Writing from England, Josh Kitto surveys the wreckage of Labour’s position after recent local elections and the by-election in Hartlepool. There is much confusion and no simple way to halt Labour’s decline, he finds.
How did we arrive at this point of peak Tory dominance? Currently, the party is able to pose as both insurgents, and the natural party of government. After their successes in the 2021 local elections, and especially their highly symbolic victory in Hartlepool.
Phil Burton-Cartledge has repeatedly that the Tories’ success tends to be overlooked in political science and by media commentators. Their rule is assumed as natural. Questioning why it is that the Conservatives are one of the the most successful electoral machines in the world, and that only one Labour Party leader has been allowed to win since 1979, may lead to too many awkward questions about the limits of the UK political system.
Centrist commentators and soothsayer political scientists who proclaim that Labour would win if only they listened to them, share the touching faith of some on the far left that victory is assured if all internal mistakes are simply avoided. In both cases, the dominance of the right as the most effective representatives of capital is reduced to the left not having the right slogans or effective communications.
The dismantling of Labour in Hartlepool cannot be reduced to tactical mistakes alone. Yes – Keir Starmer’s ‘competence was always a barely-concealed euphemism for representing an exhausted brand of neoliberal politics. He is, as Owen Hatherley has said, “more charismatic in photographs”. Yes, candidate Paul Williams floundered when asked basic questions about his vision for Hartlepool, stuttering that he believed children should be able to read. But the rot runs deeper than flabby Starmerism.
One rather tetchy defence from avid Remain advocates is that Labour effectively lost Hartlepool in 2019, saved by a split in the Tory/Brexit vote. It makes as much sense to say Boris Johnson lost Kensington, saved only by Best for Britain instructing residents of cladded towers in North Kensington to tactically vote for the Liberal Democrats.
The tempting, even ‘oven-ready’, left explanation may be that ‘Lexit would have won’ in Hartlepool. Certainly, committing to implementing Brexit helped push Labour over 50% in 2017.
It is also true that Labour’s numbers had been subject to attrition in 2018 and collapse in 2019, well before a second referendum stance was finally adopted. But little consideration has been given to how Labour, and the wider left, had found itself in such a strategically muddled position.
It was never clear whether Lexit stood for “left-wing”, or “Labour-backed”. The former, combining an end to free movement of capital with a rigorous defence of migrants’ rights, had advocates like Grace Blakeley and Paul O’Connell; despite the support of the Bakers Union, its constituency in the PLP was small. The second – Lexit In Name Only – won out as the default position of those on the left who urged Labour to respect the referendum: some variation on a customs union or single market alignment.
More column inches in the coming period will be dedicated to the apparently unknowable “Red Wall” Northern towns. There will be little attempt to differentiate Sunderland or Hartlepool from the more prosperous York, Harrogate, Sefton, Wirral, or Trafford; as ever, there will be few questions about why leafy southern towns like Broxbourne swung heavily for Brexit.
Few will care to admit that the Red Wall has always been much pinker than it appears. Of the 60 seats Labour lost in 2019, 20 had been held since 2017. Another four had been held since 2015 – with two, Burnley and Redcar, gained from the Liberal Democrats.
Indeed, Nick Clegg may once again be the villain of the piece – allowing UKIP to fill the gap the Liberal Democrats once filled in seats with sclerotic Labour councils. A striking example of this was in Ashfield. Lib Dem candidate Jason Zadrozny nearly ousted Labour in 2010; in 2019, the now pro-Brexit independent Zadrozny finally beat Labour, but took second place beind the Conservative candidate.
Yet it remains true that across these seats, Labour lost around 20% of its vote on average in 2019. The party’s vote had become unlinked from class in these seats some time ago; it instead became a relationship of geographic patronage. A Labour government would deliver the goods by inflating assets in London and the South East, and skim-off some of the proceeds to fund public sector growth in the North East.
As Tom Hazeldine noted in the New Left Review, public sector growth was responsible for 73% of new jobs in the North East under the New Labour government. But subservient to a model reliant on London lucre, regional inequality is now such that a European Commission policy advisor can observe that “the economic geography of the UK nowadays increasingly reflects the patterns typically observed in developing or former-transition economies rather than in other advanced economies.”
In Hartlepool, a town that combines high home ownership rates with the 10th highest deprivation in the country, it is possible the Tories have replaced Labour as the party of patronage. The Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, has centred his mayorality and re-election campaign on bringing Teesside airport into public ownership, and reinvigorating the steel industry.
