The Guardian view on Labour Together: offer Britain a common purpose | Editorial

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that we need to come together, not move apart. Sir Keir Starmer has an opportunity to seize and shape the political moment

To say that Labour has a mountain to climb after its calamitous defeat in 2019 is like saying Everest is a very steep hill. To win a majority of one at the next general election the opposition would need to increase its number of MPs by 123 seats, a 60% jump in its parliamentary strength and a feat no major party has achieved since 1945. The review of December’s election by the internal party group Labour Together laid bare the extent of the loss, one that was a long time coming. It did not start – or end – with the party’s last leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour’s trials mirror the rise and fall of a particular electoral coalition between industrial workers and public-sector employees. This bloc began unravelling in the 2000s as globalisation and technological change further reduced the size of the manufacturing sector. To compensate, Labour tried to appeal to younger, urban professionals with bold offers that in turn alienated many industrial workers. They either stopped voting or turned to other parties, notably on the right. Boris Johnson’s tilt to hard-Brexit populism in 2019, the review notes, gave 2 million of these previously lost “non-voters” a home and the Conservatives an election-winning base.

In the last 20 years Labour has been increasingly reliant on public-sector employees. The austerity imposed after the financial crash of 2008 ensured this was no longer a winning strategy. It is a story familiar across the developed world, as a recent paper by political scientists Giacomo Benedetto, Simon Hix and Nicola Mastrorocco, shows. By looking across 31 countries the academics reveal how since 2000, social democratic parties that once commanded over 40% of votes have collapsed or are on the brink of extinction. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour is not staring into the abyss but it is a long, long way from the summit of success.

The question for Sir Keir is how to build a new coalition of voters rooted in the goal of electing a Labour government that can redress the imbalance of economic, social and political power in Britain. This poses profound questions about what institutions are available to the party to create a sense of political affinity in a de-unionised private sector, especially among the growing ranks of gig-economy workers.

Given that cultural issues have gained prominence at the expense of economic ones, it is imperative that Labour develops believable narratives on such themes. Sir Keir will need a new vocabulary to persuade the traditional working class that Labour stands for their interests and understands their concerns. It is not an understatement that the party’s fate lies in Scottish hands. Unless Labour creates a relevant narrative for Scotland’s relationship with the UK it will remain largely unimportant in Holyrood, and shut out of power in Westminster.

Labour can be the party of transformational change at the next election, as long as this is convincing. A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic has shown that Britain needs to draw on a social bargain in which people are committed to one another and where political institutions are responsive. Mr Johnson’s lamentable handling of the crisis has dented his appeal to many who lent him their votes. Britain is about to enter choppy economic waters but the captain of the ship has been largely absent. Sir Keir has shown leadership where Mr Johnson has shown failure. Labour has a chance to seize and shape the moment. But in the longer term Labour must offer voters a common purpose to yield the solidarity that can meet the challenge of the future.

• This article was amended on 26 June 2020 to clarify that it is only since 1945 that no party has increased its number of MPs by 60% to win a majority. An earlier version said that no major party had ever done this.


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