Just as a slew of elections in May come into view, including a Westminster byelection in Hartlepool – arguably a key “red wall” seat – Peter Mandelson has reappeared on the political scene, as he is wont to do from time to time. Indeed, he knows Hartlepool well, since he was the town’s MP for 12 years.
Mandelson is correct to say that the test for Labour, following the 2019 general election defeat, is whether it is now electable. But the country has changed in the quarter of a century since the party’s 1997 landslide. Reverting back to old formulae, in part created by Mandelson and based on an outdated political offer, won’t work.
This argument about electability is a cover for a profoundly ideological attempt to change Labour irreversibly. Mandelson recently said of New Labour that “the conclusion that we reached was that there were elements of Thatcher’s settlement that were irreversible”.
Of course, New Labour did much to reform the country during its years in power. It is hard to forget how Labour struggled against the Tories to introduce a minimum wage. It opened 3,632 Sure Start centres. The list of its progressive reforms would be a long one. But there would be another less progressive list: the war in Iraq being the most egregious entry on it.
Tony Blair did not shift the overall character of Thatcherism. Nor did he want to. In 2015 the former Labour leader said that should a left government be elected, it would not have his support. New Labour isn’t simply questioning the electability of Labour led by the left – their real objection is that they don’t want a left-led party at all. We must therefore view claims that Labour can never win from the left with deep suspicion.
Those who would like to see a return to New Labour face their own set of questions. They must first explain why between 1997 and 2010 we lost almost 5 million voters. These were often concentrated in working class communities that were once Labour heartlands. This legacy lingers on. In one recent poll the Tories are 25 percentage points ahead of Labour in working class communities and among leave voters we are nearly 60 percentage points behind. This obviously has implications in seats like Hartlepool, where early polling hasn’t been encouraging.
The 2017 election poses the clearest challenge to the narrative that a radical Labour offer can’t win these voters’ allegiances. Blairites wrongly assert that “2017, of course, was a Brexit election”.
I prepared the strategy paper for Jeremy Corbyn’s team in February 2017. It proposed a route to an election result of more than 40% of votes, built upon a transformative campaign that would deny Theresa May her majority and perhaps even lead to a Labour majority.
This strategy was based on building a wide-ranging electoral coalition that brought together people from all areas of society who desired change. In the event we increased our polling, which had been in the mid 20s, going on to attract 40% of voters in the 2017 election.
Of course, we didn’t win. But we boosted our vote share by 9.6% – 3.4m votes. This is the largest increase between two elections by any Labour leader since the war. In fact, Corbyn achieved nearly 5 million more votes than Gordon Brown.
What then are we to make of the claim that 2017 was really a Brexit election, and that the party was boosted by a remainer influx of support? It’s a good effort to rewrite history and to avoid recognising the role that a transformative manifesto and radical leader played in Labour’s success. But it’s incorrect. In fact, the party leaned even further towards remain in 2019, but it lost votes.
Of their time in charge, Mandelson rather wistfully remarks that: “We hadn’t put down the roots, I’m afraid, to change the culture of the party.” But it was worse than that. They had depoliticised politics. The British Social Attitudes 2011-12 report showed voters increasingly struggling to distinguish between New Labour and the Tories.
Elections are always won from the centre ground. But the centre is nowhere near where New Labour would like it to be. Take those Labour voters who supported the Tories in 2019. Of these, 81% thought “big business takes advantage of ordinary people”, while 84% thought “there is one law for the rich, another for the poor”. It’s hardly an argument for an uncritically pro-business leadership.
And we recently saw the poll of Hartlepool voters who were massively in favour of state intervention to create a national broadband network. In 2019 when Labour proposed this very idea, it was derisively described by some as a form of “communism”.
The reassertion of the familiar New Labour narrative is not to be feared, sneered, or cheered. There should be no need to resort to distorting the facts of our recent history. Let’s have a true debate about electability. The 2017 election showed that the left can attract voters. It is right, too, to examine what happened afterwards and in the 2019 election.
Byelections can be ephemeral moments in political life. Looking back, both Miliband and Corbyn won their first byelections, substantially increasing the share of the vote for Labour (10% & 7% respectively). Labour too can win this first Starmer byelection. But whatever happens in Hartlepool in May, it’s time to be blunt. We cannot win without rebuilding our relationship with working class voters – in all their complexity and diversity. Never again should we take such voters for granted, as I have argued before. This is the key to any future election victory for Labour.