Starmer-sympathetic commentators have in recent weeks been debating the extent to which vaccines can “bounce”. Saying the Tories are only doing well because vaccine production and delivery is being effectively delivered by the government is possibly not the own that some Labour politicians believe it to be.
Alex Pareene, a writer for The New Republic, has argued the central political theme at present is to Make Shit Work: fix the potholes, ensure the post gets delivered – or indeed the vaccines rolled out. While an obvious truism, he points out it cuts into an assumption that meaning was to be outsourced to the market; that public goods run “like a business” are based on cutting services to the bone: “Such a focus would be revolutionary, as it would necessitate a massive reinvestment in the state’s capacity and a complete rejection of neoliberal ideas about the role of the state.”
Covid has meant states having to guarantee basic social protections and delivering minimal public goods. It is easy to overstate the radicalising effect of crisis versus the empowering effect of having demands met.
For some, this is a sign that neoliberals of the centre and the right have moved to the left on economics. But while President Biden and Boris Johnson are turning on the spending taps, an end to austerity should not be seen as radical.
To pretend that a return to economic intervention is itself “radical” is to tell more than one lie and claim a few too many easy victories. What it shows is Johnson can talk about workers without talking about class. While Ben Houchen can embrace nationalisation, it is unmoored from democratisation of the economy; houses can be built, but teachers and nurses must not be allowed to organise for something more.
The terrain for the left is no longer to end austerity, or to ensure Conservative donors are kept off the list of companies receiving PPE contracts. Nor can it simply demand new regional assemblies or moving government departments to Hull so that it boasts more responsibilities, yet no power.
The much lauded “Preston model” is distinct from the Tees Valley model. It is moving towards democratisation in the form of taxi co-ops to rival Uber. But it also demands a vision of something more than picking up the slack of what central government refuses to, building publicly owned cinemas, for example.
The Labour leadership may be reluctant to call attention to this model, or Salford’s council house programme, or even Andy Burnham’s ability to pick a fight with the government, lest it lead to questions about what other Labour councils are doing besides shoveling cash to property developers.
But there is also a risk of the left – inside and outside Labour – overcomplicating the task of uniting Northern homeowners and London renters. As Hatherley has argued, turning London into something more than an international clearing house for capital would benefit Londoner and Northerner alike.
The late Leo Panitch rightly warned against bedtime stories that would allow the left to find solace by focusing exclusively on “heartland” towns or a new, young, multiracial coalition: “Instead of limiting our strategic discussions to whether we should concentrate at any given time on organizing nurses or baristas, teachers or software developers, farmhands or truckers, salespeople or bank tellers, our main concern should be visualizing and developing new forms of broadly inclusive working-class organization and formation for the twenty-first century.”
A class-rooted, rather than class-focused left, must discard arguments of demographic destiny that are at best flippant about towns like Hartlepool, and at worst border on skull measuring. There is no reason to think that a Barnslay homeowner is so culturally different from a Preston homeowner that they would favour a gender pay gap or long waiting lists for trans-appropriate healthcare. Indeed, anyone who thinks that the anger of working class black Londoners or Bristolians about police abuses is something alien to South Yorkshire has clearly not spent a lot of time in pit villages.
Labour’s loss of Hartlepool and of Bristol council in fact may have greater similarities than differences. The most striking overlap is that the Labour Party does not appear to like its voter base in either area. Former Scottish Labour voters will likely attest to this feeling, too. Declarations that the North is being bribed with “pork barrel funding” sound similar to anonymous Labour strategists who dismissed Yes voters in 2014 by saying “People with mattresses in their gardens do not win elections.“ Contempt is its own kind of rot.
Labourism has of course always been compromised – namely by its allegiances to the state and sections of business. But even Jeremy Corbyn, despite his anti-imperialism, stood in a labourist tradition. The 2019 manifesto in many ways appeared as the left end of technocracy, short cutting the left’s way to working class solidarity and strength through an impressive array of policies.
Corbyn for a time put the brakes on “Pasokification” narratives. Despite Starmer’s best efforts, social democratic gains in Preston or Salford may also mean it is too early to declare Labour dead.
However, one crucial difference now is that the left has direct experience that much of the Labour right would prefer a Conservative government to one that challenged the Atlanticist relationship in particular. Those who for years invoked the idea of Labour as the “lesser of two evils” may find that this bargain is now dead.