One would think the script was settled by now, but it appears the profound realignment of English politics retains its capacity to surprise. Once again for those at the back: Labour is picking up voters in London’s exurbs and other socially liberal towns scattered across the South East; the Conservatives, pretty much everywhere else. And, in case you really have been living under a rock these past few days, the Tories have been especially successful in smaller ‘Red Wall’ towns that pockmark Britain’s former industrial heartlands.
There are many factors which drive this phenomenon, both cultural and economic. Chief amongst them is of course Brexit, which occupies a political nether region somewhere between cause and effect. Either way, for a decade or more, these currents have dominated the English political landscape, with elections decided to a large extent by which major party could best ride the waves. That was at least until 2019 when this sociological war was overwhelmingly lost by Labour. Keir Starmer’s challenge now isn’t just to repair the dam in his party’s former strongholds, it’s to reverse the tide. That is, as he is finding out, an infinitely harder political ask. But nobody should remain shocked by its scale.
It is very easy to overestimate the ability of the Leader of the Opposition to affect political events – it was inevitable that the London-based media would frame coverage of the elections around Labour’s Red Wall travails, even as genuinely existential questions for Britain itself were raised in Scotland. However, Starmer can hardly claim to have countered this narrative with a political story of his own. In fact, frankly, its not clear to me that he actually views the art of story-telling as something particularly fundamental to his job description.
Take his pre-Budget, pre-campaign speech back in February. As a collection of fairly reasonable points about the British economy, it was serviceable enough. Yet neither it nor the long-discarded British Recovery Bonds it announced made a lasting impression because they singularly failed to tell a coherent political story. Most worryingly of all, at least for this former speechwriter, he never even tried to rest his arguments on an appeal to a shared humanity. That might be fine on its own terms – empathy is a very difficult emotion to nurture in such politically cynical times. But at a moment of fairly unprecedented collective sacrifice, wouldn’t you at least try? And in a speech ostensibly about how an activist Labour government will support workers and businesses after the pandemic, might it not have been a good idea to quote the experience of at least one of the approximately 4.7m British employees then being paid by the state not to work?
I accept that this may feel like a rather minor point. But over time it has come to feel more and more like it reveals a fundamental flaw in Starmer’s rather clinical approach to the practice of politics. Labour had better hope Starmer can change fast. Telling resonant stories – about himself, about his party, about Britain – is the alpha and omega of being Leader of the Opposition. Moreover, the challenge the Labour leader now has no choice but to accept is to tell a compelling and new story on arguably the most fraught terrain of all: Britain and class.
There are two conflicting reasons why this is imperative. First, Starmer urgently needs to define who, rather than what – as he is more commonly advised – his political project stands for. The distinction is important, and progressives who have spent this week levelling accusations of ‘pork-barrel’ politics at the Government are missing why. British politics, in its parliamentary institutions and character, has always been fairly transactional; more rooted in competing class interests than in a contest of philosophical ideas. Besides, most people have a pretty good general idea of what the Labour Party believes. The sharper accusation – the one that actually comes from areas like the Red Wall – is that voters no longer know if Labour is on their side. Starmer needs to find a way of showing enough of them that he is.
The second, more obvious imperative is that the working class as it is traditionally conceived has abandoned Labour and, in all likelihood, is unlikely to come back en masse. This, to put it mildly, contrasts with the party’s own idea about who it is, and that matters. Even if it were wise for the party to unashamedly transform into the party of Reading not Redcar – and psephologically it is not – it could not do so whilst also retaining the self-confidence needed to convince others it should be given the keys to the country.
No, what Labour needs now is a story that reaffirms its class-based tradition whilst at the same time allowing itself to feel comfortable with a process of inescapable sociological change. This may sound like an impossible challenge, but luckily for Starmer there is an answer fairly close to home. In 2018 Claire Ainsley, now his Director of Policy, wrote a book which argued powerfully that our political idea of the working class was wildly out of date. Instead, there is a new working class that “is made up of people living on low to middle incomes, employed as cleaners, shop workers, bar tenders, teaching assistants, cooks, carers… it is multi-ethnic and much more diverse than the traditional working class”.
As an answer to the “whose side” question, this is not as primary colours populist as Boris Johnson’s nakedly place-based approach. When properly defined, it is also not a great deal dissimilar to Ed Miliband’s “squeezed middle”, Theresa May’s “just about managing” or even Nick Clegg’s instantly ridiculous “alarm clock Britain”. As such, it would need repackaging (for what it’s worth, my suggestion would be “the overworking class”). But for Labour its great tactical benefit would be its inclusiveness – this working class exists in both the Red Wall and in the party’s emerging Southern sources of strength.
More importantly, it has the not entirely negligible benefit of being unequivocally, materially, right – the way we talk about class in this country has not moved into the 21st century. Starmer should articulate that story confrontationally and clearly, challenging the hackneyed romanticism that infects both the media’s Red Wall monomania and his own party’s insipid nostalgia. There is no doubt it would be a high-risk move. But the time for caution is over.
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