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21 June 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 11:29am

Culture is everything – and if Labour is to win us over, it needs to rediscover its own

To have a chance of long-term success in office, Keir Starmer needs affection and support.

By Andrew Marr

We need to talk about Labour culture. What, you say, do we really? Culture is such a hazy word. It doesn’t come with numbers attached. In hard times, even writing about it may seem a distraction. But political culture is the origin of emotional connection; it generates the feeling of belonging to something bigger, a sense of identity. And today’s Labour is coming across as dried-out, bureaucratic, control-freaky and weirdly passionless.

This won’t matter much in the run-up to the general election. Even at the heart of government there is a growing sense of fatalism about coming change. Never take the voters for granted. Anything can happen. And yet, looking at the polling and talking to a wide range of MPs about their constituencies, it seems the country has already turned its back on the Tories.

No, this is about the long term. A future Labour government will desperately need our trust and support during the mid-2020s, having inherited an economy too small to generate the extra investment in industrial transition and social services that Britain needs. To put it another way, we will have to root for these people in power – to identify with them, to like them, even.

I am not appealing for spending indiscipline or for wild language, still less for public punch-ups over ideology. I’m asking, as one friend put it, where is the Labour vibe? The fear of losing, in itself a good thing, is becoming ingrained to the point where some senior party figures sound like their tongues are made of wood.

This must change. To have a chance of long-term success in office, Keir Starmer needs affection and support – and a deep emotional connection with voters that can only be sustained by a stronger, living Labour culture.

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I say living because for many “Labour culture”, if it means anything at all, evokes only a blur of half-forgotten images – the Durham miners’ gala; the spirit of 1945 and Nye Bevan’s torrential eloquence; the Festival of Britain and the new towns; that gripping annual conference drama of composite motions being referred back; lusciously bearded Fabians; pipe smoke; and more recently the affable ideological bring-and-buy stall of the “World Transformed” in the Jeremy Corbyn era.

But we are in new times and, anyway, Labour culture was always thin gruel. Without the visual and musical traditions of trade unionism, it would be little more than a grey mishmash of pamphlets, books and dimly remembered speeches.

Even in new times, however, politics requires more than honesty and sound policy. As the Scottish and Brexit referendums showed, people still turn to democracy to resolve problems of identity and respect. Such yearnings may be outside the normal order of politics. They may belong more to religion. As we are seeing across the West, if such needs are not satisfied they invite demagoguery and the politics of division.

And yet a politics that has no real emotional connection with the population is bound to fail. Labour has been rising dramatically in the polls on the back of Tory dishonesty and misjudgement in the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss years. It has excelled at pained admonishment. But soon the country will be asking: who are these people and what do they mean to us? What drives them? Are they like us? Are they on our side?

[See also: Labour is getting bolder on Brexit]

This is too big a subject for a single brief article. But we should begin by noting that the shadow cabinet contains many good storytellers, with good and relevant stories to tell. Starmer’s impoverished beginnings as the son of a toolmaker and nurse, and the way he rose through the grind; Angela Rayner, the Stockport mother with no advantages; Rachel Reeves, the brilliant mathematician from a comprehensive, overturning a world of patronising posh boys; Wes Streeting, with his remarkable tale of East End family life – his grandfather an armed robber, his grandmother in jail with Christine Keeler.

There are plenty more examples but the crucial thing here is class. These may be mostly southerners – from Oxted, Bromley, Stepney – but they were all raised by unprivileged families, and they have made their own way thanks to brains and self-discipline. They are, in other words, as different from the Etonian, hyper-privileged class as can be imagined. So, yes, they are quite like the voters they need – aspirational, serious and without “connections”. Just having them in power would make Britain feel different.

And even if you move away from the better-known names such as Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband, the front bench offers plenty of other interesting personalities – Bridget Phillipson, David Lammy, Rosena Allin-Khan, Peter Kyle. But there is too much hunkering down, too much lip-zipping in the interests of pre-election discipline. One senior Labour figure told me: “Boldness and inventiveness is being wrung out of people.” The gigantic challenges Labour faces, he thought, would need more “audacity and grit”.

Beyond the personal, there are basic principles to be followed. First, as above, “class, not culture wars”. Labour’s appeal must be basic and material – the politics of wages, mortgages and more secure jobs. If there was a malign right-wing conspiracy to divide and destroy the UK’s liberal left, it would import its methods from the culture wars being waged in US universities. A large part of British conservatism is determined to fight the next election on exactly these grounds.

Labour must distinguish the private realm from the public realm, and prioritise, always, economics over philosophical agonies about identity. It is the constant pull of today’s social media to make the intimate public. It is the manic exhibitionism of our times, which politics will never satisfy. By appealing to decency and restraint, Labour must avoid drifting in the latter direction.

Next, in a world of AI and abstraction, Labour culture should veer more generally to people’s material needs – to the visible needs of declining high streets and under-skilled young people. A return to street policing; money for sports facilities, breakfast clubs, music teaching, architecture and planning – and a sense of beauty too. These principles of localism and materialism can be applied to the biggest policy shifts. For example, the “green energy revolution” makes most emotional sense when it is combined with tree planting to improve urban areas and anti-flooding protections.

Perhaps I am stretching the word culture to breaking point. But in replenishing its emotional energy, Labour needs to go where the culture stays strong. That means accepting that the north and Midlands of England are its heartland, not metropolitan central London. Edgbaston, not Lord’s. It means embracing sound, democratic trade unionism again. And even learning, perhaps, from the eloquence and passion of trade union leaders. It means celebrating sport and sporting culture.

It means a closer engagement with culture as it is traditionally understood – supporting local theatres, local newspapers, local music-making. Britain is enjoying an extraordinary renaissance in drama, on the stage and screen, and a proliferation of festivals, literary and musical. Tony Crosland, Denis Healey and Barbara Castle would have been thrilled by this: Labour today needs to be more excited about it.

Does any of this really matter? Culture isn’t a luxury: it’s the heart, the pith, the soul of politics. The right wants to portray Labour as a movement of aridly intellectual north London “socialists” out of touch with the real country. But Labour is bigger and warmer than that.

[See also: The SNP is living in a parallel universe]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars