No doubt Sun Tzu, or Bismarck, or another of those sword-belted thinkers so beloved of our political wonks, has said something along these lines: anybody can defend, but only a general who truly understands his forces, and the enemy’s, can successfully attack.
So with the first real signs of buyers’ remorse among Boris Johnson’s voters, and even his own MPs, Labour’s spads and spinners need to get the maths right at last. They have long failed in this prime directive because they are in thrall to the very thing they are supposed to see through: myth. Faced with a Conservative Party that has reinvented itself since 2015 by finally embracing its manifest destiny, the historic UK Anti-Tory League – “Labour” being merely its current name – needs likewise to comprehend its own nature, and fast. The two past leaders to who it should be studying are perhaps unexpected: Neil Kinnock and Winston Churchill.
In 1885, the moment we, or at any rate most males over 21, were able to vote, we voted on lines that would have been familiar to someone from 1643. The south-east of England became, and has remained, a practically invulnerable tribal fortress. Against it was arrayed the League of the Outer UK, which Gladstone was obliged to construct. In order of the number of MPs that each part of the League delivered, it consisted of the Northern English, the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh. Our modern politics – or rather, its modern iteration – was born.
The power of the Tories is that they own one great, contiguous tribal homeland that has awesome cross-class identification: in The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell recalls how, up north, “a little, black-haired, sharp-nosed Cockney” immediately recognised him, the 6ft 2in Etonian, as “a fellow-Southerner”, who would understand that the Northerners were “filthy bloody bastards”. But in the UK before 1921, owning the entire Greater South wasn’t quite enough, so the Tories were obliged to mount forays into enemy territory. Sectarian populism was their weapon of choice, effective not just in Ulster but also in Victorian/Edwardian Lancashire and Scotland. The other was to present themselves as guardians of the working man against immigration and killjoy, teetotal liberalism. Shades of 2019, for all to see.
For the opposing League, things have always been far more complex. The Northern English are its numerical core, but in a lonely England, they will almost always be outgunned by the south (in England, the Conservatives won seven of the first eight elections after 1884, and that ratio has continued). The Northern English thus desperately need the UK in their battle with the Southern English, and the result is that the League, by whatever name it goes, has a built-in contradiction between tactics and strategy. Like the royalists of the Civil War, it ends up simultaneously proposing (a) that the fates of the Northern English and Celts are inextricably linked, so they should fight as one, and (b) that helping the Northern English defeat the Southern English will advance openly or implicitly Celtic nationalist agendas. The Northern English can only win, that is, by hastening the demise of the Union which is their only hope of victory.
This inherent contradiction immediately split the Liberals in 1886, and has continued (as inherent contradictions will) to plague the League ever since. From William Gladstone to Tony Blair, leaders of the League have been obliged to claim that they have found a magical way to satisfy nationalists, yet preserve the UK: “Cool Britannia” was the latest name for this nirvana. One way of fudging the issue has been to ensure that the League has non-English leaders whom the Northern English will nevertheless follow: not for nothing were the first five Labour leaders all Scotsmen. At times, the existential imperative to keep the Celts in the equation has known no bounds: Winston Churchill in March 1914 insisted Irish Home Rule would be rammed through in the teeth of the Ulster Volunteer Force, rebellious British army officers at the Curragh, and Andrew Bonar Law, even if it meant “bloodshed, even on a sustained scale”.
When Ireland gave up on the League and took its own route in 1921, everything changed. The Tories were now home and dry if they could only hold their Southern heartland completely and mount a few successful forays into the soft marches of the south and west Midlands, or the welcoming shires of Scotland and Yorkshire. And instinctively, they knew it. By no coincidence, the incendiary patriotic rhetoric of Randolph Churchill and Bonar Law was replaced by the avuncular English ruralism of Stanley Baldwin: the Tories didn’t need to be abrasive populists any longer, so they stopped. Aided by the BBC, which from 1921 beamed Received Pronunciation tones into every home with a radio, the Southern English embarked on a peaceful drive for total cultural hegemony.
For the League of the Outer UK, the blow of 1921 was almost fatal. Shorn of around 90 Irish MPs, it was reduced to the rump League of Outer Britain, and now had no path to Westminster except by direct assault on the outer ringworks of the Tory heartlands. This has always been extraordinarily difficult. Like a player at Wimbledon facing an opponent with an impossibly big serve, the League has had to wait for a sudden loss of focus, a fatal attack of overconfidence. And these have indeed occurred. The party of the south was hopelessly off the pace of sudden cultural transformation in 1945 and 1964-6; Ted Heath was blindsided by Harold Wilson’s shameless weaponising of Europe in 1974; internal rebellion by the “bastards” (John Major) who were “like some demented Marxist sect” (Douglas Hurd) tore the Conservatives publicly apart before 1997.
But the League could only take such chances if its own core remained firm. One man, steeped in party history, who brilliantly understood that was Peter Mandelson in 1993.
Ideology was notably absent in Mandelson’s insight. But so was something else: London. Mandelson knew that the handily named Midlands is the key: the League of Outer Britain can only ever win if it holds its own core territory while persuading significant numbers of voters in the Midlands to identify with it, rather than with the Tory south. That understanding of our tribal politics delivered three Labour victories in a row.
