Trevor Fisher says heaping all blame on Jeremy Corbyn misses his strengths, fails to understand the challenges and hobbles Starmer’s aims
The July edition of my website, Progressive Readers, focusses heavily on the ‘Red Wall Theory’. This broadly tries to explain the 2019 election result by the lost seats in the Midlands and the north of England. There is a lack of definition, though Sebastian Payne, in his book Broken Heartlands, provides an outline description after consulting James Kanagasooriam, the Tory pollster who invented the theory.
The loss of traditional seats and working class support is undeniable, though whether the theory explains the loss is something else. The numbers don’t justify the assumption, made explicit by Deborah Mattinson in Beyond the Red Wall‘s subtitle, that this loss of support was “why Labour lost” – with variable estimates ranging from 34-41 seats, the numbers don’t account for a Tory majority of 80. But given the lack of an alternative explanation for Labour’s decline, ‘Red Wall’ has become an easy explanation of an unexpected reverse.
It is also becoming an excuse for factional politics, especially as Starmer included reclaiming “the votes ‘lent’ to the Tories in 2019” as one of his ten leadership election priorities – and one which he has clung to when he has abandoned the soft left politics on which he won the leadership. This has morphed into blaming Jeremy Corbyn as the sole reason for Labour’s plight, though Corbyn was not responsible for the 2010 and 2015 defeats, nor the loss of voters which preceded them. A sensible assessment of Labour’s losses, which began with voters deserting the party as early as 2001, would look at a three-phase loss of seats and elections and the multiple leadership failures responsible.
The first key election was 2010, when Gordon Brown lost Labour’s Commons majority and the New Labour period officially ended. The second was 2015, when Ed Miliband lost 40 of the 41 seats in Scotland – a danger Eric Shaw and Gerry Hassan had warned about three years earlier in their book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, which was totally ignored. The so-called Red Wall seats were only the final phase of the highly visible loss of working class support which means more proletarian voters support other parties than vote Labour.
Taking aim at Corbyn
The task of looking at a longer decline has been sidelined by the factional politics of the Labour Party, the leadership having chosen to heap all blame on Jeremy Corbyn. A rational approach to analysis would sort what Corbyn can be blamed for and what lies to his credit. Corbyn’s lack of leadership qualities were always obvious. As Neal Lawson argued in a recent Guardian article, “Corbyn, for all his commitment and resolve, was never cut out for leadership. He never wanted to be leader and exhibited none of the skills for it. But people were desperate for hope and change. Like Tinkerbell trying to bring Peter Pan back to life, all you had to do was believe passionately enough and Corbynism would fly”. Sadly, there are no fairy tales in the harsh world of politics.
I did not vote for Corbyn in either of the two leadership elections – in the first I voted for Andy Burnham – and had no belief Corbyn would be an effective leader. But he offered a way of breaking with the failures of New Labour, and that remains the delayed task the Labour Party has to undertake. Then Corbyn’s team failed to build a new left, but they did achieve one crucial task which remains relevant. They showed that there was a sizeable audience for radical ideas, especially among the young, though too small in itself to win an election, for which big electoral coalitions were needed.
Vitally, Corbyn provided a policy agenda in 2019 which was progressive and popular. Corbyn was not able to build on the manifesto, but the manifesto seriously worried Tory strategists. In his book, Sebastian Payne notes: “There was only one major wobble, insiders said, when Labour released its manifesto, chock full of spending pledges. Increasing the health budget, ramping up the minimum wage, nationalising the big six energy companies, the railways, Royal Mail, National Grid, scrapping universal credit, building 100,000 council houses a year. All these pledges proved popular, while the Conservative manifesto risked looking dull in comparison. In the following weeks the Tory lead dropped to six points according to ICM”. The faults of the 2019 manifesto are clear. There were too many commitments for plausible delivery, financing them was problematic, and the positive ideas were counteracted by a superficial foreign policy and sloganising. But the positivity of the manifesto’s best policy aspects cannot be denied.
Yet Starmer abandoned the soft left appeal of the leadership campaign for root-and-branch rejection of every aspect of the Corbyn agenda. As Elliot Chappell of LabourList noted, “he said the party had eschewed the 2019 manifesto… and was ‘starting from scratch'”.
The leadership’s current strategy seems based on the assumption that all aspects of the Corbyn era were negative and must be purged – “purge” being part of the vocabulary of Anne McElvoy’s well-informed Evening Standard article on the politics of LOTO. Since then, we have Starmer refusing to back unions on the strike and Dave Lammy refusing to back big pay rises at a time of rampant inflation. Starmer’s speech at the start of July committing to “make Brexit work” and refuse the Scots a second indie referendum put him in the same political space as Boris Johnson.
Labour clearly has to win over some Tory voters, but as Rory O’Kelly has pointed out, “[a]ctual Labour voters have not even been identified as target voters, and since his election as leader, Starmer has been anxious to avoid any concessions to what people voted Labour for in 2019”. This is partly Red Wall-linked, since the theory that Corbynism drove old Labourists to ‘lend’ their votes to the Tories means that Corbyn must be seen as the devil incarnate, even when evidence suggests his policies were popular – and popular among traditional Labour voters.
The Corbyn era is now over, and securing a balanced assessment of its pros and cons is vital. As Neal Lawson said in his Guardian article, the 2017 result was remarkable, and “just because you don’t like what happened doesn’t mean you can deny it happened”. This will need an equally balanced assessment of New Labour, since Corbyn won the leadership in reaction to 20 years of New Labour. The paradox of this task will involve recognising that New Labour in part created the Red Wall seats. No one who studies, for example, Staffordshire can deny that a county which was Labour-controlled for 28 years was lost in 2009 because of New Labour, and the Staffordshire parliamentary seats won in 1997 went Tory in 2010 because the voters felt neglected by the party at Westminster. Stoke-on-Trent, where 60 of 60 councillors were Labour during this period, turned Tory as Labour’s massive majority produced little of value, and at one point, nine members of the BNP were elected to the council and had to be removed by anti-fascist activity.
These losses were not Corbyn-related, so an approach which demonises Corbyn and his supporters is doomed to failure. If Labour is to recover, Blair, Brown and Miliband need to be put in the witness box. At a time when the three key figures running LOTO are, according to Anne McElvoy, two Brown-era apparatchiks (Deborah Mattinson and Sam White) and Matthew Doyle, “an experienced staffer who’s been around since the Blair era” – a triumvirate McElvoy says are dubbed “the Holy Trinity” – rigorous analysis of the legacy of the last four leaders may not be easy. But without it, Neal Lawson’s hopes of Starmer having “a golden opportunity to try a bit of Corbynism” are doomed to failure.