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Paul Vallely: Whither the withered Labour Party?

14 May 2021

Its poor election results have deep-rooted causes, says Paul Vallely


Sir Keir Starmer and his wife, Victoria, leave a polling station in London, on Thursday of last week, after voting in the local elections

Sir Keir Starmer and his wife, Victoria, leave a polling station in London, on Thursday of last week, after voting in the local elections

AFTER a disappointing showing in the local elections, the Labour Party has descended into yet another episode of self-recrimination — and of such intensity that the apposite question might not be “Whither Labour?” so much as “Withers Labour?”. Sir Keir Starmer’s bungled attempt to reshuffle his lacklustre Shadow Cabinet blotted out the fact that his party did have some significant successes — with ten Labour mayors and a resounding victory in Wales. But, sadly, internecine warfare is now the default Labour response.

In fact, there is an argument for suggesting that the greatest single factor in the elections was the public’s endorsement of incumbency, which is why the SNP won in Scotland and Boris Johnson did so well in England. Such is the euphoria from the success of the vaccine programme and loosening of lockdown that the voters appear to have forgotten the early Covid incompetences, the crony contracts, and the fact that the UK death toll remains the highest in Europe.

In Hartlepool, the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn hung over the voting still. Voters had not forgotten his hard-Left politics, failures on anti-Semitism, befriending of terrorists, or pusillanimity in relation to Vladimir Putin after the Salisbury poisonings.

That said, something has shifted in the British political landscape. Brexit has severed the umbilical cord between Labour and many of its former voters. Polls reveal that 49 per cent of Remainers support Labour, but only 18 per cent of Leavers do. And Hartlepool was the most pro-Leave constituency in the country.

But Brexit points to a deeper divide. Many Labour apostates live in areas that once derived their income and identity from heavy industries that have been shut down over past decades. Millions who worked in mines, shipyards, and steelworks were loyal to Labour and the trade unions that supported it. Yet neither could protect them from losing their well-paid jobs.

Labour’s defeated candidate in Hartlepool, Dr Paul Williams, says that voters felt betrayed by decades of loss. “People told me they had lost confidence in ‘brand Labour’ years ago,” he said. Such was the disillusion that voters there preferred a Tory farmer from North Yorkshire to a former local Labour MP who had voted Remain.

The Brexit faultline is part of something greater. It is part of a political and economic legacy in which our cities have thrived and our towns have diminished, both financially and in self-esteem.

Labour was once a coalition between ordinary working people and the younger university-educated voters who left the towns for the cities. But the two sides have increasingly separate interests and values, which find expression in attitudes to family, sexuality, political correctness, the Royal Family, foreign aid, free speech, the flag, the military, and much else. When old Labour voters express concerns about immigration, they are branded racists by young metropolitan Labourites.

Finding a politics, and policies, that appeal to both sides of the old alliance is a task that has eluded every Labour leader since Tony Blair — the only leader of the party to win in the past 11 general elections. Clearly, Sir Keir has no easy task, especially while the hard Left pushes in the opposite direction. But then, as Harold Wilson once said, “If you can’t ride two horses, you shouldn’t be in the circus.”

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