Keir Starmer is a quick reader. As a barrister, he was renowned for his ability to digest complex briefs. As Labour leader, his most effective Commons performances often rely on telling quotes and figures. Being an opposition politician involves more research than action, and the pandemic has increased that imbalance by restricting his public appearances. Meanwhile, Labour’s recent electoral defeats and Starmer’s own relative inexperience (he has been an MP for only six years), mean that, in theory at least, he is open to ideas. What he reads matters.
Next week Jon Cruddas, one of Labour’s more thoughtful MPs, publishes a book with a cover blurb from his leader. The Dignity of Labour “seeks to re-establish Labour as the party of work”, says Starmer. “It is an ambitious and essential read for anyone interested in how our movement can rebuild”. It’s enlightening to read this book alongside another, similar volume, which Starmer seems to have liked so much he hired its author. The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes, by Claire Ainsley, was addressed to politicians of all parties. But one of Starmer’s first acts as leader was to make Ainsley his director of policy.
Both books are a cut above the usual fare from policy wonks and MPs, genuinely curious about modern Britain and how politicians have failed it. But they also give highly partial accounts of recent British and Labour party history. And what they leave out helps explain what’s been missing, so far, from Starmer’s only moderately successful leadership.
Ainsley portrays today’s British working class as large and politically pivotal but also “disparate”, “atomised” and increasingly employed in low-paid, insecure, service-sector jobs – a class transformed “over the past 40 years” by deindustrialisation, the polarisation of incomes and the decline of trade unions. She argues that these unsettled voters want politicians who value “family, fairness, hard work and decency”. Versions of this formula have appeared in many recent Starmer speeches.
Yet Ainsley barely mentions the political force behind much of this upheaval (Thatcherism) or the cultural force (the rightwing press) that has kept Thatcherite policies and public values alive for so long. It’s as if working-class lives and attitudes are like the weather: things politicians can’t change, only adapt to. This fatalism is reminiscent of how Tony Blair and centrists worldwide saw free-market capitalism, until the financial crisis began to change their minds.
Ainsley’s book came out during the tenure of a very different Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he and his policies hardly feature. There is a tiny reference to Labour’s “unexpected surge” at the 2017 election, and another noting that its support then from “low-income voters” increased “by 8%”. But there is no exploration of whether these things happened because Corbyn’s programme addressed the material concerns of many working-class people – if not always their cultural values – more seriously than Labour had for decades. In this book, as in the party and the British political conversation more generally since 2019, Corbynism is written out of history.
There’s a logic to this: in mainstream British politics, nobody loves a loser, especially a leftwing one. But if Labour is going to get as many votes under Starmer as it did in 2017, let alone as many as it would need to win, Ainsley and the party’s other strategists will have to learn from Corbynism’s strengths, rather than ignoring them and insisting it had only weaknesses.
Cruddas’s book pays the Labour left more attention. Some cutting but useful points are made about their over-reliance sometimes on “demographic determinism”: on believing that the radical views of many young voters inevitably herald a better political future. Cruddas also writes powerfully about the value of work and the damage done by its absence. He attacks the often leftwing theorists of post-work, who advocate a shorter working week, or its disappearance, for being too positive about automation. With the psychological costs of the furlough and pandemic-related unemployment becoming apparent, Cruddas’s argument feels timely. It’s also easy to see why it appeals to the workaholic Labour leader. Last Sunday, Starmer wrote in the Observer: “I know the pride that comes with a good wage and job security … The task for Labour is clear: to get Britain working again.”
But Cruddas’s book undermines itself by misrepresenting who the modern British left actually are. “Young urban educated cosmopolitan winners,” he writes, have “replaced the workers” as the left’s priority and main source of support. But today these urban radicals often are the workers: making drinks all day in cafes, riding delivery bikes in the rain. They may be well educated and cosmopolitan, but with poor wages and no job security, bad rented housing and student debt, they’re not our economy’s “winners”. Those are more likely to be found in what politicians and the media still reverently call the traditional working class – for example, the retired, formerly Labour-supporting property owners of the red wall.
Such new realities may be difficult for the Labour right to accept, having assumed for decades that the voters who matter are relatively conservative homeowners rather than 25-year-olds with blue hair. But Britain has changed a lot since Blairism’s glory days. And without a clear sense of those changes, Labour is doomed to continuing electoral underperformance, neither rightwing enough to take votes from the Tories nor radical enough to prevent defections to the Greens or leftwing Britons simply refusing to vote.
In the Observer, Starmer also wrote: “Labour must be bold. Ahead of us is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink what Britain can be, where power lies and who it works for.” He won’t manage any of this unless he gets broader advice.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist