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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.