Labour’s Self-Flagellation Tour

The Labour leadership's 'listening tour' will do little to rebuild relationships with postindustrial communities – but it will provide plenty of opportunities to repeat right-wing attacks on the party's progressive base.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer in Blackpool, July 2021. Credit: Anthony Devlin / Getty Images

Despite some valiant efforts to challenge the dominant media narrative, political discussion in Britain is still preoccupied with the ‘Red Wall’: what it is, where it is, and how Labour might win it back. To that end, Keir Starmer is set to don the hairshirt and embark on a self-flagellation roadshow this summer, trooping dutifully around the country and nodding solemnly along while people line up to tell him how crap his party is. Whether or not this performance will really win the respect of sceptical voters is, of course, open to question.

The trouble with these so-called listening exercises is that they’re generally shams. Right-wing Labour politicians make a media spectacle out of ‘listening’ to voters after losing general elections; something which, admittedly, the party has had much experience of over the last decade. This is especially the case now, after Labour committed the cardinal sin of offering voters a left-wing alternative at the last two elections. But the views that are going to be listened to have already been decided in advance, and conflicting ones are unlikely to register with the Labour leadership.

So, the views Starmer will be seeking out are those which give him licence to do what he wants to do anyway. A cynic would suggest that this summer tour of his is less about winning voters back to Labour, and more about manufacturing some consent for changes to the party rule book ahead of this year’s party conference, giving the impression—despite his earlier promises of party unity—that voters are simply demanding he take the rod to a supposedly recalcitrant Labour left. With a raft of purges already in the offing, an attempt to bring back the electoral college for leadership elections is also being rumoured.

A recent focus group organised in Blackpool for BBC News neatly encapsulates many of the problems with this kind of ‘listening’, however. The group was comprised of ex-Labour voters, but only in the very loosest and most generous sense: one participant couldn’t even remember the last time she voted Labour, one last did so under Gordon Brown in 2010, while another hadn’t voted Labour since 1997, almost a quarter of a century ago – and then, it appears, subsequently stood as a Tory council candidate.

Unsurprisingly, the general tenor of the discussion was that Labour needed to be more right-wing to win over voters such as these. Starmer chuckled along and offered only the most tepid pushback as the panellists laid into his party and those demographics which still have some sympathy towards it: for instance, he was informed that jobless under-25s—who’ve sacrificed 18 months of the prime of their lives to look out for the more vulnerable, bearing the brunt of Covid job losses in the process—were basically just swinging the lead.

There was no attempt to interrogate why so many people hold views which are so clearly at odds with concrete realities, let alone to challenge them in any substantive way. Nor was there any real effort to emphasise common interests among different sections of the working class. Blackpool is a deprived town with some major problems, but the BBC focus group demonstrated just how far any sense of solidarity has been eroded, and how successful the Tories have been at turning disadvantaged groups against each other.

Nonetheless, Starmer’s efforts to ‘reconnect’ with the ‘Red Wall’ will be assisted by a new group dubbing itself Renaissance. Backed by a slew of figures on the Labour right, among them Stephen Kinnock, Yvette Cooper, and Ruth Smeeth, Renaissance says it’ll concentrate its efforts on more than 100 Labour target seats outside major cities, restoring Labour as ‘the natural home for working families’. To do this, it is advising the party to sidestep the culture wars—something which is surely much easier said than done—and instead focus relentlessly on employment and job security.

The group is backed by Vaqas Farooq, coyly billed by The Guardian as a ‘north-east lawyer’ but who is in fact a real estate partner at Manchester-based law firm Shoosmiths, credited with ‘pioneering a number of innovative approaches in the Build to Rent sector’ and advising councils on unspecified ‘regeneration projects’. Farooq also donated to Lisa Nandy’s campaign for the Labour leadership last year. Ruth Smeeth, deposed as MP for Stoke North in 2019, was a lobbyist for Sodexo and alleged union-buster Nestlé before entering politics, while Stephen Kinnock, of course, is a veritable red prince, as the son of Neil and Glenys.

Readers will judge for themselves how far such characters as these share their own political, professional, and class interests. But Renaissance has already—deep joy—organised its own focus groups, with a full report to follow in due course. The findings of these focus groups so far are rather ominous, and again generally in keeping with what the Labour right wants to be told. In particular, we’re informed, voters still find it difficult to trust Labour with public spending, and so ‘sound and sensible management of the public finances’ and ‘demonstrating value for money for the taxpayer’ must be key priorities.

