Labour did poorly in the local elections last Thursday 6th May. This was the first test for new leader Keir Starmer, a year in the saddle. Labour’s loss of the stronghold of Hartlepool was the main headline. Across Brexit-voting northern and Midlands areas Labour also lost out. But there were successes in Wales and the holding of many mayoral seats, and some striking successes in West Yorkshire and the West of England. It is tough to go into elections during a pandemic. Like war, the situation tends to favour the incumbent.
Starmer said he’d take full responsibility then appeared to put the blame on Labour deputy Angela Rayner. This showed either poor leadership, dishonesty or both. Either way, Rayner ended up with alternative senior jobs. But no amount of reshuffling can answer the problems.
Behind all the hoo-ha there are big questions for Labour to answer. Are we a party that leads or follows opinion? What is Labour’s vision under Starmer? What policies do we want to prioritise?
Another leader once said Labour is nothing if it is not a crusade. The Tories are wreaking huge damage on our society, growing inequality, rising poverty and unemployment and terrible mistakes and complacency over the pandemic, with the full consequences yet to play out. Meanwhile the Brexit shadow falls long and dark, with the Tories using the Trump playbook to foster a conservative social nationalism.
Not all losses can be put down to the Brexit effect, but Labour must sink deeper roots in the ‘left behind’ areas and come up with policies and ideas that really resonate. That does mean an ideological battle in which certain basic principles cannot be compromised. These include internationalism, social equity on race, gender, class and other features, wealth and power redistribution.
As an initial response we print here two articles. Our regular columnist Paul Salveson looks at the Welsh elections and tackles the question of regional identities, while Hugh Gault looks at the wider issues of the decline of Labourism and what it means.
Welsh lessons for Northern Labour
I’m writing this from the perspective of the North of England, and my particular place in it – Bolton. The results within the region, but also in other parts of the UK, have some important messages for progressive politics in the North. Now that the election results have come in, a number of things are clear:
- Labour in Wales has done remarkably well
- The SNP has consolidated its position and Labour in Scotland has not made its hoped-for breakthrough under its new leader
- In many English towns and cities, Labour has done badly – contradicted to a degree by its performance in some cities, such as London, Manchester and Liverpool
- Small, in some cases ‘hyper-local’ parties have done very well in certain areas where the incumbent party (usually Labour) is seen as ineffective
- Small English regional parties struggle to make a breakthrough, with poor results in Hartlepool, but also in council elections
- The Green Party is making modest progress in places where it has put in consistent local campaigning (but by no means everywhere)
Why did Labour do so well in Wales, and why has it struggled in the North of England? In some ways, the two places are very different: Wales is a nation with its own history and culture, as well as its own language. The North of England is (at least) three regions, with identities revolving round locality and historic counties, such as Yorkshire and Lancashire.
However, there are similarities, particularly in the traditionally working class former industrial areas of Wales: the Valleys in particular, but also the former mining and steel-making areas around Wrexham and North Wales. Whilst these areas voted strongly for Brexit, that has not stopped them, by and large, remaining with Labour in the Assembly elections. The pattern in similar ‘left behind’ areas in the North of England has been very different, with swings to either the Tories or hyper-local parties in towns such as Bolton, Oldham and Bury.
The political pundits have put forward a number of suggestions for why Welsh Labour has done so well. These include the ‘incumbency factor’ and the competent way in which the Labour-run Welsh Government has handled Covid. There is also the historic hatred of the Conservatives in many parts of Wales.
But maybe there is something else. Labour in Wales did not present itself as a sort of local version of Starmer’s Labour, but as something distinctly Welsh: proud of the nation and its heritage, but not aggressively nationalistic in a way that might have scared some people – including the large number of English ex-pats in many parts of the country. Welsh Labour was clearly seen as something very distinctive, still marking out that “clear red water” between Wales and England which former leader Rhodri Morgan first coined as a metaphor for relations with what was then a Blair-led Labour Party.
Welsh Labour, under the unassuming leadership of Mark Drakeford, comes over as responsible, progressive and in tune, helping to shape a green agenda and committed to further devolution within a reformed UK. And I’m not entirely sold on the ‘incumbency’ argument – up to a point maybe, but lots of incumbent Labour councils in the North of England have taken a hammering.
Up here in the North of England, the politics are very different. Traditional Labour-held councils which once included Bolton have seen further shifts to the Tories or to hyper-local parties, which should not be written off by Labour as ‘right-wing’ fall-outs from the Brexit party and UKIP.
Yet there’s a counter-movement. There was little doubt that Andy Burnham would comfortably retain the mayoralty in Greater Manchester. He was able to capitalise on anti-Tory instincts during the Covid situation and earn the title of “King of the North” (not, note, of “Greater Manchester”, which is a made-up entity with little legitimacy amongst many of its residents).
However, that very embryonic ‘Northern’ identity politics didn’t make any headway in Hartlepool, with the Northern Independence Party and its rival North-East Party both getting poor results. Yes, the voting system is against them, but even so it’s interesting that in the face of disillusionment with a Labour Party seen as “not for us”, people opted for the Tories in Hartlepool and many local councils.
