Pictured: Keir Starmer, who replaced Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in April 2020. Photo by Chris Boland. Edited by Inroads Journal.
The December 2019 election in the UK delivered a seismic shock to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. It won only 32 per cent of the vote and a mere 202 of Parliament’s 650 seats, the smallest number since 1935. Digging below the aggregate statistics provides even bleaker reading. Labour seats tumbled in the party’s former bastions of the industrial north and west Midlands – an area that had been dubbed the “Red Wall.” The party did best among the young and the better educated, but nowhere near well enough to cancel the Tory lead in other groups. For the first time for almost a century, the Tories gained a higher proportion of working-class votes than Labour (48 to 33 per cent). Even more remarkable, no fewer than 45 per cent of low-income voters supported the Tories compared to 31 per cent for Labour.
Spirits in the party revived – except for those on the Corbyn left – when Keir Starmer replaced Corbyn as Labour leader in April 2020. Starmer, formerly an eminent QC, was first elected to Parliament in 2015. In 2016 Corbyn appointed him shadow Brexit Secretary. Thanks to this high-profile role, he achieved prominence during the protracted negotiations over the terms of departure from the European Union. With his fluency, diligence and capacity to master a complex brief, he impressed many of his peers and kept free from factional entanglements. Few were surprised when he swept to victory in the leadership election.
His first priority was gaining a firm grip on the party, which he soon accomplished by evicting members of the hard left from positions of influence. His arrival in the leadership coincided with the pandemic, and this timing impeded his efforts to make an impression on the public. Starmer calculated, rightly, that most voters favoured national unity and would resent strident partisan attacks on Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis. Hence, he pursued a stance of “constructive opposition.” For some within the party this was lame and lacklustre, and while Labour’s standing in the polls improved, it did so only modestly. Worryingly, in 2021 Labour’s standing deteriorated.
The first major test of Starmer’s leadership was the May 2021 local elections and devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales. Held at the same time was a byelection in the Labour-held riding of Hartlepool, in the northern “Red Wall.” The normal pattern of electoral behaviour in local authority elections and byelections is that voters exploit the opportunity to register disapproval with the government. The consensus among professionals that Johnson’s Tory government had seriously mishandled the COVID crisis rendered the government more vulnerable.
Far from suffering the customary hammering experienced by incumbents, the Tories performed impressively, even snatching the Hartlepool seat from Labour by a wide margin. Partly this was because of the “vaccine bounce.” The program to vaccinate the British public was proceeding smoothly and efficiently, and the public gave credit not to the National Health Service, which had organized the program, but to the government. There was much talk of the “incumbency effect” where governments in all four nations of the UK benefited electorally from the vaccine bounce. Thus, in Scotland the Scottish National Party, led by the extremely popular Nicola Sturgeon, came within one seat of an overall majority, a remarkable achievement in a proportional electoral system (see Box 1). The same was true in Wales, where the Welsh Labour Party under the highly regarded Mark Drayford won precisely half the seats in the Senedd. But above all, it was in England that the COVID crisis gave Johnson massive, prolonged and often very favourable political exposure as he squeezed out the opposition parties through frequent televised press conferences.
Most media attention was focused on the Hartlepool result. The Starmer leadership had anticipated the defeat. Labour had held the seat in 2019 only because a large Brexit Party vote had split the anti-Labour vote. Labour leaders assumed that most of this vote would switch to the Tories, but they were stunned that the Labour vote fell even further than in the poor 2019 result. Furthermore, in local elections in the west Midlands and the north, more towns in the Red Wall slipped from Labour hands.
Not all was gloomy. Labour did very well in mayoral elections in the still solid fortress of Merseyside (including Liverpool), in Greater Manchester where Andy Burnham (beaten by Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election) took another big step in his political rehabilitation by scoring a huge triumph in his reelection as mayor, and in London where Sadiq Khan was reelected as mayor, though with a lower percentage of the vote than anticipated.