But this has now somehow mutated into the fatal myth that for “South”, Labour’s strategists need only read “London”.
The city-state of London has always had a special place in Labour history precisely because it is electorally unique. Large enough to have its very own faultlines, it has since 1906 regularly provided Labour’s only meaningful foothold in England south of the Trent basin. But its national significance was only ever really as that Fifth Column, supporting the great army of the Northern English, backed by the industrial Celts. The root of Labour’s modern infatuation seems to be 1964.
As Britain emerged from the aspic of the 1950s, soon-to-be Swinging London swung more than anywhere else, and Labour’s gain of 12 seats there was indeed vital to Wilson squeaking home. But it was a one-off. Wilson could have lost all those gains in 1966 and still had a majority. It wasn’t gaining one London seat in October 1974 that made the difference, but Enoch Powell “putting the boot in”, as the Sun famously had it, in the west Midlands (lest we forget, it was Labour who first cynically deployed the emotional connection, entirely without a rational base in 1974, between being anti-immigration and wanting an EU referendum). In 1997 and 2001, Blair could have lost every seat in London and he would still have won; even in 2005, if he had merely equalled Labour’s worst postwar result in London, he would still have won; if Gordon Brown had done as well in London as Blair in 1997, it wouldn’t have saved him.
London, in other words, doesn’t actually matter.
This sounds like an astonishing statement because it runs counter to our feelings. London is a fantastic city, the seat of power, money, law, the media. It is both the natural capital of northern Europe and the first cousin of New York. Show me a person who does not want to live in London and I will show you a person who cannot afford to live in a part of London with safe parks, half-decent air and excellent state schools. Spads and spinners would no more voluntarily relocate to Salford than would BBC executives. But those are feelings. The maths says otherwise. And Mandelson was only able to apply his insight in 1994 because another Labour leader, taking over his party at a time of potential extinction, had preserved it as a force by understanding the true nature of the Outer British League.
Perhaps because, like Labour’s first five leaders, Neil Kinnock was no Englishman, he realised that his party (unlike the Liberals and the Tories) was never an English one: born and raised within the UK, it is the League, or it is nothing. So what did he do? Simple: he tended the Outer British core. And it worked.
To us, it may seem puzzling that the rout of 1987 was accounted no second disaster and, on the contrary, made Kinnock’s position unchallengeable. But instinctively, the party knew that by increasing sitting majorities, and taking a few lost seats back in the Outer British heartlands, Kinnock had done the basic job. Look at London, though. Kinnock actually lost three seats there – worse even than Foot in 1983! – yet it didn’t seem to matter, because then and there, it didn’t. The defensive job was done.
In 1992, Kinnock, perhaps exhausted by his great defensive victory, failed to make that always-delicate and risky transition to the attack. Forgetting the immutable maths, he allowed himself to bask in the plaudits of the Outer British League. Yes, those fatal pictures from Sheffield, where just eight years before, Arthur Scargill had catastrophically marshalled the north’s last stand. Unwooed, the Midlands continued to identify more with the South. And so we got Major’s surprise victory, internal warfare within the Tories over the spoils of what now looked like eternal dominion and, in the end, Brexit.
Where, then, does the maths leave us now?
It’s pretty easy. In 1987, Labour hit modern rock-bottom in London with 23 MPs. Let’s take that as an irreducible base. In 1997, its greatest landslide, it won 57 London seats. This would seem to be an absolute maximum. Labour currently holds 49 London seats. Its maximum possible gain in London is thus eight MPs; the worst possible loss is 26. Meanwhile, out there, beyond Watford, beyond the Trent, beyond Offa’s Dyke and even beyond Hadrian’s Wall, there are score upon score of seats, once the core tribal territory of the Outer British League, ready, surely, to be disabused of their brief, historically unparalleled allegiance to the Party of the English South. Therefore any set of policies that aims to appeal to London at any potential risk of further alienating Outer Britain is self-evidently insane; on the other hand, policies that are known to appeal in Outer Britain may safely be embraced because any potential cost in London can be borne.
But is there any hope left for the Outer British League in any case? The last time we were as close as we are now to constitutional shipwreck, in 1912, Churchill – at that time, of course, a pugnacious leading light of the Outer UK League – believed that only genuine Home Rule for All, with the English regions themselves so devolved as to send their very own representatives to an “imperial parliament” in London, could save the UK.
It is just possible, even now, that a completely renewed and renamed anti-Johnson coalition, offering a vision of a new Great Britain, a truly voluntary union of genuinely free and equal nations, complete with an England devolved, as Churchill proposed in 1912, into “several great self-governing regions” (and hence, no longer a natural Tory fief), could yet save the day. But if anyone still believes they can recreate the Gladstonian League in any form, they had better start doing as Neil Kinnock did, and play to its core. Because if they let the London tail wag the dog any longer, the dog will be off for good.
James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” and “The Shortest History of England” (Old Street Publishing).
[See also: Can Keir Starmer break Labour’s losing streak?]