What is Labour For?

12 May 2017

“It’s been a tough night with some disappointments, but it hasn’t been the wipe-out in some areas that some of the polls were predicting.” And so John McDonnell was wheeled out in front of the cameras like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “’tis but a flesh wound” he protested to the loathsome mainstream media, of course Labour was still on course for victory in just over a month’s time. To carry on the metaphor, rather than being the triumphant King Arthur, it appears more likely that the party instead is the invalid missing both its arms and both its legs, talking a good game, but in practice a desiccated husk. 


It seems I find myself having to write about the Labour Party’s electoral uselessness with increasing regularity these days. McDonnell may be right in one respect; the wipe-out of Labour that seemed forecasted by the polls did not occur after all, but to try and portray this as anything other than the latest nail in Labour’s coffin strikes me as an attempt at spinning that even Sean Spicer wouldn’t try.


It goes beyond the fact that a party after seven years in opposition should be winning seats, Labour is now losing in its biggest heartlands. Across England, Wales and Scotland, the cracks in Labour’s strongholds have finally opened up. The Tories winning the mayoralty in the West Midlands? The Tories winning the mayoralty in the Tees Valley? Labour losing councils in Wales, losing Glasgow City Council, and being relegated to third string in Scotland? I mean, if this is merely disappointing Mr McDonnell, what is bad? What is awful?


But these questions about coloured blocks on a map do lead me to ask a larger question after these latest disappointments for a party that is supposed to have ambitions of governing in five weeks’ time. Fairly recently, right-wing journalist Toby Young was on Andrew Marr for the paper review, during which he described Labour as a “20th century party”. Now I initially disagreed with him, but these latest losses make it something worth considering. I am starting to wonder what the ‘point’ of Labour is these days; what, and who, is it for? And these questions aren’t going to be swept away with the current leadership. Corbyn may well be the tip of the iceberg but, like all icebergs, the bigger picture lies hidden from view.


Because the fact of the matter is this, the foundations upon which every Labour government of the 20th century was built have crumbled beneath the party’s feet. Ironically enough, at a time when some were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Labour’s triumph in 1997, the party’s road back to power seems more uncertain than ever. A party whose greatest victories rested upon broad coalitions now finds itself torn asunder by its component parts.


In Scotland, in just 20 years Labour has gone from ruling the roost to an irrelevance. It can’t take a pro-independence stance, but at the same time it cannot throw itself wholeheartedly behind the Union in the way the Conservatives under Ruth Davidson have. The result is a messy middle-ground; supporting the Union but open to the idea of a second referendum. Its attempt to try and straddle the two sides of the debate, to appeal to everyone, has left it appealing to absolutely no one.


And the story is similar south of the border. An increasingly metropolitan, Europhilic party campaigned enthusiastically, almost entirely, for the remain side in 2016, while some of its biggest heartlands voted leave. And in the aftermath, the party seems unable to find an approach to Brexit that can chime with both the staunchly pro-remain areas of London, Liverpool, and Manchester, and the leavers of the West Midlands and the North-east. And whatever his rhetoric, Keir Starmer’s approach to Brexit seems to have been to hand Theresa May a blank cheque and saying get on with it.


The question therefore, is who is the Labour Party for now? Sion Simon, Labour’s defeated candidate in the West Midlands mayoral election, said that the message on the doorstep was one of a waning confidence in the party to stand up for its traditional supporters. With the Tories winning in Wales, the West Midlands, and the Tees Valley, and Labour losing its once formidable grip on areas of Scotland like Glasgow, the party now seems increasingly relegated to an echo-chamber of educated London liberals. The conflict between Corbyn and the more politically centrist members of the Parliamentary party seems increasingly able to be crystallised as a fight between one group of London MPs and another over who best represents voters in Middlesbrough.


Where Labour goes from here who knows. It seems like Sadiq Khan’s victory last year, and Andy Burnham’s this year, appear more a confirmation of a demise of a party, rather than the blueprints for a national recovery. A confirmation that Labour can win in places like London, or Manchester, or Liverpool, but not only can it not expand beyond its core vote, but that that same core vote is now under threat too. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1997 General Election, it now looks less like a new dawn of a period of dominance for the British left, and more the final swansong of a finished party. Because the question remains unanswered, what is the point of Labour?


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