Why Labour’s expected revival under Starmer has not materialized is a complicated question. Explanations include misjudgements and miscalculation, contingencies (the pandemic) and the shadow cast by the Corbyn leadership, and long-term social, political and economic trends throughout the Western world. Here I shall concentrate on two particularly relevant factors: one short-term and a matter of agency, the other long-term and a matter of structure.
The politics of competence
Personalities matter in politics. This is hardly a contentious proposition given the amount of time given to rival party leaders, but it is also underpinned by a highly influential theory of electoral behaviour. This is the so-called “valence” model, according to which voter decisions are driven less by values or policy preferences than by estimations of which party and party leader are best able to deliver what most want, such as economic well-being and security.1 Where valence issues are uppermost in the public mind, voters are invited to judge between parties, and especially leaders, on the basis of their ability or trustworthiness. Indeed, for most voters, evaluations of the quality of party leaders is a useful shortcut in deciding how to vote. The essence of the partisan battle becomes the contest between rival party leaders.
Such thinking appeared to influence Labour strategists. Alongside Brexit, strategists saw Corbyn’s dire ratings in the polls as a crucial factor in Labour’s crushing 2019 defeat. It was plain to all but his cultlike followers that Jeremy Corbyn was held in very low esteem not only because of his association with a range of very unpopular policy stances, such as alleged sympathy for terrorists and hostility to the police, the military and the monarchy, but also because he was seen, fairly or not, as bungling, indecisive, extreme, ineffectual and hence wholly unsuited to high office. Starmer’s first priority, then, was to persuade voters that Labour was “under new management.” In contrast to his predecessor, Starmer was presented as calm, reasonable, thoughtful and wholly trustworthy.
Competence emerged as the leitmotif of Starmer’s political strategy. This appeared to suit Starmer, with his well-attested record as a highly effective former Director of Public Prosecutions (for which he received his knighthood). The comparison was not only with Corbyn but also, increasingly, with Johnson. Few people who knew the PM and were capable of dispassionate judgement regarded him as either competent or trustworthy. Even before he became Prime Minister, Sir Max Hastings, former editor of the ideologically conservative Daily Telegraph and a highly regarded historian, noted that Johnson (whom he had employed as a journalist on the Telegraph) had “a contempt for the truth,” only really cared for his “own fame and gratification” and was “unfit for national office.”2 Johnson’s inept and complacent handling of the COVID crisis seemed to bear this out.
Labour soon became convinced that incompetence was the government’s Achilles heel. Starmer and other frontbenchers constantly hammered away at Johnson’s bungling performance, his shortsightedness and his disregard for the public good. No press release was complete without reference to his incompetent management of COVID.3
The PM was indeed seen by most informed observers as shallow, highly opportunistic and thoroughly unreliable. So it seemed to make sense for Labour to structure its appeal around the attested virtues of Starmer: his honesty, integrity, ability and sense of public duty. But the electorate has not so far been receptive to Labour’s message. Opinion research shows that while most voters regard politicians as self-seeking, greedy and dishonourable, “Boris” – as he is affectionately called – was exempt from these strictures. He is seen as flawed, with many human weaknesses, but as sincere, authentic, with the common touch and “on our side.” In general, he is rated more highly than Starmer.
How can we explain this? The key lies in understanding how most voters think about politics. As political scientist Gerry Stoker observed, most people are “regularly inattentive to politics, careless in their reasoning about it, and casual in the use of evidence about issues” – and, indeed, often quite myopic.4 News items that obsess the political class barely register. No less important, modern electioneering techniques foster conditions that discourage informed deliberation. The essence of the partisan contest, Jay Blumler points out, is the “competitive struggle to influence and control popular perceptions of key political events and issues.” What matters here is not seeking to persuade voters through rational discourse but “getting the appearance of things right” (emphasis in original) through such techniques as spin, sound bites, media management and photo opportunities.5
Johnson and his advisers thoroughly understand this. They have been adept in crafting an image of “Boris” as engaging, witty, convivial, even charismatic – in short, a celebrity politician. In contrast Starmer is widely portrayed as competent and worthy but dull, wooden and uninspiring. Experts have crafted sustained criticisms of the government’s COVID record, but the details of these are technical, complex and not easy to decipher; therefore they make little impression on voters, especially the less educated. In summary, the Conservatives have grasped better than their opponents that facts only make an impression when woven into a narrative; Johnson has proved a far more gifted storyteller than Starmer.
