Thursday, 13 May 2021

English Labour

Having picked at the scabs of my own party on Monday, I cannot resist joinng in the post mortem on Labour's performance in England. In my estimation,  Jonathan Calder rather than Peter Black has Hartlepool right. A metropolitan Labour apparatus decided that they knew better than the local party who should represent them. It is a process which began in the 1990s after Tony Blair used personal networking to get selected for the then-safe seat of Sedgefield. (It has to be said that Blair had more connection with Co. Durham than some other planted MPs.) Chris Mullin (born in Chelmsford) followed in 1987 and then Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool in1992. The faithful accepted the situation while Labour was winning nationally, but after 2010 they could no longer stomach being taken for granted.

There were warnings from history. The people of Leyton resented Patrick Gordon Walker being planted on them in 1965, their popular MP having been persuaded to resign to make way for Wilson's favourite for Foreign Secretary. Gordon Walker had been ousted in a racist campaign in Smethwick. More recently, Peter Law was deselected in Blaenau Gwent so that a favoured Labour daughter could take a seat in Cardiff Bay. Not only did Law win his seat as an independent in the Welsh general election of 2005, but his widow also retained the seat for the remainder of a second term after his death.

This mistake of selection was made against a background of loss of identity by the Labour party. Jeremy Corbyn was a divisive figure, but at least people knew what he stood for. Sir Keir Starmer may be a safe pair of hands, but he has yet to come across as a personality in his own right. The criticism of Keir Starmer's personality, that it is that of a colourless lawyer, is the same as that which used to attach to former First Minister Carwyn Jones. The only distinguishing feature so far of Sir Keir's custody of the Labour party is his ruthlessness in removing links, organisational or personal, with Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, together with sniffing out any hint of anti-Semitism with the zeal of a witchfinder-general. This is not going to inspire confidence in members, even those who are far from Corbyn supporters.

No more can Labour count on the strength of manual trade unions in post-industrial Britain, nor loyalty to the labour movement on the part of the members of the unions that remain.

I am reminded of those televisual hymns to north-east Labour, the series When the Boat Comes in and Our Friends in the North. The former opens, as I recall, with a scene emblematic of a party losing touch with what should have been its natural constituency. An open-air speech by a Liberal MP seeking re-election is derided by the young hero and heroine of the series. "Pompous wind-bag" is a phrase that comes to mind. 

Carwyn Jones on Sunday Supplement said that early on he and (the late and much-missed) Rhodri Morgan consciously determined to be unapologetic about being Welsh in their campaigns for the Welsh Assembly, now Senedd. 

Keir Starmer has been advised to look to Wales for ideas to recover his party's fortunes in England. Better perhaps would be to see what has happened in an English region, Merseyside. There are no Conservative councillors in Liverpool (or Birkenhead on the other side of the river, for that matter). There is a strong Liverpool Labour identity, in spite of the divisions caused by Militant and the current charges hanging over former mayor Joe Anderson. Michael Heseltine's efforts in the 1980s, well-meant in my opinion, but seen as pork-barrel politics by others, had no effect on the party map in Liverpool. What did help collect Liverpool together in an anti-Conservative laager was the ill-informed attack after Hillsborough on Liverpool fans by Margaret Thatcher and clearly Tory-inclined police chief relayed gleefully by Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper. A later attack on whingeing Scousers by Boris Johnson has cemented Liverpool's anti-Tory identity. 

An appeal to aspiration which worked for Tony Blair in 1997 is no longer good enough for electoral success. The way forward for Labour may be to create a series of identities, based on locality (which will mean trusting local constituency branches more) or common interest, interlocking under a shared ambit of democratic socialism. Sir Keir must divert the attacks in the media on himself personally to attacks on the party. Labour must not let itself plunge further down a death spiral. These suggestions may be impractical, but something must be done. The political scene in Britain needs a respectable viable outlet for socialist views just as it would be incomplete without a liberal party.

No comments: