Much has been made of Sir Keir’s performance at the Dispatch Box, with the term ‘forensic’ being thrown around in a most un-forensic way. However when one is being benchmarked against Jeremy Corbyn the threshold for improvement is correspondingly more forgiving.
The party he leads is still reeling. In December voters in fifty-three constituencies opted swap their Labour representatives for a Conservative, many for the first time in decades. Some for the first time ever. Labour was almost certainly set for losses at the local level as well, though the pandemic has sensibly forced the deferring of Local Elections. Yet the scale of defeat means it can’t all be chalked up to Brexit and branding. Places like Redcar and Bosworth used to practically weigh Labour ballots rather than count them. Something far deeper is at play and worryingly few Labour thinkers have been serious about an honest analysis.
All large political parties are confederations, and to quote Owen Jones, Labour has to be the party of Hull as well as of Hackney. Equally, the Tories now find themselves the party of Keighley and Kensington. So why then are Tories able to make this work when Labour can’t? Why was so much of the electoral map turned swathes of blue for the first time in half a century?
The uncomfortable truth for Labour is that the warehouse worker in Keighley and the retired colonel in Kensington have far more in common than the traditional class-based ideology permits. Both would advocate immigration controls. Both would favour harsher approaches to law and order. Both would share a respect and reverence for tradition and national institutions. Both would stand for the national anthem. Both would favour an increase in defence spending. Both would share a heavy scepticism of the EU and globalism in general. Both would support governments and families living within their means. Both would have harsh words for those on benefits. Neither would be especially passionate about environmentalism, and both would roll their eyes at the worst excesses of identity politics.
Contrast this with the warehouse worker in Hull and a Corbyn supporting graduate in Hackney. On crime, Europe, immigration, the culture wars, defence, British history, welfare and patriotism, the two could scarcely be further apart if they tried. Sadly a not-inconsiderable body of the party view the White Working Class as a sort of embarrassing older relative that they’d rather not be seen in public with.
This of course is not new. Labour have been coasting for two decades. Lingering Working Class loyalty allowed the party to indulge its noisiest members and activists who dragged it down the rabbit holes of the unreconstructed socialist and the militant social justice warrior. Then Corbynism kicked the legs out of the Labour centre and determined that the intellectual centre of gravity for the party viewed Centrism with the same revulsion sinners reserve for the confessional. The result is an identity crisis. Labour is like a rejected actor, unsure what role they’re meant to be auditioning for.
So what is Labour? Is a revolutionary movement in the style of Corbyn and Sanders? Is it an incrementalist social democratic style party in the manner of continental Europe? Is it an Establishment party with some identity politics nods such a Joe Biden is offering? Is it a red UKIP, wanting to pretend the last forty years haven’t happened? Is it an earthier version of Lib Dems? Is it a more realistic version of the Greens? Is it an English SNP? Is it a London based pressure group?
There are strands of all of the above and Sir Keir doesn’t seem to be able to settle on one, and indeed so early into his tenure, would lack the institutional strength.
Promising lots of free stuff and seeing who can say the most uncharitable things about Tories is not the making a national coalition. To be a party of government you need to meet the electorate half way, as opposed to the Corbyn strategy of repeating same offer over and over until the electorate ‘get it’, like British tourist who thinks if they speak loudly enough in English the local waiter will suddenly ‘get it’.
The task is not an impossible one, but Labour cannot go on being defined as opposition for oppositions’ sake. Any meaningful attempt to reconnect with its base demands challenging taboos that have taken root in Labour’s policy collective; Labour has never really reconciled itself with Working Class patriotism, thinking it at best an anachronism and at worst proto-fascism. It has yet to reconcile itself with aspiration, still deeply suspicious private enterprise in general and risk-taking entrepreneurship in particular. It has yet to reconcile itself with the cultural challenges of mass immigration, still shackled by the 1990s orthodoxy that there are no downsides to mass migration and that therefore there isn’t even a need to discuss the issue. It has yet to recognise that those most resentful of the benefits system are the working poor, not the rich.
Hilary Clinton learned to her cost that it’s not enough to simply be Not Trump. The Labour Party need to be more than Not Tories.