There is a very informative point in the BBC’s recent “focus group” of former Labour voters in Blackpool to which the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, was invited. After listening to one participant’s pessimistic musings on the current political scene, the Labour leader asks her: “Don’t you feel angry that this government’s been in power for 11 years?”
The question revealed Starmer’s, and the wider Labour movement’s, frustration with the status quo. Because the honest answer, were the Blackpool event to be somewhat extended to cover the entirety of the electorate, is “No.” Or at least, “Not enough to benefit you, comrade!”
You can see shadows of the 1980s in the persistent, indignant response of Labour politicians to the continuing and long-term dominance of the Conservative Party in the polls. During Margaret Thatcher’s reign, the Labour Party spent a lot of time mocking the prime minister and being astonished that she kept winning elections. It was this dumbfounded response to her success that ensured the party’s continued irrelevance. The world was not the way the left thought it should be, and rather than adapt to the new circumstances and seek to understand what it was in the Conservatives’ policy offer that attracted so much support, it chose instead to complain about the unfairness of not being chosen to govern instead.
Of course it is frustrating to be told, via the ballot box, that your message has no resonance with the voters. Politicians, by their nature, are ideological creatures who entered politics because they believe their particular principles and ideas should be implemented in office; a rejection of their kind offer to govern us is something of an existential crisis.
There are many reasons that Labour spent 18 years in opposition in the ’80s and ’90s, but one of them was an arrogant refusal to ask voters, especially those who might have been expected to support Labour but who had decided not to, about their reasoning. If such inquiries produced answers that cut across one of the party’s many sacred cows – the right to purchase your own council home, for example – the instinct was to respond by explaining, quietly and politely, why they were wrong, with a little bit of economic and social policy thrown in for good measure.
A growing impatience and boredom with John Major’s Conservative government would not have been enough to establish Labour as a sure-fire alternative in voters’ eyes; it took Tony Blair to arrive on the scene and finally tell voters: “Okay, you were right, we got it wrong. Sorry, we’ll do better next time.”
Is Keir Starmer about to seize Blair’s mantle by actually acknowledging what Labour under Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn got wrong? If the Labour leader’s new listening exercise is merely an opportunity for Starmer to proselytise, to promote his party as a Corbyn-free zone and hope to capitalise on any growing disenchantment with Boris Johnson’s regime, then he is pursuing the time-honoured path down which so many failed Labour leaders have led the party before.
A listening exercise should mean exactly that: an opportunity to listen, not to preach.
And in today’s Britain, such an exercise has never had more relevance for Labour. It is not Boris Johnson or his party who stands accused of ignoring the views of working class communities. Like him or loathe him, the Prime Minister has been seen to make the effort that every successful party leader makes to attract support from across the traditional two-party divide. Labour, on the other hand, as the loss of Hartlepool and the narrow victory in Batley and Spen illustrate, is the one in the dock right now.
And it’s not about policy. Or at least, it’s not all about policy. It’s about the culture of a party that, with no justification whatever, sees itself as morally superior to all its competitors. And when your case is built on morality rather than policy, you risk tarring the supporters of your opponents with the same brush. It should not be surprising that people who voted for Thatcher, Cameron and Johnson dislike the implication that they have been supporting racists and fascists this whole time.
Gordon Brown did more long-term damage to the Labour brand than is often assumed with his arrogant dismissal of Gillian Duffy as a “bigot” during the 2010 general election. That incident exposed an attitude that, even at the time, had existed on the British left for a very long time, an assumption that, since they were so clearly right about everything, anyone who disagreed with them must, by definition, be wrong. Or a bigot.
And as recent events have proven so dramatically, that attitude is alive and well, particularly among Remainers, to whom Starmer revealed himself as a saviour when he promised an opportunity, at Labour’s 2018 conference and without the authority of his party’s leadership, to overturn the Leave vote of two years earlier.
No doubt Brexit is something Starmer will expect to hear a lot about as he embarks on his mission to listen. The signs are promising that he will finally abandon his criticism of the public for its disobedience in voting to leave the EU and will concentrate instead on making our new post-EU status work. That will be a good start because it will put him squarely in the territory occupied by most voters, however they voted in 2016.
But he desperately needs to humble himself more. The fact that he even had to ask the question, “Don’t you feel angry that this government’s been in power for 11 years?” suggests he hasn’t quite grasped the reason why voters gave Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority less than two years ago. That election was as much a verdict on the Labour Party as it was on Boris Johnson or Brexit. It was exactly the same judgement it meted out to the party in 1983, 1987 and 1992, and it was done for exactly the same reason: Labour was too busy preaching its own virtue to listen to real people’s real concerns.
Starmer has an opportunity to change this, to shorten his party’s time in opposition. He will not do so by expressing impatience or incredulity at voters’ continues tolerance of the current government. He will do it by listening and then changing. And a few apologies for past mistakes wouldn’t go amiss either.
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