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.”
While he looks safe in his job, the former prosecutor should nevertheless ask some tough questions of himself. In the year and a bit since he took over, he has emphasised “new leadership”. That’s been successful. The voters have got that. He is regarded as a potential prime minister in a way Jeremy Corbyn could never hope to be. While not being Mr Corbyn is a necessary condition to get to Number 10, it is far from a sufficient one.
If there is a common theme to the critiques coming from both the left of the party and the right, it is that Sir Keir has yet to make Labour relevant to many voters and articulate to the public compelling reasons why they should want to support his party. Some of his critics put it down to an excess of caution or an absence of panache. Others are beginning to wonder whether he actually possesses any big ideas.
There’s wide agreement among Labour MPs that the party needs to be bolder, more creative and more skilled at creating the political weather. “We need to be much more focused,” says one frontbencher. “We need to stick to a few themes and bang on about them relentlessly.”
Comments another: “We need to start picking some fights which speak to our wider story.”
In the latter stages of these contests, Labour seized on “Tory sleaze” as its campaign theme. There is nothing wrong with the opposition calling out corruption in the government – it is absolutely vital that they do so – yet it left the impression that Labour concentrated all its energy on one line of attack for lack of any other things it wanted to say.
“We didn’t have a big message,” confirms one member of the shadow cabinet. “We didn’t really know what we were campaigning on. God knows what we would have talked about had the wallpaper not come along.”
There is now going to be a “policy review”, but Sir Keir can’t afford to wait many months until that process concludes before he associates himself with some distinctive ideas with the potential to be appealing to the public. This has to be accompanied by crisp messages with the power to grab the attention of the nation. This is the opposite of a frivolous point. You have no business being in modern politics if you can’t crystallise your ambitions for the country into zingers with enough thrust to cut through to the electorate. They may be fatuous simplicities, but “take back control”, “get Brexit done” and “build back better” convey big messages and, boy, have they worked for the Tories. Labour needs a much punchier counter than the limp “no return to business as usual”.
One former Labour cabinet minister, who was incredibly pleased when Sir Keir won the leadership, now confesses to some disappointment: “There is no sense yet of a coherent political project. You need a leader who is a storyteller as well as having role authority. Keir has role authority, but he hasn’t got emotional engagement with the country.”
It is fair to say that the pandemic has made it more difficult for Labour to connect with voters, showcase ideas or promote a rival vision of how Britain could be better. The biggest test will be when vaccine euphoria wears off and politics returns to something more resembling normality. “Have we got anything in our locker when people move on and are interested in other things again?” asks one Starmer-loyal member of the shadow cabinet. “If people are still saying then that Keir has got nothing to say, he will be in trouble.”
Those around the Labour leader have always said he is playing a “long game”. That assumes he has the luxury of time when the next general election could be only three years away, or less. It is later than he thinks.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer