labour against their own material interest. They were the pioneers of left-of-centre identity political voting. The uneasy class coalition of the Labour Party is being resolved in favour of its bourgeois element and hardly anyone in the party will be able to stomach it. They want to do things for the poor and they cannot understand why the poor are so ungrateful. They are facing a difficult, if not terminal, truth, which is that if the Labour Party did not exist in its current form nobody in their right mind would invent it.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die