No political party has a divine right to exist. If they did, Britain would still be ruled by the Whigs. There have been a lot of doomy prognostications about Labour’s life expectancy since the big set of elections that alarmed many people in the party with the thought that the calamitous 2019 performance might not be the lowest they could go.
A trauma was then turned into a crisis by Sir Keir Starmer. The test of a leader’s calibre is not whether he or she can avoid difficult moments. Those come with the job. The test is how they address the difficult moments. Sir Keir commended himself during his early period in charge as someone who came over as professional, serious and measured. He was none of those things when he responded to the results with a panicky, amateurish and divisive reshuffle in which he appeared intent on diminishing his deputy, Angela Rayner, only to end up giving her a mantelpiece-size set of grandiose-sounding titles. That fiasco has left Labour MPs dazed, confused, aggravated and much more doubtful as to whether their leader has a strategy for turning things around. He may be able to repair his reputation: look at the rollercoaster career of Boris Johnson to see how modern politics likes a comeback story. For now, Sir Keir’s authority is badly weakened and with it his capacity to carry his party with him. No bout of existential angst would be complete without an attention-seizing contribution from Tony Blair, Labour’s most electorally successful leader, weighing in to tell the party to “change or die”.
One fatalistic school of opinion holds that there is not all that much Labour can do. With a nod to the travails of social democratic parties across Europe, it is argued that there is no plausible answer to the shift in tectonic plates that has cracked the foundations of Labour support in its old heartlands. The party’s best hope, then, is to wait for the Tories to fall apart and hope to pick up the pieces.
It is true that the new coalition of Conservative voters is an unstable marriage of their traditional support in affluent shires and suburbs with erstwhile Labour voters in more northerly towns. It is currently, but not necessarily permanently, glued together by attitudes towards Brexit and issues of identity. Tories who jabber about being guaranteed another decade in power sound intoxicated with hubris. In so much as the Johnson government has an organising idea, it is “levelling up”, a slogan in search of a coherent suite of policies. It is extremely moot whether the Tories’ historic supporters in the wealthier parts of England, and the MPs who represent them, are genuinely prepared to tolerate the substantial transfer of resources necessary to deliver on Conservative promises to regenerate the less advantaged areas of the north and Midlands.
Voter coalitions are not immutable. It is highly likely that the Tory electoral coalition will eventually disintegrate under the weight of its own contradictions. Yet that’s no guarantee that Labour’s lost voters will then collapse back into its arms. The party has spent the past 11 years waiting for the electorate to “wake up” to how awful the Tories are. In that time, the Conservatives have been the authors of severe austerity and claimed to be the champions of the “just about managing”, before adopting their current pose as big spenders who love the north. They have been led by a pro-Remain prime minister and by a pro-Brexit one, separated by an anarchic interlude under Theresa May. They have been social progressives under one Old Etonian before tilting to cultural conservatism under another, the libertine Mr Johnson. Just when Labour thinks it has a handle on them, the Tories shape-shift into something else. Simply waiting for the latest iteration of the Conservative party to implode might reward Labour, but you’d be a fool to bet on it after the evidence of the last decade.
So another school of thought suggests that Labour must swallow hard, accept the world has changed and seek to make the best of new circumstances. This would mean reconciling itself to no longer being a working-class party that can automatically count on the allegiance of places such as Hartlepool. It would focus on mobilising its new core vote centred on younger, more socially liberal voters with degree-level educations who wanted to stay in the EU and are most heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas. A substantial segment of the Tory voting coalition is made up of retired people who didn’t go to university. By biological definition, they will shuffle off this mortal coil before the more youthful professionals who lean to Labour.
Thanks to the major expansion of higher education that began under Mr Blair, graduates will become an ever-increasing proportion of the population and a significant factor in a rising number of constituencies. This holds out the prospect that Labour could eventually smash into the blue wall in southern England in the same way that the Tories are eating up Labour’s red wall in the north. There was some encouragement for this notion in the recent elections. Labour won the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough metro mayoralty and also the West of England mayoralty, which encompasses Bristol and Bath. The party also made gains in council contests in Kent, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey and Sussex. This adds some credibility to the idea that changing demographics will ultimately shift the terms of trade against the Tories. But there’s a rub. Ultimately will be a long time coming. Ultimately won’t arrive soon enough to save Sir Keir’s leadership or spare Labour at least one more general election defeat.
The other problem with this strategy is that Labour is not the only party fishing for anti-Tory voters. The Conservatives have restored their monopoly on the right since the evaporation of the Brexit party, while the left of the spectrum is fragmented between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. From this follows the argument that Sir Keir ought to fashion some kind of “progressive alliance” around a commitment to proportional representation. Electoral reform always becomes more fashionable within the party – the same thing happened in the 1980s – when Labour finds itself contemplating a very long stretch in opposition. When the party finally returns to government, it forgets to do anything until it is too late to prevent the Tories from exploiting first past the post to secure another extended period in power.
Even were the Lib Dems, the Greens and Labour’s membership biddable to the idea of a progressive alliance, they would still have to win under the current system, which the Tories plan to weight more heavily in their favour. Formal electoral pacts are hugely difficult to negotiate, one reason they are not often attempted. Informal pacts have a better record. In the run-up to the landslide defeat of the Tories at the 1997 election, Labour and the Lib Dems laid off each other and concentrated their energies in the constituencies where they had the best chances of unseating a Tory. Tactical voting did the rest. This worked because the tide was already running strongly against the Conservatives, incentivising their opponents to target the Tories rather than cannibalise each other. The circumstances in which a progressive alliance might make a tangible difference are the circumstances in which Labour is looking like a winner anyway. Which obviously isn’t the case today.
There is no plausible path back to power for Labour that does not involve succeeding in the electoral system as it is by gaining support from diverse groups of voters from around the compass. On the all too rare occasions when it has achieved office in the past, it has done so by attracting people who live in big cities and in small towns, in the north and the south and the Midlands. Labour won’t resolve its dilemmas by treating it as a choice between appealing to young “woke warriors” in the metropolises and xenophobic retirees in northern towns. Most people are neither.
Voters in Hartlepool, Harlow and Haringey are not so starkly different as they are sometimes depicted by political scientists seeking to separate us into warring tribes. Most people in most places want similar things: decent life chances for themselves and their children, reliable public services, a nice place to call home, a sense that opportunities and rewards are distributed fairly and that the communities, country and planet in which they live have a promising future.
It should not be impossible for the Labour party to locate a winning electoral coalition. First, though, it needs to start acting as if it is interested in finding one.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer