Another electoral test, another dismal postmortem for Labour. The least persuasive diagnosis of why the party has suffered some bitter disappointments is that offered by visitors from cloud-Corbyn-land who demand a return to the glorious days of the last leader. Labour has a lot of hard thinking to do, but the party’s mind will be wandering in precisely the wrong direction if it decides that the answer is to re-embrace Corbynism. For those with short memories, that was the suicidal experiment that crushed the party’s parliamentary representation down to its lowest level since 1935 and inflicted deep tissue damage to its reputation that is still hurting today.
There are more useful conclusions that can be drawn. One is that simply hoping that Tory failures will swing the pendulum back to Labour is not a reliable strategy for success. This is essentially the bet Sir Keir Starmer made last year by concentrating his efforts on lambasting the government for incompetence. There was plenty of it to go at. Less than six months ago, when the government’s handling of the pandemic was especially dreadful, every Conservative I spoke to was dreading what they were calling “a Covid election” in the belief that they’d take a beating for their serial bungling.
The impressive distribution of jabs came to their rescue. The Tories have unquestionably profited from a “vaccine bounce”. This provides a bit of an alibi for Labour’s performance, but it also serves as a warning. One of the lessons of the past 12 months – in fact, it is a lesson of the past 11 years – is that Labour is foolish to imagine that it will prosper simply by waiting for the Tories to get into trouble. They can massively screw up and still win elections for so long as Labour hasn’t changed itself enough to convince the country that it would be a superior government.
Another lesson of these elections, and a profoundly troubling one for Labour, is that the party still hasn’t worked out how to respond to the realignment of Britain’s political geography that was in train before Brexit and then greatly accelerated by it. Given what happened at the 2019 election, when Boris Johnson drove a bulldozer through the red wall, the Tory triumph in the Hartlepool byelection was less a surprise and more the confirmation of a trend. It was still psychologically crushing for Labour to lose a town, and lose it so badly, which had had a Labour MP for more than 50 years. Not least because Sir Keir has made it one of his priorities to woo back these voters. One senior Labour MP remarks: “We were too complacent – and I include myself in this – in thinking that with Corbyn gone we were going to start getting these voters back. There are more fundamental problems facing us.”
Wales was brighter. Results from London, Manchester and elsewhere confirm that Labour can count on younger, more diverse and more socially liberal voters, especially graduates living in the university towns and big cities of England. Scotland is a different story, which is a whole other chapter in Labour’s volume of troubles. Gradland is effectively becoming the party’s new core vote. The trouble is that there are not enough of these voters to offset Labour’s losses in its old heartlands.
“How do we rebuild our electoral coalition? That’s the exam question,” says one thoughtful Labour MP. “If any of us had the answer to it, we wouldn’t be in the hole we’re in.” Quite so. After four general election defeats, Labour has still not identified how to assemble an electoral coalition that could get it back into power. Those who claim to have a magic solution to the party’s plight are not credible and those who are thinking about it seriously have yet to crack it.
There are some issues that are more amenable to an immediate fix. Labour MPs are expecting a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet. There are some resourceful and dynamic performers on Labour’s frontbench such as Jonathan Ashworth, David Lammy and Rachel Reeves. There are too many others who are no more than reactive or, worse, passive. It as an illustration of this problem that there is no one sitting around Labour’s top table who currently poses a threat to Sir Keir’s position. One reason he looks very safe from a leadership challenge is the lack of any palpable alternative. The successful Labour leaders of the past all had big beasts around them. Tony Blair had his turbulent partnership with Gordon Brown. Harold Wilson had to keep a wary eye on Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins. The presence of rival heavy hitters made those leaders nervous, but also gave their parties a lot more punch. “If not Keir, who?” asks one member of the shadow cabinet. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the shadow cabinet who would be doing any better and most of us would be doing worse.”