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Thu 22 October 2020
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Mike Buckley gives his take on what the Labour Party now needs to think about in terms of identity, class and the Coronavirus crisis.

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The Labour leadership election is over and the party is settling in to the Keir Starmer era.

The new Shadow Cabinet contains talent from across the party and has been broadly welcomed by members and commentators. Starmer’s swift action on anti-Semitism – speaking to the Jewish Board of Deputies and other Jewish leaders within his first days – was a very clear repudiation of the past and a statement of intent. Labour already seems more electable and looks more like the country it wants to represent. 

Starmer is right to get his own house in order first. Labour cannot stake a claim for power until it has sorted out the anti-Semitism within its ranks, or with frontbench spokespeople who project anything other than competence and credibility. Putting polished media performers in key positions, such as Anneliese Dodds and David Lammy, is a good move.

But soon Labour will need to turn its attention to how to win the next General Election. The first step will be working out why it has lost four general elections in a row and the second will be to work out what the electoral landscape will be by 2024. Some of this will be the result of the space opened up by COVID-19 – including the need for a far stronger social settlement and an NHS and social care system that is always prepared for a crisis – but much of it should be focused on the factors that caused previous defeats. 

Labour has lessons to learn from 2019, but responding to those alone won’t be enough.

In 2019, Jeremy Corbyn was the most unpopular leader of a political party heading into a General Election since such data was first recorded and Labour failed to offer leadership or clarity on Brexit.

But, even if the party rectifies these errors, it will not have learnt the lessons of the prior three defeats. Labour has continued to operate as if the electoral landscape is unchanged since it was last in power, which is not the case. Perhaps most obviously, it needs to find a way back in Scotland.

More broadly, the electorate used to split largely along class lines, with poorer and largely manual workers voting for Labour, and more educated and well-off classes voting for the Conservatives. This is no longer true. The party should not cease to be the party of workers, but it is no longer simply the party of the working-class. 

As class has diminished as a determinant of voting behaviour, age, education and housing tenure have become more important. Labour voters are now more likely to be young, educated and living in rented accommodation in cities. This has raised the age profile of town dwellers, further reducing the number of likely Labour voters there. This has made it more difficult for Labour to translate its vote share into seats. In 2010, Labour’s vote share of 29% translated into 40% of seats in the Commons; in 2019 its 32% vote share translated into only 31% of seats.

The other dramatic change has been the increasing importance of values. The UK has arguably split into socially liberal and socially conservative groups who disagree on Brexit, immigration, multiculturalism and issues of identity. The EU Referendum supercharged this, creating two distinct tribes with identities and a cause to rally behind, which will endure no matter what happens next with Brexit. 

Labour’s dilemma is that, while the majority of its voter base is socially liberal, there are not yet enough social liberals to win a parliamentary majority on their own due to the way their votes are distributed. There were significantly more majority social liberal seats in the 2019 General Election than there were in 2016 EU Referendum, but still not enough to win. So, the party must find a way to unify this vote, while also bridging across to social conservatives who may disagree on some values issues but are aligned with the party on issues of economics and fairness. 

Such a coalition is not only possible to build, it is a not unlikely result of issues raised by COVID-19 – in particular, the way it has exposed the under-funding of the NHS and social care and the paucity of the social safety net for the self-employed and other groups. To build it, Labour will need to be true to its values – not doing so does not attract social conservatives and deters social liberals – but also have an ambitious offer on economics and justice. 

Mike Buckley is director of ‘Labour for a European Future’


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