As Boris Johnson and chancellor Sunak receive police fines for Covid law-breaking, Trevor Fisher wonders if Labour can capitalise
At the start of 2022, optimism that Boris Johnson could be removed and the Tories follow him through the exit door was widespread. Partygate and the recent police fines finally exposed the Tory high command as having the contempt for ordinary people Labour had always believed. Opinion polls at long last put Labour ahead. Since the May elections, however, the climate has been less favourable, with Labour failing to make significant gains, while hopes that Johnson would be removed by Tory MPs – who only act when their seats are threatened – have declined.
Whether Johnson will be forced out the exit door will depend partly on the local election results, the struggle in Ukraine, and other unpredictable issues. Logically, Johnson should be feeling a cold wind, with the massive incompetence and greed of his government’s handling of the Covid crisis enough to push him into retirement. But support for the Tories is never based on their actual behaviour. Labour is habitually over-optimistic. Relying on the Fabian theory of the “inevitability of gradualness”, assumptions that “history is on our side” have clouded the reality. As I have pointed out, only three Labour Leaders have ever won a working majority in Parliament: Attlee, Wilson, and Blair. And Labour has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot.
This may be about to happen again over parliamentary selections. With Jeremy Corbyn suspended from the parliamentary party, and an ex-MP said to be lined up to stand in his Islington seat, it is clear that he is unlikely to be allowed to be selected. It is impossible to find out what his intentions are, and he might retire – but he is still active. If he is blocked from standing for Labour he can stand in his own right – the ability of independents to stand and split the vote is one of the problems with the multi-party Progressive Alliance campaign. A high-profile divisive campaign could lose Labour the seat.
This could be repeated elsewhere. While the dozen or so left MPs who were to appear at an anti-war rally over Ukraine pulled out on being threatened with having the whip withdrawn, this did not make for good relations and, while they can stand for reselection, there may be attempts to deselect. (Some may even retire – John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are over the pensionable age.) Even without such moves, pressure to form a pure socialist party is considerable. It should be resisted. Labour will need every vote at the next election – and union money. Unite is said to be considering de-affiliation. It would be a disaster.
But holding the party together requires a common agenda. Not only is this not obvious and what Starmer Labour stands for obscure, the strategy of the leadership is problematic. The heart of planning seems to be the obsession with the old industrial areas that make up the ‘Red Wall’ seats. As Starmer said in his campaign to be leader, “never lose sight of the votes ‘lent’ to the Tories in 2019”. These votes are important, but not critical – the voters who went to the SNP in 2015 are just as important. Appointing Deborah Mattinson to oversee strategy was an error. Her 2020 book claimed the Red Wall seats were “why Labour lost”. The first problem is that this is untrue. Labour held those seats in 2010, 2015 and 2017 and lost all three elections. Secondly, the Red Wall seats are Brexit, and have fallen for the ‘levelling up’ propaganda of the Tories. Labour cannot be a Brexit party, and needs a very different ‘levelling up’ agenda to the Tories. As Andy Burnham has said, Labour must not pit towns against cities. This is a real danger. There is much else wrong with Mattinson’s book. She excludes anyone not in their mid-30s from her focus groups – but she is right about the urban split. Of her sample, only 3% live in major cities, two thirds in towns, and 17% in villages. Staffordshire, where I live, is not just Stoke, but fits this pattern perfectly. It is classic Red Wall territory and every seat is now Tory.
Labour cannot be solely the party of the metropolitan areas and must seek to be the party of community in all areas, but to embrace the agenda promoted by Nigel Farage would lose progressive support. A strategy which focuses on Red Wall voters and neglects metropolitan voters risks losing more progressive voters than ever. Blair neglected the industrial working class to win metropolitan votes. Starmer should not simply put that policy in reverse. The future has to be a broad appeal.
If Labour prioritises winning back Red Wall voters, its appeal to its existing voters will be weakened. Labour has many strategic issues to confront – and cannot rely on Boris Johnson disappearing to provide the solution.