Politics

What’s the point of the Labour Party? – by Alan Bolchover

After the disaster of losing the seat of Hartlepool by a landslide, the Labour Party is doing what it does best: navel-gazing. 

The day after the election both the left and right of the party came out, guns blazing…on each other. 

Peter Mandelson was on Sky blaming the defeat on the continuing negative impact of Jeremy Corbyn and his unpopularity. 

Diane Abbott and John McDonnell on the left fought back, saying Keir Starmer needed to develop a more radical programme to win back support.

Both are wrong. 

Existential

The current crisis is not chiefly the fault of Corbyn or Starmer, although both have contributed.  Labour’s crisis is deeper and more existential than simply who their leader is.

Their problem lies in the fundamental re-alignment in British politics, of which Hartlepool is simply the latest development. Only a radical change in policy on some very difficult subjects will change Labour’s fortune and their future. 

Surveys and opinion polls consistently show that the sweet spot in contemporary British politics lies in an agenda which is culturally centre-right and economically centre-left.  What does this look like? 

Left and right

Economically centre-left means bigger investment in the NHS, rebooting the Northern Powerhouse, investing in small town infrastructure, apprenticeships and construction.  It stands for fairness and levelling up.

Culturally centre-right means embracing Brexit and understanding the concerns which drove the vote for it. It means being patriotic, having genuine concerns for Britain’s sovereignty and, crucially, placing fair and reasonable controls on immigration.  

The uncomfortable truth for Labour is that it has proved far, far easier for the Conservatives to move left economically than it has been for Labour to move right culturally.

Begrudgingly

When the Duke of Edinburgh died it was plain to see that Labour activists and representatives found it hardest to show genuine appreciation of the Royal Family.  When they do, it is given begrudgingly.

And when it comes to Brexit, most Labour MPs are still not really over it – and never will be.  Most Labour MPs find it taboo to talk about immigration and to even engage with the concerns that many voters have. And these voters are sick of being identified as ‘racist’ for favouring any forms of controls.

The political correctness among the party activists is too strong, the judgement in the twitter-sphere is too harsh to survive if you dare to plant a foot outside their form of orthodoxy. Despite its power on social media, this form of leftism does not chime with how the majority think – and vote.

Big government

Meanwhile the Conservatives have responded to the pandemic with a confident expression of ‘Big Government’: doshing out money for the furlough scheme, rolling out a hugely successful vaccination programme and announcing investment programmes all over the North and Midlands. 

And their narrative is pro-Brexit, patriotic and in favour of immigration controls.  They have achieved a synthesis and hit the sweet spot – this is why they won in a previous Labour heartland of Hartlepool.

Denial

Reading the reactions of the left-wing to Labour’s disastrous results tells you all you need to know. They remain in denial, bemoaning the fact that ‘racism’ is winning without engaging with the views of the working class who used to be the core of their support.

No political party has the right to exist.  Labour is haemorrhaging blue-collar votes in the small towns and industrial heartlands to apathy or to Conservatism. 

Imagine if a super-charismatic person came to the fore to take over the Greens or Liberal Democrats? Liberal graduates and professionals would swarm to them for a friendlier, less angry way of exercising their votes. Labour could face extinction.

Fundamental re-think

There are simply no easy answers for a Labour Party that was formed in a world defined by economics and class, but which now finds itself in a world that is shaped far more by culture and values. 

Looking to shift simply left or right will not cut it. They need a fundamental re-think of what Labour stands for. An answer needs to be found to the question ‘What is the point of the Labour Party?’

It has come to this because the reality is that the Labour Party is no longer the representative of ordinary working people.  It is supported in Hampstead but not in Hartlepool. It has become the party of the few, not the many.

10 thoughts on “What’s the point of the Labour Party? – by Alan Bolchover”

  1. The problem is exacerbated given that brexit is a con and racism unjustifiable – issues and attitudes Labour can not endorse or embrace without betraying its core values.

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    1. Hi James – but it is only a ‘con’ according to your subjective analysis, to claim some objective truth to the illegitimacy of the Brexit vote is to patronise and dismiss the views of a vast swathe of people who have legitimate concerns about the EU. For many of them the EU was ‘a con’ if they saw their life chances damaged or their communities changed in ways they did not like.

      All parties need to adapt and understand the mood of the country and not become fixed in some ideological straight-jacket which any shifting from is described as ‘betrayal’. Politics is (and always will be) pragmatic – and Labour leaders who have actually changed things – such as Attlee, Wilson and Blair – have understood this. But the tragedy is that they are not the heroes of Labour to many of the activists who prefer to romanticise marginality and think people like Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn represent the ‘true faith’.

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  2. I think this is an excellent analysis of what has happened and is taking place. Any democracy needs a strong or at least clearly articulated opposition, and Britain does not have that at the moment. I would add that the simple concept of “Labour good, Tory bad” `does not wash with the public anymore. Its an idea that needs to be proved in order to be accepted and it is only proved in the thinking of middle class white voters who read the Guardian while having a glass of wine and think that by so doing they are somehow saving the world.

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  3. A really interesting take, Alan, especially his idea of “culturally centre-right and economically centre-left”. And the question too is one that I have been asking in recent years. The party may have had its day. As a lifelong Labour voted I was one of those who this time round had no inclination to vote for them.

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  4. interestingly there were similar naval gazing concerns raised after the Labour landslide of 1997. Funny that because the Tories are certainly back. SO while the analysis is useful I am concerned there is another agenda being put forward here which isn’t being spelt out.

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    1. Hi Jim, ‘Naval’ gazing sounds more like staring at battleships!

      But that aside, I am not sure what you mean. Do you mean that the Tories navel-gazed after they lost in 1997? I would agree – and they had to go through many dark years searching for a new identity with Hague, Howard and Duncan-Smith struggling in similar ways that Brown, Milliband and Corbyn did.

      Not sure what you mean about ‘another agenda’ – certainly the author is no Labour fan in its current incarnation and the piece is critical but I think these things are self-evident and obvious.

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      1. Hi Jim , Whatever you may think I really dont have an agenda – I just am telling it as I see it. Its an interesting subject and should be studied. Alan

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  5. It is certainly clear that the Hartlepool Labour voters chose to stay away from the election during the by-election and a small number of people who don’t usually support the Conservatives did so on this occasion. Judging any voting numbers is always difficult in these cases. A radical Conservative Government that has made a number of promises to the Northern Parts of England is currently obtaining benefits. However the cost of Brexit has not yet fully been grasped by our nation. If post Brexit proves positive (I cannot see any prospect of it doing so) then the Conservatives may well continue to benefit. However if the cost of Brexit begins to rise up, the Conservatives will need to blame the Brexit voters or get blamed for their evident incompetence which may remove a lot of their current support.

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