Questions of personality appraisals and competency judgments are short-term and contingent. We now need to step back and explore some underlying trends and processes that have operated to Labour’s disadvantage.
New cleavage patterns
The era in which deep-seated cleavages and entrenched social identities delivered large blocs of support to parties has ended in the UK as elsewhere. The traditional social, cultural and economic underpinning of Labour’s working-class base, such as heavy industry, assembly-line production, vibrant trade unionism and occupational communities, are all decaying. As a result, normative patterns of class identity and class solidarity, which have for several generations sustained Labour voting, are dissolving. In the two elections of 2017 and 2019, the differences in the class composition of Labour and Tory voters almost vanished.
However, class attachments and tensions have not disappeared; rather, they have been redefined and reimagined. Many of the less affluent and underprivileged still see themselves as part of a subordinate class – denied voice, denied respect, often disregarded and “left behind” – and they still adhere to a social imagery that distinguishes between “them” and “us.” But these categories, and especially them, are construed in very different ways than in the past. They are no longer employers, financial interests, the owners and controllers of property and assets, but “the liberal metropolitan elite,” ethnic minorities and even “social security scroungers.” For many voters, Labour has lost touch with and no longer represents us, the ordinary “White working class.” Instead, it is a party of the liberal establishment, immigrants and the work-shy.6 So we have a paradox. Large numbers of the “left behinds,” the victims of the UK’s flexible labour market, typically consigned to poorly paid, precarious and often dead-end jobs, now repose more trust in the capacity of the Conservatives, the party of capital, to protect their interests and ways of life than in that of the Labour Party.
The clue to understanding this is that social and economic discontents are increasingly filtered through ethnic and cultural frames. Immigration has operated as the flashpoint of anger against “the elites.” Labour was held responsible for opening the borders not only to EU migrants but also to asylum seekers. For many voters, especially working-class ones, the issue of immigration acted as a “political catalyst” of a widening cultural rift dividing social liberals from social conservatives.7 What is seen as uncontrolled immigration, coupled with pronounced favouritism to ethnic minorities (“multiculturalism”), is perceived as posing a serious threat to traditional communities, customs, habits and ways of life. For this Labour has been held responsible.
A sense of political exclusion, social neglect and liberal scorn is associated with a growing English national assertiveness. This came to be umbilically bound with hostility to the EU, and operated as a cluster point for a whole range of socially conservative stances on issues of migration flows, multiculturalism, law and order and access to social benefits.8 The Brexit debate here accelerated and intensified long-running social and political processes.9 In the eyes of many Leavers, Labour’s natural affinity for the Remain cause (not, as it happens, shared by Corbyn and his closest aides), its wobbling over the issue between 2017 and 2019 and its perceived efforts to derail Brexit through a second referendum constituted open defiance of the popular will.
Many of the developments tracked above have their counterparts throughout the Western world. In place of the traditional class-based left-right divide, Europe is now witnessing “a new transnational cleavage pitting libertarian, universalistic values against the defence of nationalism and particularism.”10 Repeated election results in many European countries indicate a major slump in the vote share of social democratic parties – the French Socialist Party and the German Social Democratic Party are both now in crisis. The influx of migrants and refugees, swelling anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of Islamic terrorism, have dismantled class allegiances and squeezed the left’s working-class base.11
Labour waves the flag
Labour leaders are aware of these trends, and some attention is being given to reconnecting with the norms, values and ways of thinking of erstwhile working-class voters. However, rather than engaging in a searching analysis of the implications of new cleavage patterns, the party has chosen to focus on the single issue of patriotism.
