There are those who will try and spin Labour’s results from last week’s ‘Super Thursday’ elections as not all that bad. ‘Look at all those mayors!’ and ‘It’s early in Keir’s leadership still!’ will abound. But make no mistake – Labour are in the shit. The Hartlepool by-election result on its own was terrible enough, but it gets worse for Labour – so many of the places they lost seats in England are precisely the type of areas they need to be winning over and are clearly not. If these voters won’t plump for Labour during a local election, it is very likely they will not do so at a general election. Which means that getting anywhere close to depriving the Tories of a majority, never mind winning one themselves, looks absurdly remote.
But I am here to try and be positive about the Labour party. I think their problems aren’t as bad as they look – at least in theory. In fact, I think the reasons Thursday was so bad for them comes down to two essential things.
One is that Labour have to realise that they are no longer the default ‘good guys’ of British politics. The leadership seem to get this on some sort of intellectual level, but not a gut one that would change their behaviour. Labour need to flush out the sanctimony that has become a part of their campaigning and communications DNA as soon as possible.
I like Keir Starmer. If we had a presidential system, I would definitely vote for him over Boris Johnson. But we don’t have a presidential system and so it’s worth asking whether my like of Starmer translated into whether I voted for Labour when I had an opportunity to do so on Thursday. No, I did not – and I didn’t really ever come close to thinking I would. Why? If I think Starmer is the last hope of a non-Tory government, why not support his party?
It’s the sanctimony for me. It’s the way Labour portray themselves as missionaries telling us all of our souls will be damned if we don’t vote for them. Take this quote from Friday as a great example, when Sadiq Khan had done more poorly than expected in early counting for London mayor:
“We always said it would be a close election. There is no question we are seeing significant impact from turnout and voters believing they could put a smaller party first preference without influencing the election result. There is no question we are seeing significant impact from turnout and voter complacency.”
On a day when they lost a formerly safe seat in a former heartland, Labour comms thought it was a good idea to put that statement out. How dare voters go for smaller parties over us! How could they be so ‘complacent’? Don’t they realise that we are the only answer to their prayers?
Labour need to stop preaching to people about how they are the church that can save everyone through sheer brand power and instead work on telling people why they would govern better than the Tories.
But now I come to the second reason I think Labour did so badly last week, and this one is even more key. Labour cannot expect to win seats in England when they give out such an anti-English vibe.
Everyone goes on and on about how Labour is still being done over by Brexit and their positioning on that subject. Yet they did well in Wales on Thursday, which voted to leave the European Union in 2016 by a very similar margin to how England voted in the referendum. Labour’s success in Wales is being treated as a fait accompli when it was by no means a sure thing. The break up of the UKIP vote in Wales could have easily accrued to the Tories enough to make them the big winners in Wales on Thursday, and yet while the Conservatives picked up seats, it was nowhere near enough to deprive Labour of victory.
So why did this happen in Wales and not England? It’s because there is a Welsh Labour party that is clearly proud and happy to be Welsh, while there is no English Labour party per se and the Labour party as it exists in England often comes across as if they don’t like England very much at all.
It has become something of a cliche even, for left-wingers in England to portray their homeland as a Brexity hellhole, drowning in racism. England is seen as having pushed us all out of the EU at the expense of the blessed ‘Celtic nations’ that make up the rest of the UK (again, despite the fact that Wales voted to leave as well). England is the oppressor and the English the oppressors in this paradigm, even those English people living on benefits in a council block in Rotherham.
This is far and away the biggest reason why Labour are losing voters in England. When combined with the sanctimony bit, an electorally lethal combo is formed. The narrative to a lot of people sounds like this: ‘We are the only party that can save your souls you racist, entitled group of English oppressors! We hate you and all you stand for but if you vote for us, we’ll work on improving you all as much as is practically possible.’ Not very appealing is it?
Perhaps the Labour party needs to take the radical step and make themselves a fully federal party, with an English Labour party much like the existing Welsh and Scottish one. All I know is that for years people like Jon Cruddas and John Denham have been going on about how if Labour doesn’t find some way to make English identity compatible with centre-left values and politics, one day they will lose the English working classes. And that day came on Thursday, May 6th, 2021.
Early signs here are not good, however. After promising big changes, Starmer’s reshuffle really only amounts to demoting Dodds and making Rachel Reeves shadow chancellor, something everyone who knows anything at all about politics understands he should have done in the first place. Cooper still isn’t in the shadow cabinet, which is insane. Does Starmer fear her as a leadership contender? If so, he should give up on being prime minister.
To summarise, Labour’s problems are big, but can be overcome. They question is, will they even try?