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27 January 2022

Labour used to be the party of the people – how did it become so disconnected?

Keir Starmer must find a way to cross the troubling gulf between public and political opinion.

By Louise Perry

“It has often been said that Labour has a mountain to climb before it can contest the next election. But even this does not acknowledge the scale of the problem.” So says a pamphlet published on 24 January by the internal party group Labour Together, which intends to map a way up the mountain.

Labour’s Covenant is a product of consultation with more than 100 policy advisers, academics, journalists and think tank experts, alongside Labour politicians. Policy proposals include measures to strengthen trade unions, put workers on boards and increase funding for vocational education. The paper also describes many other goals, some rather intangible: to foster a greater sense of shared purpose; to retell our national story.

One of the most interesting sections of Labour’s Covenant is the account it offers of Britain’s recent political past. The authors acknowledge the fact that prosperity really was generated under Thatcher, and that a newly affluent group of Britons came into existence who have since helped to keep the Conservative Party afloat, but they argue that this economic growth was built on sand: 

“Private incomes were being sustained at the expense of public goods. Financial speculation and rent seeking replaced value creation and shared prosperity. The country was living off the sale of public assets built up over generations… Public services, from probation to care homes to children’s homes, were privatised and outsourced.”

New Labour undid some of this damage, reducing poverty, introducing the minimum wage and creating schemes like Sure Start, which provides support for the families of preschool children living in poverty. But the New Labour project did not depart entirely from Thatcherism. Most importantly, the Blair government continued to embrace liberal market politics, pushing for ever greater free movement of goods, capital, services and people. 

In 2016 the Guardian’s John Harris recalled Tony Blair’s 2005 Labour Party Conference speech:

“His essential message reflected one of the key strands of his political theology: the mercurial magic of modern capitalism, and his mission to toughen up the country in response to the endless challenges of the free market. ‘Change is marching on again… The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.'”

I watched that speech on a huge screen in the conference exhibition area and I recall thinking: “Most people are not like that.”

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It’s true. Most people are not willing and able to change. Most people are comforted by tradition, rather than indifferent to it, and most of us – in fact, practically all of us – will end our lives in a state of frailty. The free market does not respect any of that. 

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader might have presented an opportunity for the party to turn away from this market logic. Unfortunately, Corbynism did not represent a genuine return to Labour’s roots. In fact, it espoused exactly the same kind of rootlessness as New Labour had, rejecting the emphasis on place, community and tradition that were originally integral to the labour movement from which the party sprang. 

How could any patriotic voter stomach a would-be prime minister who refused to sing the national anthem, as Corbyn did at the Battle of Britain memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2015? Or who invited two convicted IRA terrorists to tea in Parliament just two weeks after the IRA had killed five people and almost assassinated Thatcher in the 1984 Brighton bombing? Add all this to the suspiciously fervent obsession with Israel among many Corbynites, and many voters correctly intuited – with encouragement, of course, from the right-wing media – that this was not a party leadership that shared their values.

The challenge Keir Starmer is now faced with is how to re-establish his party’s reputation as the champion of working people. His choice to appoint the pollster Deborah Mattinson as his director of strategy suggests that he takes this task seriously. Mattinson is the author of Beyond the Red Wall, an analysis of Labour’s 2019 general election defeat that includes extensive interviews with red wall constituents and ought to be required reading for every member of the party, since it makes clear that there is a troubling gulf between public and political opinion.

Liberalism on both social and economic issues remains the dominant force in SW1, while polling repeatedly shows us that the public is more likely to be found in the opposite quadrant, sometimes parodied as the “fund the NHS, hang the paedos” position, or else dismissed with the term “populist” (usually said with a snarl). Here exists a problem that cannot easily be smoothed over with appeals to the wisdom of representative democracy. 

It does matter, for instance, that a majority of the public still supports the reintroduction of the death penalty for some offences, whereas MPs are overwhelmingly opposed to it. It matters, too, that at least two thirds of people consistently tell pollsters that immigration levels are “too high”, as the convulsive aftermath of the Brexit referendum has demonstrated.

The majority of voters continues to express opinions that are considered distasteful by the majority of those who seek to represent them. Labour can’t just insist that the public must be wrong – either as a result of misinformation or naked bigotry – and then express surprise when yet another election loss comes around. Labour’s Covenant represents a new and optimistic attempt to reconcile opposing factions within both the party and the country. This member of the Labour Party hopes it succeeds.

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