While Labour and the Tories are evidently playing by different rules, this is difficult to swallow considering that the latter totally tore up their own fiscal rulebook in responding to the pandemic. They were forced to take unprecedented measures—most obviously, the furlough scheme—while handing out billions of pounds’ worth of contracts with minimal scrutiny. The Tories are also talking big about ‘levelling up’ neglected ex-industrial areas; this is unlikely to translate into any lasting renewal, but the prospect of pork-barrel investment will be tempting for some who’ve watched their towns being left to go to rack and ruin.

Labour’s failure to challenge the logic of austerity after 2010, merely mewling about cuts going ‘too far, too fast’, was undoubtedly a strategic disaster. That didn’t stop Labour coming close to a breakthrough under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, which saw the biggest swing to Labour at a general election since 1945. But so soon after the Tories were forced to take drastic measures to protect British capitalism, the newfound timidity of their opposition under Starmer has seen Labour begin to revert once more to the tepid pre-Corbyn mean.

Rather than abasing themselves before focus groups, both Starmer and his allies in Renaissance would do better to pick up a copy of The Shadow of the Mine, Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson’s recent book documenting the rise and fall of the mining industry—and with it, the labour movement—in the former coalfields of County Durham and South Wales. As Beynon and Hudson make clear, the succession of defeats inflicted on the trade unions over the last four decades has brought about the gradual fragmentation of old loyalties.

The institutions, from trade union lodges to Labour clubs, that once bound these communities to the labour movement and put that movement at the centre of working-class life have all but died, battered first by the initial onslaught of Thatcherism and then left to wither by New Labour. Indeed, while these old coal mining communities did their duty and helped end 18 years of Tory government back in 1997, the subsequent New Labour experience served, as Tony Benn observed, to melt away much of the party’s base.

While public sector investment and job creation in these areas were increased under Blair and Brown, even this was conditional on the continued marketisation and privatisation of public services; a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, in Blair’s nauseating phrase. Other jobs created as replacements for those lost were largely low-paid and precarious: call centre work, services and hospitality, and social care. What was left behind was, inevitably, a deep feeling of loss, curdling into resentment, in the old coalfields.

This is why Labour’s rhetoric about ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ falls short. Coal was a dirty, dangerous, and environmentally destructive industry, but it did provide both security and, moreover, a sense of dignity and worth. Renaissance’s focus on job security is at least an advance on New Labour, whose giddy embrace of neoliberal globalisation meant that it was completely indifferent to it, but purpose matters as well. Yet for millions of workers in Britain today, work is little more than drudgery and anxiety; no particular dignity of labour on offer here.

Nostalgia for old industries isn’t necessarily about the jobs themselves. It would be difficult, presumably, to be truly nostalgic for the daily threats to life and limb that came with working down the pits, or the boredom of the factory line. Perhaps more important were the working-class institutions that sprung up around those industries, and which—whatever their faults—helped to sustain genuine fellow-feeling and community. Since the destruction of that ‘world of labour’, as Ralph Miliband called it, the rot of alienation and atomisation has come to run very deep in the old industrial heartlands, making them fertile territory for the right.

There’s much we can do to revalue jobs, including rewarding them much more appropriately, and—importantly—imbuing them with far greater social worth than at present. For instance, social care work will be crucial in helping us manage the challenges of an ageing population, but at present the sector is notorious for its appalling pay and gruelling working conditions. Although frontline NHS staff are lionised for the work they’ve done during the pandemic, the government appears to be rewarding them, after years of pay freezes, with a wage increase that only just tops the rate of inflation.

But we can’t overlook the need to build new working-class institutions, fit for the twenty-first century, to sustain solidarity and equip working people for the struggles ahead. Under Corbyn, Labour did make some efforts in this direction, namely by setting up a community organising unit. Starmer scrapped it because his factional allies weren’t running it. No doubt fair criticisms could be made of the COU, but it was only given three years to establish itself. To leave a total void in its place, as Starmer has, can only be utterly self-defeating.

The breakup of Labour’s popular base is already very far advanced, and Starmer appears to have little empathy for those groups—young people, renters, minorities—who still evince some enthusiasm for his party. But if there is to be a real ‘renaissance’ of the labour movement, it won’t be done by MPs wringing their hands in front of focus groups assembled to tell them what they want to hear. It will require real commitment to rebuilding the movement from the bottom up, empowering workers to take greater control over their lives – not by condescending to them. Tragically, this commitment is not much in evidence.