It is hard to think of my former Labour heartland constituency being represented by a Tory farmer from Yorkshire who, before visiting the town, seemed to think it was somewhere like Leeds. But Labour had it coming. The defeat follows a decade of abject political failure in which the party has disrespected its bedrock supporters and now has to build back very differently or lose them completely.
Voters in northern England have felt disconnected from Labour ever since we left government in 2010. That’s why we lost in 2015, 2017 and 2019. As we accelerated towards the fantasies of Jeremy Corbyn, the working class voters who gave New Labour its majorities were mystified by the attempts to airbrush out its achievements in government.
The party figures who are now gunning for Keir Starmer are the people who bequeathed him an entity that had become barely recognisable as a functioning political party — certainly not a competitive one capable of winning a general election. It is extraordinary that Starmer should be blamed for losing a by-election he and his team put everything into but could not possibly turn round with the hand they were dealt.
The question, therefore, for Starmer is how he is going to transform this hand or whether he will face a realignment of British politics that will rob the centre left of power for the foreseeable future.
No doubt when the results of the Super Thursday elections are analysed they will show considerable geographic variation for Labour. But in the Midlands and the North I suspect that a Brexit effect will be detected, with the cultural divides it intensified and the deeper cultural forces and antagonisms it exposed, making it much harder for Labour to win back the working class that was once the core of its vote.
Without gaining back this support and joining it to middle class, graduate and ethnic minority voters in an effective electoral coalition, any plan for Labour victory will fail. Building such a coalition is not easy but it has been key to every landmark Labour government since 1945. There is no other route to power, certainly not in the current electoral system, which demands that each political party has very broad appeal to be competitive.
So where should Labour go next?
The party needs a strong, powerful programme and a message capable of building this coalition of voters, alongside a fresh statement of Labour’s aims and values in the 21st century. The idea that the party, freed from the incubus of Corbyn, can continue to uphold his policies is ludicrous. Starmer needs to wipe the slate clean and address the fresh challenges of the post-Covid, post-Brexit era with boldness and realism. As things stand, we cannot say this is work in progress and it needs to start, urgently.
There must be a bigger argument about reform. The party, including its membership, must accept that listening to the voters rather than prioritising their own agenda has to be the focus in the coming months. A members’ party that is dominated by London and the south east, the university towns and the cities cannot conceivably be a party for the whole nation. Nor can hard left factions seeking to control our largest trade unions have a guaranteed place in its governing counsels.
Fundamentally, Labour needs to bring together the genuine grassroots of the UK’s nations and regions in the way it elects its leader and governs its affairs, and untie itself from those who offer slogans and sentiment as a substitute for hard policy thinking and voter connection. This is reinvention territory rather than mere rebuilding. Without it, no amount of communication shake ups and campaigning prowess will do the job.
Having taken the wrong path after the 2010 defeat, Starmer has clearly begun Labour’s course correction but he wants to change the party without disturbing the coalition he originally created to win the leadership. The problem is that many of his supporters, and many of the fellow travellers who hitched themselves to the party when Corbyn was leader, say they want change while leaving everything the same. This goes to the heart of Starmer’s dilemma. He can have change or he can have unity but not both. If Starmer wants to lead Labour into government, he has little real choice.
The writer is a former EU trade commissioner and UK business secretary