20 April 2021

Is Labour in the doldrums – or terminal decline?


“You are not allowed in my pub. That man is not allowed in my pub. Get out of my pub.”

Labour’s political woes – so often spelled out in opinion polls and focus groups – were made flesh yesterday on Sir Keir Starmer’s visit to The Raven in Bath. What was supposed to be a stage-managed photo-op turned into one of those memorable disasters as the landlord, Labour voter Rod Humphris, tore into the party’s leader over Covid restrictions. Apparently it was Tim Perry, who runs the pub with Humphris and is a bit friendlier, that agreed to the visit.

It may have been a chance encounter, but it fits a now well-established narrative that the opposition leader has not yet found his feet, and that his party is far from recovering from its general election drubbing. Nor, worrying for the party’s supporters, is it necessarily certain that they will ever recover.

Over the last century, we have got rather used to the idea of having two main political parties: Labour and the Conservatives. But in an earlier era it was regarded as the settled order of affairs that the Liberals were the alternative to the Conservatives.

The reasons for this change in fortunes in the 1920s have been much debated. George Dangerfield’s book The Strange Death of Liberal England has proved influential though has been much disputed. (Dangerfield is rather rude about the suffragettes, though he reflects that the Liberal Party’s opposition to their cause proved rather problematic.) But the point is that the change took place pretty dramatically – despite having been regarded as inconceivable a few years earlier.

Could the Labour Party see an electoral collapse as dramatic as its rise in fortunes 100 years ago? Might it be not a question of how long before Labour and Tory MPs swap places on the green benches, but of whether Labour’s decline continues into irrelevancy? This is the uncomfortable challenge that has been taken up by the Fabian Society in a new essay collection edited by John Healey, the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and Shadow Defence Secretary.

In the foreword Healey writes, rather ominously, that: “The starting point for this publication is that Labour cannot take for granted even the seats we hold.”

To help concentrate minds, Healey sought contributions from colleagues in the “new marginals”. These are traditionally safe Labour seats where the party’s candidates only narrowly won at the last election. Healey himself is among them, with a majority of just 2,165. 

Among the authors is the MP for Kingston-upon-Hull West and Hessle, Emma Hardy, who noted the substantial support for the Brexit Party across her city, combined with regular complaints about the local Labour council. A turnout of just 52% in her seat suggested many ex-Labour voters simply stayed at home.

Dan Jarvis, the one-time leadership hopeful who has a 3,571 majority in Barnsley Central, focused on the importance of patriotism. He quotes George Orwell’s comment that in “left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution”. As with other contributors, he links this to the need to show “respect” and “understanding” to Leave voters. (The difficulty, of course, is not so much that the MPs making these pleas all voted Remain , but that they then sought to prevent the referendum result being honoured.) 

But the most telling contribution, which is worth quoting at length, came from the MP for Makerfield, Yvonne Fovargue, who zeroed in one of her party’s most basic problems.

“The British people have an innate sense of fairness. Unfortunately, in the Labour Party we do not always fully appreciate what this means, when it comes to appealing to our traditional core vote. We are far happier talking about equality and rights – but that is not the same thing as fairness, which includes notions of responsibility and proportionality.” 

“Fairness is not simply about equality or treating people in the same way. It is also about ensuring that people are rewarded for what they do and get what they deserve.”

She also warns that her party is often too quick to accuse people of racism: 

“Some people may even feel as if they have become a stranger in their own country. I have a trade union member in my constituency who found that he was the only English-speaking person in his canteen. That is not good, and not fair on him. It is too easy to portray being concerned about this – or even remarking on it – as prejudice, but it is nothing of the sort. It is an understandable reaction from someone whose community has changed very fast and who can no longer properly communicate with people around him. If we simply condemn it, we drive away those supporters who have traditionally looked to us to be their voice.” 

Of course, these problems are not unique to Labour. In France, Germany and Italy, Labour’s sister parties can no longer even count on coming second. Granted, the first-past-the-post system does make it harder for insurgent parties to break through in Britain – but it’s not impossible. 

Suppose, for example, the Green Party makes significant progress in the local elections next month. That could pose a dilemma for Keir Starmer. How does he retain the youthful enthusiasts for Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion in Bristol and Dulwich while simultaneously embracing tradition and patriotism to woo disgruntled voters in Bolsover and Darlington?

Ultimately patriotism must surely be a requirement for electoral victory. Necessary, though by no means sufficient. Yet, apart from the robust message from Fovargue, Labour’s willingness to accept this seems insipid at best. The Fabian Society is certainly to be commended for having raised the right questions, but the problem is the answers remain far from convincing. And some former supporters – such as a certain pub landlord in Bath – have stopped listening.

Sir Keir Starmer was named after his predecessor Keir Hardie, the first Labour leader. I do not suggest that Starmer will be Labour’s last leader. But he may well be presiding as the Party’s demise becomes impossible to avert.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.