In a way this is understandable. Focus groups showed the perception of Corbyn as unpatriotic (his unwillingness to sing the national anthem was long remembered) had alienated many. The Tories have long capitalized on wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and presenting themselves as the true party of Britain. The debate over Brexit enlarged the gap between internationally minded, outward-looking Remainers and more nationalistically inclined Leavers, of whom many were from traditionally Labour-voting homes. In one of the first strategic decisions of his leadership, Starmer called for the party to emphasize its patriotism. In February 2021 an internal strategy presentation called for Labour to make “use of the flag” to help it win back the trust of disillusioned voters.12
To critics on the left, this “obsession” with patriotism demonstrated that the politics of class was being sacrificed to the politics of the nation. “Patriotism in practice,” wrote a commentator on the hard-left media platform Jacobin, “implies a range of attitudes that more or less map perfectly onto a small-c conservative vision of British society.”13 It was further evidence that Starmer was shredding the socialist policies he had inherited from Corbyn and wrenching Labour to the right.
This attack from the hard left was predictable, but more thoughtful figures on the soft left also expressed major reservations. For example, the left-wing MP Clive Lewis (a former Army officer who had served in Afghanistan) berated the crude version of patriotism the party seemed to be espousing. Why “distil the complexity of national identity and patriotism into a flag-waving brand of patriotism?” he added.14
There are indeed other traditions of patriotism, more compatible with socialist values, on which Labour could draw.15 Radical patriotism had over the centuries combined love of country with trenchant schemes of political and economic emancipation. Its most eloquent exponent was George Orwell, who distinguished between official patriotism (which he called nationalism) and (radical) patriotism. While nationalism insisted on the absolute moral value of the nation and the obligation of all citizens to regard service to it as an overriding duty, his form of patriotism meant “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”16 This was “the patriotism of the common people.”17 This radical patriotism was defiant, egalitarian and oppositional in character. The heroes it extolled were not kings and generals but the champions of the downtrodden and neglected: the Levellers and Diggers, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and, more recently, Labour politicians such as Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan.
So far Starmer’s advisers seem to be unaware of or indifferent to radical patriotism, and keen to appropriate the traditional symbols of the established order. This form of patriotism threatens to alienate liberal, middle-class Remainers who had recoiled from the narrow nationalism of the Leave campaign. Queasiness about flag-waving patriotism extends well beyond the hard left. Nor is the strategy likely to work. It lacks resonance and plausibility. There is an all too evident gap between official patriotism and Labour’s instincts and values. Not least, it was inevitable that the tabloid press would dismiss Labour’s affirmations of patriotism as fraudulent¸ disingenuous and a sham.
Finally, it might be added, focusing on the narrow issue of patriotism deflects Labour from its central strategic dilemma: how to forge an appeal to both of the increasingly diverse elements in the party’s constituency: the liberal-minded, educated professional middle classes on the one hand and the often socially conservative and more insular working class on the other. Evidence encouragingly suggests no great differences of principle between the two groups over such economic and social matters as redistribution and expanding the role of the state, though it does indicate pronounced disagreement over questions of culture and identity.18 Starmer will have to walk a tightrope, adopting stances that can regain the allegiance of traditional working-class voters while not alienating the liberal middle class. This will be difficult and early signs suggest little progress so far.
Class mobilization or progressive alliance?
In April 2020 the Guardian commented that “the incipient Starmer project” lacked a “resonant phrase, or signature policy.” This still applies.19 Early in 2021, the party’s head of research revealed research findings indicating that voters were confused about “what we stand for, and what our purpose is, but also who we represent.”20 This remains a besetting weakness. Two alternative strategies have been floated, one from the hard left, the other from the soft left.
To the hard left, the party has faded in its former heartlands because it has abandoned the politics of class. Many workers have deserted Labour because of its drift to the right (which the Corbyn interregnum proved unable to arrest), a drift which Starmer is now accelerating. A clear class mobilization committed to sweeping economic and social reforms will – so the argument runs – quickly resonate with the working class since the experience of class exploitation remains embedded in their practical experience of life and work. Class identity and class solidarity, it follows, can be reactivated.
The second strategy emanates mainly from the soft left. This grouping of Labour supporters maintains that the left is weakened because it is fragmented between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. As a result, seats now won by the Tories could be won if the centre-left combined. Centre-left parties have much in common and are squandering their energy by pointless competition. A “progressive alliance” strategy could overcome these divisions and raise the morale and enthusiasm of all progressive forces.
The problem with the first strategy is that it is grounded in an obsolete model of class-based politics. It ignores profound economic, social and cultural changes. The discourse of class struggle and class combativity that hard-left politicians habitually employ no longer resonates, if it ever did. The problem with the “progressive alliance” strategy is that, though the three parties may share policies and values, they lack sufficient incentives to transcend partisan loyalties. The first-past-the-post electoral system does not lend itself to cross-party alliances, and by habit, custom and tradition parties are extremely reluctant to withdraw candidates in favour of their rivals. Added to this, the very sharp contraction in support for the Lib Dems weakens the case for partnership with them.
In short, neither of these alternatives is compelling. Much hard thinking remains to be done. For example, Starmer has to find means to reformulate the current terms of debate that posit the patronizing “liberal elites” against the “ordinary people.” He has to revive Labour’s tradition as the party of “the common people” without sliding into the outmoded rhetoric of the class struggle. Acquiring a stronger sense of identity, direction and purpose will not be easy. It involves not only extensive opinion research and the use of effective techniques of persuasion (as favoured by the leadership), but also a searching reappraisal of what the party really stands for, whom it represents and what it wants to do.
Scotland on its own trajectory
Labour’s future in Scotland, a nation that at one time regularly furnished it with a solid bloc of MPs, seems fallow: it managed to win only a single seat in December 2019. The results of both the general election of 2019 and the recent elections for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood underline the fact that Scotland is now on a very different trajectory than is England. In the 2019 Westminster elections, the Scottish National Party captured 48 of 59 seats, the Tories only six. In the May 2021 elections to the Holyrood Parliament – using a proportional system – the SNP won 64 out of 129 seats, its fourth election victory in a row. It has been in power since 2007. Labour, which had once dominated Scottish politics, came third with only 22 seats. The pivotal question now is whether the SNP can use its total ascendancy in Scotland to lever its fundamental goal, Scottish independence.
Under the devolved constitutional arrangement, authority for calling a referendum lies with the Westminster government, and Boris Johnson has insisted that none will be permitted. Although the SNP government is just shy of a majority, it has the support of the eight members of the Scottish Parliament from the pro-independence Green Party (the Greens’ best result so far). Hence there will be no problem navigating a referendum bill through Holyrood. Nicola Sturgeon claims, further, that victory in the polls has given her a mandate to hold a referendum – when the COVID crisis is over.
She will proceed cautiously. Polls have been indicating a growing majority for independence, but this has recently gone into reverse and the balance of opinion is now tight. The SNP is fully aware of what happened in Quebec: a second, albeit very narrow, defeat that effectively took the issue out of politics for the foreseeable future. The Scottish First Minister will assuredly wait until the polls predict a comfortable lead before taking any initiative.
If the SNP gains a comfortable lead in the polls on independence, we enter the realm of the unpredictable. Will Johnson stand firm and flatly refuse a request for a second referendum? Though he has displayed no interest in the politics of devolution, he will not want to be remembered as the PM who presided over the breakup of the UK. He will also be on solid constitutional grounds in blocking a referendum. If he does block it, there will be a constitutional impasse. Sturgeon has promised to go to the courts to force the Tory government to agree to a referendum; it is unclear what the results of this will be.
The problem for the Tory government is that intransigence might incite massive protests, which will fuel support for independence. Then all bets will be off.