To beat the Tories, Labour needs to win in areas where Ukip has faded away
Paul Mason on the local elections.
If this were a general election, Labour would be the largest party
If last week’s figures were translated into general election results, Labour would be the largest party, and could form a government with the support of the SNP and Plaid. But they will not be translated into general election results for a very simple reason.
Between now and the general election, the Brexit process will either collapse or be concluded. The electorate that votes for the next parliament will know whether Theresa May’s giant bluff – refusing to say what form of exit Britain wants, in the hope that Europe will hand something to her on a plate – has worked or not.
I doubt it will work. Instead it looks likely that parliament – via the Commons and the Lords – will instruct May to seek a deal keeping Britain inside the customs union. Then, either May’s government would then fall, or we’d see civil war inside the cabinet. As a Labour supporter, for me that can’t come soon enough.
Labour’s problem Yet despite the gains Labour made last Thursday – winning 77 new councillors, taking just over half of all seats up for election – the voting patterns do reveal a problem for Labour.
It is making gains in big cities, with younger, more diverse populations. It is making gains, too, in small towns where the population is mainly white, working class and older. However its gains in these areas are being outstripped by the gains of the Conservatives. Ukip has collapsed and the Tories are hoovering up more of their former voters than Labour is.
People who viscerally opposed Brexit, and see Corbyn as having done too little to oppose it, often say: Labour should be doing better at this phase of a dire Tory government. Yet last Thursday dramatised Labour’s problem.
To win the next election decisively, Labour needs to win exactly in areas where the Ukip vote has shifted to the Conservatives: places like Walsall, Nuneaton and Derby. Such areas are often described as “pro-Brexit” areas – but it’s more complicated than that.
In left-behind, de-industrialised areas, Brexit was simply an expression of wider social attitudes: unsettled by high inward migration, turned-off by the cosmopolitan lifestyle of big cities, apt to call middle class people “luvvies” – as the Sun does every day – proud of their industrial past and determinedly patriotic.
Family, community and nation
‘If Labour goes back to issuing red mugs promising tough immigration controls, it will pay the same price as Ed Miliband, who lost a million potential voters to the Greens’
One school of thought inside Labour – known as Blue Labour – wants the party to actively embrace the values of “family, community and nation”, arguing that it’s only by doing this that Labour can compete for the votes of former Ukip supporters.
I’ve always opposed this. For one thing, the actual membership of Labour, and its core vote, is drawn from the educated, salaried, cosmopolitan and pro-global modern workforce of big conurbations. If Labour goes back to issuing red mugs promising tough immigration controls, it will pay the same price as Ed Miliband, who lost a million potential voters to the Greens. Because of this, the Blue Labour policy list itself can never go far enough to attract the votes of socially conservative people. There’s always an authentic Blue Tory party on offer.
Instead, as in the June 2017 general election, Labour must offer the left-behind communities of Britain a comprehensive plan for economic revival. It must say: life in the 21st century will be cosmopolitan, hi-tech, global and socially liberal and we will plug your community into that life, through education, training and inward investment.
Working class culture isn’t all about the past
I come from a white, manual working class culture, and I’m proud of it: but it’s possible to celebrate that culture while looking to the future, not the past.
In the last election Labour promised to borrow £250 billion to rebuild Britain. Now it has to spell out in detail how it would spend that money in towns devastated by deindustrialisation and neglect, where the right-wing populism of UKIP has morphed into support for hard Brexit and xenophobia of the Tory right.
Labour made massive strides in June 2017, surging from 25 per cent to 40 per cent in just a few weeks. Last week’s results were good, but not good enough to deliver the landslide Labour needs to transform Britain and mitigate the harm Brexit will cause.
Preparing for a snap election
If and when Theresa May’s government collapses in acrimony, we face the possibility of yet another snap election, where May’s replacement will try and blame Europe, Corbyn and the parliamentary system itself for the Tories’ failure.
To prepare for that moment Labour needs to up its game. In the first place Jeremy Corbyn’s team need to get out of the comfort zone when it comes to talking about the problems facing ordinary people. Food banks and rough sleeping are the result of this government’s policy of austerity; but so are knife crime, organised crime, domestic violence and addiction.
‘If Labour wants to enthuse people from small towns in the Midlands and the North it must put more people born and bred there into high-profile roles’
On the front line against these problems is a badly stretched police force, a clogged-up legal system and a prison system bursting at the seams. Yet, it is not in the bloodstream of many left-wing Labour politicians to call for tougher more effective policing, sentencing and jails. Above all to the young radicals mobilised in Corbyn’s party, these issues can feel like “right wing” issues. They are not.
On defence, while Labour can celebrate winning Plymouth – a military city anxious about cuts to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines – it needs to toughen up its language towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia and show it is prepared to refocus Britain’s military power towards deterring Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. And, let’s be honest. The Labour front bench looks and sounds like the party’s core constituency: big city Britain. If Labour wants to enthuse people from small towns in the Midlands and the North it must put more people born and bred there into high-profile roles. And it needs more rabble rousers. Corbyn can draw massive crowds of non-political people, and wow them; he needs more people on his team that can do that too.
Finally, we need a parliamentary Labour party more representative of what modern Labour stands for. When I campaign on the doorstep, I often meet a new breed of Labour parliamentary candidate: often they’re tough, female union organisers like Gill Ogilvie, who’ll have the job of retaking Walsall North for Labour – a town where it lost seats last week. I would like this year’s Labour conference to open every constituency in Britain to a reselection process, so that those few Labour MPs who just look and feel unhappy with the way the party’s going, and seem constantly angry with their own members, can make way for people who support what the party is doing.
Read more at: From Paul Mason.