politics

To reforge its bond with working people, Labour should learn from Joe Biden | Jonathan Freedland


A realignment is under way in British politics, and it is killing Labour. The Tories’ crushing win in Hartlepool, along with gains in English council seats that were once painted deepest red, is proof that Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory was no one-off, no aberration. Put simply, working people in towns across England that once saw voting Labour as a defining part of their identity are now voting Conservative – and they are doing so in big numbers.

An overused word, but the threat to Labour is existential. It cannot win and therefore cannot survive as a potential party of government by relying solely on those who are young, live in a city, have a university degree or are from an ethnic minority: there are just not enough of them. Labour needs the votes of the many millions of others still broadly defined as working class. The clue is in the party’s name. And yet look at Labour’s membership: 77% of them in social category ABC1, concentrated heavily in London and the south. One Labour MP says candidly: “There is a canyon between us and the working class.”

There is no shortage of diagnosis for the defeat in Hartlepool. Plenty credit the “vaccine bounce”, arguing with some merit that the pandemic has frozen politics. One pollster who conducted a focus group of ex-Labour voters in the north-west this week summarises the mood this way: “It’s like when your boiler breaks down. You don’t want an argument over who’s to blame, you just want it fixed.” Johnson gets credit for sorting out jabs; and, for now, no one is listening to Keir Starmer.

Other explanations break along factional lines. The Corbynites say Labour is paying the price for abandoning a programme that was popular, noting that the party held Hartlepool in 2017 and 2019. Witness Richard Burgon’s insistence that Labour’s recent manifestos were “backed by a large majority of voters”, the former shadow minister apparently unaware of the outcome of the last two general elections. Meanwhile, the anti-Corbynites blame “long Corbyn”, claiming that the loathing of the ex-leader that they encountered in 2019 – and which Lord Ashcroft’s post-election survey found to be the number one reason for Labour voters switching to the Tories – lives on.

Both analyses miss the longer, deeper shifts at work. Brexit may only have come up rarely on the doorstep in recent weeks, but it marks the turning point in this story. Hard though it may be for remainers such as me to accept, leavers have a point when they say that Labour did better in 2017 partly because the party appeared to be reconciled to the referendum result and worse in 2019 when the promise of a second vote threatened to overturn it.

Just as voting yes to independence in 2014 broke the taboo on defying Labour for many voters in Scotland, allowing them to back the SNP a year later, so Brexit smashed that same psychological barrier for traditional Labour voters in England, acting as the gateway to supporting the Tories for the first time. In the Brexit case, the break was even more profound. Labour was not just at odds with many of its core voters in 2016: it pointedly failed to heed their wishes in the years that followed. That is a rupture that takes more than 18 months to heal.

But Brexit itself was more symptom than cause, a symptom of the culture gap between Labour and the people it once reflexively represented, a gap that has been growing wider for years. Put aside the specific question of leaving the EU. If Labour now stands for what can be easily caricatured as remain values (urban and “woke”) while the Tories represent supposedly leave values (traditional and patriotic), that spells electoral disaster. There are far more leave-minded seats than remain ones. What’s more, while the Conservatives have the leave brand all to themselves, Labour has to fight for the smaller remain franchise against the Liberal Democrats, Greens and the nationalist parties.

Labour could keep litigating these arguments with itself for years, if not decades, to come. But soon it will have to move from diagnosis to remedy. How can Labour hope to reforge the bond with working people that it took for granted for so long?

A first move is to avoid walking into the culture-war traps Johnson and his allies are so eager to set. Starmer has tried hard to do that, but it will keep happening just so long as there is empty ground where Labour’s vision should be. A clue to that vision might just lie across the Atlantic.

The Labour MP Jon Cruddas says his party should be looking at Joe Biden, who has proved able to bridge the divide between the young, urban left and the traditional Democratic base by focusing on work. Biden casts every measure, including on the climate crisis, in terms of creating millions of well-paid, unionised jobs – and that’s a message both kinds of Democrat can get behind.

True, it has been easier for Biden to connect with working people than for Starmer: the president’s roots, his story and his manner lend him an authenticity not easily replicated. And he was up against a genuine monster in Donald Trump. Johnson is a tougher opponent, governing as a social democrat in a blue rosette, willing to tax and spend big – “a Brexity Hezza,” he called himself – and not in denial about Covid. But if Starmer were to adopt Bidenomics on jobs, “the Tories would never be able to go there,” says Cruddas: ultimately their Thatcherite creed would hold them back. Labour would have that fertile ground all to itself.

Who knows if that is the right answer, but it is surely asking the right question. There will always need to be an alternative to the Tories, but there is no law that says that alternative has to be Labour – or indeed from the left rather than the nationalist, populist right. If Labour keeps losing, the disaster will not be for the party alone – but for the country.





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