One of the myths of British politics is the two-party system. The last 40 years have mostly seen not two closely matched rivals but one obvious party of power and one beleaguered opposition with pundits offering obsequies over its corpse.
In 1992 it was common to wonder if Labour could ever win again. By 2000 one observer had written The Strange Death of Tory England. In Westminster (and Scotland too) lengthy alternating hegemonies are the norm. Even in recently hung parliaments, the Tories had over 50 seats more than their rival. Even so, with the next election possibly two years away, Labour is now facing five successive defeats.
After a series of disappointing results, the last rites are again being read over Labour and also its leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose botching of an ensuing reshuffle left him looking both inept and weak. The arguments are well rehearsed. While the decline of organised labour has undermined left parties across Europe, Boris Johnson has built a new coalition on the foundations of the Brexit divide, marrying comfortable suburbs and county and northern working-class towns. He holds the political centre ground with an agenda of an active state and cultural conservatism. Labour in England is a party of the big cities and college-educated middle-classes with an unhelpful set of progressive prejudices.
The malaise has seen Starmer attacked both by the hard left arguing for a return to socialism and the Blairites calling for more muscular centrism.
On Wednesday, Tony Blair himself wrote a long essay on his party’s malaise lamenting Labour’s failure to be both “radical and serious”. His clarity highlighted a hard fact. After 10 years in opposition, Labour’s true problem remains a crisis of leadership, and Starmer is no Blair.
For all the left’s fatalism, it is worth remembering the falling Tory popularity before the vaccine rollout. Delivery still counts far more than tactics. And while Johnson’s strategy is working well, Tories admit that he faces headwinds from the aftershocks of the pandemic.
But Labour still has to look like a credible alternative when and if the Tory promises fail to materialise. And while the demographic issues are a challenge, it is falling short in three key areas: a hopeful economic vision; the sense that it shares the values of the voters it needs; and, most pressing, strong leadership.
The only viable route to power is reclaiming or reshaping the centre ground, and for all the declinist talk, there is no reason why the right leader cannot rebuild a coalition of both progressive middle-class voters and the aspirational working class.
For Labour’s lost northern “red wall” voters are not some new anthropological grouping. They want the same things as other voters: a sense of hope, a decent job, a home in a town in which they can feel pride and where their children might live, good transport and decent public services. They do not want to be sentimentalised or fed a diet of pity policies. Where voters are responding to the Tories, as they have to the Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, it is because they see them getting things done.
This interventionism has stolen many of Labour’s best lines but does mean it no longer needs to make the case for an active state. But on economic strategy or the challenges of the future, Labour has no story to tell.
But it must first win the attention of voters who pay little heed to oppositions. And here Blair sees the “culture wars” as a chance to show leadership and tick the “shares our values” box with lost voters. Starmer has ducked the issue, sensing a trap but, says Blair, this means the left’s message is defined by opponents and the most hardline “woke warriors”.
Labour, he writes, must be “intolerant of intolerance”, and against those who would topple statues, defund the police, deride the flag or cancel people with conflicting views. “People like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice.” It is a classic Blair line — much like his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan which first aligned the party with voters’ instincts before pursuing a progressive path. Leaning into this fight will help Starmer show Labour has changed and help get him a hearing on other issues.
One does not have to wish for a rerun of Blair’s 1990s agenda to see his broader point. Leaders turn weaknesses into strengths. They do not duck hard fights as Starmer has done on unpopular issues like Brexit. Even in difficult areas, silence is worse than conviction.
Blair had the advantage of becoming leader when Labour was in the ascendant and so had the political capital to drive change. But leaders make their luck. While Blair fought to change his party, Starmer stood as a unity candidate. What was conviction for Blair looks like tactics for him. Voters sense timidity and wonder if it is political weakness, inexperience or a lack of belief in the changing of his party.
Some frustrated Labour moderates have given up hoping Starmer can emulate Blair and wonder if he can even match Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader who began the party’s march back to electability though he fell short himself. “Can you imagine Keir giving Neil’s 1985 speech turning on Militant?” asks one. “I can’t.”
The scale of the challenge has always militated against victory at the next election. Labour is not even moving forwards. There is no demographic dialectic that says Labour is doomed, but there is no right to thrive either. Any route back requires courageous, confident leadership that Starmer is simply not showing. He will be more convincing to voters if he looks like he has convinced himself.