I really think we need to challenge the prevailing narrative that it was Labour’s position on Brexit that caused it to lose the “red wall”. Unfortunately, this seems to be the prevailing view in the Labour Party (and I’ve also heard it from Socialist Workers Party members).
The real reasons for Labour’s electoral disaster are, in reality, far more complex than this simplistic explanation, and go back many years before Brexit became a political issue. Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in the “red wall” areas a long time, and the Brexit issue was only the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.
Let’s just look at my own area, Stoke-on-Trent. At one point in the 1980s, every single councillor in every ward was Labour. Occasionally, a Tory might break through, but this was usually only as a protest vote over a particular local issue. This all changed, however.
Labour was seen as the political establishment, and so began to be blamed as Stoke-on-Trent started to descend into permanent decline. Now, we can argue that Stoke’s problems grew out of Thatcher’s deindustrialisation and central government’s increasing propensity to starve the industrial cities of money and investment, and instead throw cash at the leafy South, but the electorate of Stoke didn’t see it like that. They saw that Labour, as the party in power, was doing nothing to arrest the decline, but, instead, throwing what little money they had at useless vanity projects.
Furthermore, they began to buy into the narrative that immigrants were the problem, and that Labour was “soft” on immigration.
In the early years of the 21st century, exploiting and promoting this anti-immigrant narrative, the fascist British National Party became ascendant in Stoke-on-Trent. After nearly winning the first Elected Mayor election, and then winning more seats on the council than anywhere else outside London, BNP leader described Stoke-on-Trent as the “jewel in the BNP’s crown”. When the BNP’s bubble finally burst ten years ago, following a sustained campaign by [the local anti-fascist campaign] NorSCARF, many ex-Labour voters who had given their allegiance to the BNP switched not back to Labour, but to the Tories.
By 2015, the Tories had taken effective control of the City Council, and it was only a matter of time before the local Labour MPs would lose their parliamentary seats to the Tories.
Contrast this with Portsmouth South. When I lived in Portsmouth, this was a safe Tory seat. Labour took Portsmouth South for the first time in 2017, and retained it in the 2019 general election. Unlike Stoke-on-Trent, with its ageing population, Portsmouth has a much younger demographic, a demographic that is drawn to voting Labour. These young people are for the most part in insecure, non-unionised jobs, often in the gig economy, with no hope of ever getting on the housing ladder. These are the Labour voters of the future.
But what is Keir Starmer doing? Instead of pitching Labour’s message to the young people who are actually open to voting Labour, he is trying to chase the ageing working class votes in the “red wall” which are largely lost to Labour. To do so, he has embraced the rotten Tory Brexit deal, ditched Labour’s commitment to free movement (thereby, in effect, taking an anti-immigration stance) and endorsed the Tories’ increase in defence spending.
However, trying to win back Tory voters by adopting Tory policies is a forlorn hope. People who are pro-Brexit and anti-immigration will trust the Tories to deliver those policies rather than Labour, which is why they voted Tory in the first place.
Let’s be realistic. In the 2023 local elections in Stoke, Labour may claw back a few seats, but they won’t win back control from the Tories. In the 2024 general election, one or two local constituencies may be regained by Labour, but most Staffordshire MPs will still be Tories.
Of course, we should still fight for and rejoice in these victories. But the “red wall” areas like Stoke-on-Trent are no longer the main battleground for Labour.
The problem is that Keir Starmer is still fighting the 2019 general election. That’s gone. He should be looking forward to the 2024 general election, and engage with the younger people who have the potential to win the election for Labour — especially those in the big cities around the country, north and south.
What Starmer’s Labour lacks at the moment is any kind of vision. Whatever you may think of Jeremy Corbyn — and he undoubtedly made some fatal mistakes — he did offer a vision of a radical transformation of society which struck a chord with the younger electorate.
Being safe but dull, and “forensically” pointing out Tory failures at Prime Ministers’ Questions is not enough. If Labour doesn’t have that vision, then it won’t win the next general election.