Today
Tue 26 October 2021

To understand what today’s election results mean for Labour and the direction of UK politics, it is necessary to look beyond Hartlepool and Scotland, argues Mike Buckley

This week’s ‘Super Thursday’ elections, like so much of British politics, have been reported in binary terms as ‘Labour failure versus Conservative and SNP success’. The reality is more complex and, while there are significant challenges and setbacks for Labour, there is also some room for optimism.

The media narrative is largely focused on two contests: the Hartlepool by-election and Scotland. Losing Hartlepool, a seat it has held since 1974, is a blow to Labour. It is exactly the kind of constituency the party should be winning to prove its readiness for Government. Instead, the party’s weakness in its former heartlands has merely been compounded.

In many ways, Hartlepool’s loss is a hangover from the 2019 General Election – with the Brexit Party vote swinging to those who ‘delivered Brexit’. This defeat, like so many others since 2010, is the result of ongoing trends at least as much as it is a judgement on today’s Labour Party.

But claims that local voters challenged Labour activists not on Brexit, but on Jeremy Corbyn, should concern the party. I found the same on my visit – voters were still angry with Corbyn and at the party that elected him as leader. Many were also unimpressed by Keir Starmer, a year into his leadership.

“Labour hasn’t offered much opposition for the past year, so what’s the point in voting for you?” said one person. Another felt that Labour is quick to criticise the Conservatives but “doesn’t offer anything”.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the question is whether First Minister Nicola Sturgeon can win a Holyrood majority with the Scottish National Party. Latest polls show that the result is currently on a knife-edge.

Scottish Labour’s new leader, Anas Sarwar, will not become First Minister but his growing popularity and energetic campaign should give Labour cause for hope. Scottish Labour could take second place, supplanting the Conservatives. Even if the party falls short, given where Labour was polling even months ago, a decent third place will be seen as a success.

Yet, most media reports are unlikely to look beyond these headline races. To gain a fuller understanding of what results mean for Labour and the direction of UK politics, it is necessary to look further afield.

Labour will do well in some parts of the country. The party will hold the mayoralties in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol. It has already retained the Doncaster mayoralty, allaying fears that defeat would extend the ‘Red Wall’ losses of 2019. Labour may defeat the Conservative mayor in the West of England and win the newly created mayoralty in West Yorkshire.

Either gain would be a boost. West Yorkshire is marginal territory, while the West of England is exactly the kind of area that Labour needs to snatch in order to stand a chance of winning seats in the south of England last won by Tony Blair. Labour is likely to make gains elsewhere in the south. Crawley, East Worthing, Shoreham and Worthing West are all key targets.

In much of the country, these elections are multi-faceted. Labour could lose council seats in the north-east of England to the Conservatives, while elsewhere losing ground to the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats. In some parts of the country, hyperlocal parties are another concern.

While Labour has retained Rochdale and Oldham Council, its leader lost his seat to one such hyperlocal party, the Failsworth Independents. The Liberal Democrats have taken Stockport Council from Labour. The Green Party has taken seats in Northumberland, South Tyneside and Colchester.

Wales too is likely to be overlooked, yet what happens to the west of Westminster may be critical for the wider story Labour can tell about its electoral fortunes.

Labour has been in government in Wales since 1999. The party has been dominant since 1922. Polls have its lead at a healthy 10 points, yet this was a difficult election for Labour. The party lost seats in north Wales in December 2019. Comparable losses in the Senedd would be seen as proof of enduring weakness; gains a sign that Labour’s traditional support base can be rebuilt. Again, the contest appears to be on a knife-edge.


The Values Divide

Long-term demographic changes underpin the political upheavals of the past 10 years.

Developments including educational expansion, rising diversity, views on immigration, changes in housing tenure, and the rising importance of age as a predictor of voting intention have transformed the political landscape.

Education alone is a stronger predictor on issues such as national identity, immigration, the EU and diversity than class or economics, says Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester. Labour’s success in Portsmouth South, for example, has more to do with the establishment of a new university than the conversion of Conservative voters to Labour.

Similar arguments can be made for the importance of ethnicity, age and housing tenure. Some ascribe Conservative success in the Red Wall to little more than an above average house-building rate and low property prices, allowing those on modest incomes to gain security and a decent standard of living denied to their parents.

At the same time as these demographic changes, attachment to political party has declined.

More than half of voters felt a strong party affiliation as recently as 1990; by 2010 this had fallen to less than one-third. For Labour, this means fewer voters who will vote for the party instinctively in any election, and fewer voters responsive to the ‘same old Tories’ messaging. The result is a body of voters much more open to persuasion – leading to high levels of volatility.

A compelling argument can be made that Labour ‘lost’ the Red Wall in 2010 before the Conservatives ‘won’ it in 2019. In the interim, a pool of former Labour voters moved between other parties including the Liberal Democrats and UKIP before finally voting Conservative in 2019.

A large part of the reason for Conservative dominance post-2016 is the party’s nimble response to changing circumstances. The EU Referendum crystallised a values divide between groups that Paula Surridge has called ‘social authoritarians’ and ‘social liberals’.

The Conservatives picked a side – uniting the social authoritarian vote and consolidating its position in power.

While Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign is rightly regarded as disastrous, she largely succeeded in uniting this vote. Her 42.4% vote share was only marginally lower than Boris Johnson’s 43.6% in 2019. The key difference was that, in 2017, Labour managed to largely unify the social liberal vote. The party’s failure to do so in 2019 – it lost almost 8% of its vote to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – allowed the Conservatives to take a swathe of new seats.

However, uniting social liberals is not so easy. For one, there are fewer of them, though demographic change will over time make up the balance. Just as importantly, they are more concentrated in cities and metropolitan areas – giving them less political clout.

“The next Labour Party that wins a national election is not going to win back all of the Red Wall, it is not going to win back all of Scotland, or all the southern seats it could win, it will do a little bit of everything,” says Chris Curtis of polling company Opinium.

To do so, says Surridge, Labour needs to unite the social liberal vote and bridge to the values centre ground. The divide is too often seen as binary instead of a spectrum, and as a problem when in fact it is an opportunity.

Labour’s second opportunity lies in uniting the left economic vote, which cuts through the conservative-liberal social divide. Economics, says Surridge, motivates as strongly as values, hence the focus on housing in the Red Wall. A strong offer on jobs, housing, the economy and public services could win back support from the Conservatives.

This was the rationale behind Johnson’s 2019 public services pitch, when he pledged to recruit nurses and police officers and to build new hospitals. Some surveys find that this was a larger motivator for Red Wall switchers even than Brexit.

There is scope for a radical rethink about the way our economy is run. The “left is winning the economic battle of ideas,” says Chris Giles in the Financial Times. More than half of the population believes that the economic system needs ‘major changes’. Even among richer people, there is support for higher benefits, more public housing and higher taxes on the wealthy. This is prime Labour territory, if it can work out how to take it.


That Winning Feeling

The problem for Labour is that, during this campaign, it did few of the above things well.

A common refrain is that people do not know what Labour or Keir Starmer stand for. A focus group in March concluded that he comes “across as someone who could not make a decision and was scared of taking a side and upsetting people” and that people “doubt his consistency” and “his values and affinity with them”.

For left-liberals, Labour’s failure to speak out against Brexit is confusing at best. Today’s relatively strong Green and Liberal Democrat performance is the result.

On the economy, Labour has no clear offer. “There is zero policy,” said one frontbencher. “People don’t really know what we stand for, so we’re having to fall back on the time-honoured tradition of anti-Tory sentiment,” said another Labour MP.

When asked what about Labour’s transformational ideas, Starmer has spoken of green jobs, a jobs guarantee for young people and ending inequality. These are all fine ideas but not ones that have cut through to the public. Labour has to offer something that is distinctive and will resonate with voters.

Despite all the gloom, there is a route to a Labour Government. Anas Sarwar’s renewed energy brings hope of a Scottish resurgence. Welsh Labour may succeed in rebuilding its part of the Red Wall. Starmer is seen as trustworthy and competent, a foundation he can build on.

But to do so, Labour will need to be radical, to recognise that voters need a strong economic offer that speaks to their aspirations and insecurities, and a values offer that rings true to liberals and the centre ground. A hard path to navigate perhaps, but the only route to victory.

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