Labour’s problem is twofold. Firstly, the people may favour a different direction for the country, but they don’t believe Labour is the right vehicle to travel the journey. They doubt the competence of the party to put the car on the road and plan the route, giving the electorate every encouragement to travel with the Conservatives.
Secondly, the time has passed for an odd tweak to the engine or a change of tyres for the Labour Party. Instead, a comprehensive redesign is needed because everything has changed. The electoral faultlines Labour needs to traverse have completely realigned.
The terrain has evolved from the traditional class-based geography once home to Labour. When I was growing up in a mining community in Sedgefield in the northeast of England, the coal industry was still monolithic. Most of the men in the village worked down one of the local collieries and everyone lived a similar way of life. You voted Labour because the community voted Labour. Although the last colliery in Sedgefield closed almost half a century ago in 1973, making my dad redundant in the process, those days still linger on in the Labour psyche. Even now, Labour claims to be the political wing of a broader Labour movement, yet only one in 10 working people in the private sector are in a trade union – more a monument than a movement. A Labour party fuelled by nostalgia will make no headway.
Postwar Labour governments may have provided the fundamentals of a decent society – a universal health service, a welfare state and comprehensive education – but the electorate has moved on. They want more. From time to time Labour can keep up, but more often than not the party falls behind the Conservatives because the party fails to answer adequately the question asked by the electorate: “Which party is best placed to maintain my standard of living?” The question has changed from who can provide the basics to who can preserve “my lifestyle”.
In 1992, the Labour vote in red wall seats was 22 percentage points higher than the national average. By 2019, that Labour advantage had collapsed to only three points, making the red wall description irrelevant. The communities, work patterns and the aspirations of those living in constituencies like Sedgefield have all changed. As the Deltapoll report for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change said: “Labour’s problems are not so much red wall problems as everywhere problems.”
The party’s once bold red core vote has changed to more subtle shading. This offers the party an opportunity to redefine itself. All this depends, however, on how confident the artist is when it comes to putting brush to canvas.
When Labour understands this, the party ends up in government. When it doesn’t, and Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership turbocharged the process, Labour keeps losing. Keir Starmer is well aware of the problem and is wrestling with the conundrum, but remodelling takes time and the Labour brand is well and truly tarnished. The Tories have become the party of high taxes, low growth and ultra-low integrity, but as Starmer said in his conference speech, “the more we expose the inadequacy of this government the more it presses the question back on us: if they are so bad, what does it say about us?”
After 1997, the size of the traditional working class continued to shrink. This was a trend in other western European countries, but a trend Labour did its best to embrace by encouraging people into university, investing in science and technology, ensuring there was a minimum wage for working people, an early chance for children with the introduction of Sure Start and pensioner credits for the retired. The focus was on preparing the country for high-end, high-value jobs in a global economy. The ambition was to ensure the whole community shared in the prosperity. The Labour government instinctively understood that working-class parents want middle-class kids.
For me, that is the purpose of Labour: it’s the pursuit of fairness and aspiration that matters, not ideology. Labour’s way back into government cannot be through the traditional working class alone, but through building a coalition. The party did that in 1997. No one is saying the clock should be turned back almost a quarter of a century to adopt a policy prescription suited to the 1990s – that way lies the cosy dead-end of nostalgia. The fundamental lesson of New Labour is the opposite, and calls on Labour to keep an eye in a forward direction; searching the political landscape ahead for change, developing the best way of adapting Labour values, unfettered by dogma, for the journey ahead.
In 2019 a fit of nostalgia ran the car off the road. The crisis of confidence in Labour’s ability to drive competently was there for all to see. Whether the voter is young or old, competence trumps shared values. The overhang from the Corbyn-era, anathema to many former Labour voters, casts a long shadow. The break from that time needs to be irrevocable. Labour’s future road map needs to offer a shared destination explained in a language people understand. At present Labour’s perceived stopping off points are not the sights voters want to see.
For Labour, reinvention is all that is left. A new relationship with the country’s 21st-century demographics should be embraced and the strictures set by Labour’s own perception of the working class set aside. Labour’s challenge is to corner the aspiration market and offer a vision helping those who can, while looking after those who cannot.
Starmer’s team has proven its ability to move the compass away from the cultural settings voters shake their heads at, towards issues more relevant to their everyday lives. Labour’s front bench will be the first to admit there is much more to do, especially when the Deltapoll report shows that fewer people today believe they do not receive the public services their taxes deserve. This is a consequence of a decade of Conservative underfunding and a stagnant economy. But this poses a challenge for Labour if the party is not seen as sufficiently competent to do any better.
The Labour Party’s task is to now deliver a plan for the post-Brexit UK, something the Conservatives have yet to do. Continuously overpromising may be an election plan for some, but it certainly isn’t a strategy for government. The constant glare of the false light of boosterism shining through the windscreen of their car is in the process of driving the country off the road. Labour can show the prime minister that honesty is the flip side of optimism, and that, contrary to Boris Johnson’s belief, you can’t have one without the other.
All in all, nothing has changed. Voters are still prepared to look to Labour for the fairness they believe to be at the heart of the party but will only vote Labour if they trust the party to deliver. All that stands between Labour and government is Labour itself.
Yet, at the same time, everything has changed. The bond between the party and its core supporters has broken.
There are many more undecided voters. Most voters may see themselves as working people, but that’s not the same as being part of a traditional working class. The irony is that Labour, the so-called party of working people, has tended not to notice, but the Tories have. They have been very good at taking advantage of Labour’s lack of attention. If that doesn’t convince the Labour Party that it needs to invest in a new vehicle, nothing will.
Phil Wilson is a former Labour MP for Sedgefield