So let’s unpick the idea that Labour “isn’t for us” up North a bit more. We are talking about those parts of the North which historically have strongly supported Labour – the Boltons, Oldhams, Blackburns on this side and the likes of Huddersfield, Bradford, Halifax, Rotherham over on t’other – not Manchester or Leeds, where Labour wins support from the middle-class professionals; and results in Sheffield point to a very different political tradition emerging, with the Greens doing very well.
So, going back to the lessons from Wales: Labour could rebuild in the North if it was able to build an identity around class, community and region. Class in the sense that it has to show it is representative of the communities it is part of and speaks their language and understands the issues – including the paramount issue of jobs. Community in that it brings people together and champions local issues and concerns – whether it’s local bus services, developing ‘green spaces’, supporting local culture and heritage or fighting inappropriate development. Region in that it is part of the North, in the way that Labour in Wales has promoted itself as being Welsh but a very inclusive Welshness. Labour in the North of England needs to rebuild its trust with the traditional ‘white’ working class, but not ignore its new areas of support amongst BAME communities and middle-class professionals. A shared, inclusive, Northern identity can help do that – not in any ‘anti-South’ sense, but through pride in our heritage and our present-day identity.
This is about more than a bit of clever marketing. Just as Labour in Wales and Scotland have become effectively their own distinct political parties within an overarching UK Labour, we should have our own devolved ‘Northern Labour’ with its own domestic regional policies which include democratic devolution (based on an extension of the Greater Manchester and Merseyside mayoral system with an elected membership and covering a broader geographical area to create ‘Greater Lancastria’).
If we continue having to take orders from the London-based Labour HQ, including having candidates as well as policies foisted on us, people will continue to reject us. There have been suggestions that Starmer might move Labour Party HQ out of London, which wouldn’t be a bad thing (rents are very cheap in Farnworth if Keir wants to have a look at the grand – and largely empty – former town hall) but it doesn’t really address the issue.
Does this mean all parts of England should have their own regionalised Labour parties? If that’s what the party membership wants, why not? London Labour makes obvious sense and something like it already exists organisationally, but the same could work for the Midlands, South West and eastern England.
If Starmer and the Labour leadership really want to look at radical solutions, they need to do that most difficult thing for politicians to do: surrender power. A ‘Northern Labour’ wouldn’t be deciding foreign policy, whether to invade France or have its own air force. But there are lots of domestic policies that a ‘Northern Region’ within the UK could have responsibility for, and we need look no further than Wales to see how that could work (and Scotland too, of course).
A Northern Railway, accountable to a Northern government? Yes please!
The political expression of Northern devolution must be a devolved political party. It can’t be done by policy wonks in London. Would ‘Northern Labour’ stem the decline of Labour in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats? Yes, I’m sure it would.
Is the Party over?
West Ham’s bubbles may never have been less likely to “float and die” since the 1960s, but is it over for the Labour Party after the Hartlepool by-election?
How is it that, despite the accusations of sleaze and cronyism at a national level, the local Conservative Party candidate, Jill Mortimer, can overturn a 2019 general election majority of 3,000 and end up with one of 7,000 herself? That local/national distinction may be part of the reason, but there are other extenuating, and hopefully explanatory, factors:
- a Labour Party candidate, Paul Williams (previously defeated himself in nearby Stockton South in 2019), imposed by the Labour leadership on the local party against their preference;
- the absence of the Brexit Party that stood in Labour seats only in 2019 and whose supporters then might be most likely to switch their vote to the Tories now;
- a local message put out by the Tories that Labour had taken the people for granted for too long;
- a conservative (often Conservative) media bias that contributed to, and exulted in, the result. You could hear the glee, for example, in the voice of Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Today programme when, as he often does, he exaggerated the extent of the Tory win; and
- the ‘vaccination bounce’ that the Government is enjoying, even though the impressive rollout is due to the NHS and local people working for their local communities, not the Government.
There are several possible reactions:
- The amateur analysts on social media will revert to the misguided and misleading ‘red wall’ analysis.
- The New Statesman and/or Guardian, probably both, will commission articles from previous Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson. Nothing wrong in that except that for a large swathe of the party he belies the formal truth that Hartlepool last had a Conservative MP in 1964.
- The conservative media will gloat, though the results in fishing communities, Scotland and Wales may alter the picture somewhat.
- The Labour leadership wraps itself more tightly in the Union Jack in the hope that, by not talking about the damage already done by Brexit, it will not bore the voters by reminding them of the lies they were told.
- Momentum will demand, perhaps rightly, that the Labour Party ceases to be a ‘policy-free zone’ and returns to the real levelling-up agenda of the 2017 (and even 2019) manifesto. The supposed ‘levelling up’ approach of the Government has hijacked the rhetoric, but whether much action results remains to be seen.
- Most damagingly for the people of this country though, or at any rate for the English and Welsh parts of it, the Conservative Party will conclude that the Prime Minister can get away with anything. The Cabinet will become even more supine than it already is and the already authoritarian ministers will become more so. If your leader appears to walk on water, why bother about the implications for Northern Ireland, the Union or a string of broken promises, not least to fishermen. In a very real sense, the fish has wriggled off the hook.