So there we have it. It turns out that the British working-class was not, in the end, willing to throw its weight behind a London-centric, youth-obsessed, middle-class party that preached the gospels of liberal cosmopolitanism and class war. Who’d have thought it?
Well, me for a start. And plenty of others who had been loyal to the party over many years and desperately wanted to see a Labour government, only to be dismissed as ‘reactionaries’ who held a ‘nostalgic’ view of the working-class.
It barely needs saying that these election results are an utter catastrophe for Labour. For the party to have failed to dislodge the Tories after nearly a decade of austerity and three years of political chaos is bad enough. But for the so-called Red Wall to have crumbled so spectacularly underlines the sheer scale of the failure. Bolsover, Blyth Valley, Leigh, Redcar, Don Valley, Sedgefield, Burnley, Great Grimsby, Wrexham — just a few of the long-time Labour strongholds in traditional working-class areas which have fallen to the Tories.
Labour’s meltdown in these places will come as no surprise to anyone who was paying attention and wasn’t blinded by ideology or fanaticism. Some of us had long warned that working-class voters across post-industrial and small-town Britain were becoming increasingly alienated from the party. But we were banging our heads against a brick wall. When many in the party were bathing in the afterglow of the 2017 general election, we tried to remind them that not only had Labour, in fact, lost that election, there had been a swing to the Tories in many of the party’s heartland seats.
We sounded the alarm bells again earlier this year when, in the local and European elections, Labour haemorrhaged support in several working-class communities across the north and Midlands.
But the woke liberals and Toytown revolutionaries who now dominate the party didn’t listen to us. They truly thought that ‘one more heave’ would bring victory. They believed that constantly hammering on about economic inequality would be enough to get Labour over the line. In doing so, they made a major miscalculation: they failed to grasp that working-class voters desire something more than just economic security; they want cultural security too.
They want politicians to respect their way of life, and their sense of place and belonging; to elevate real-world concepts such as work, family and community over nebulous constructs like ‘diversity’, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusivity’. By immersing itself in the destructive creed of identity politics and championing policies such as open borders, Labour placed itself on a completely different wavelength to millions across provincial Britain without whose support it simply could not win power. In the end, Labour was losing a cultural war that it didn’t even realise it was fighting.
The easy response in the wake of this calamity would be to pin the blame on Corbyn. But that would be a mistake. It’s certainly true that Corbyn was unpopular on the doorstep, but Labour’s estrangement from its core vote predates his leadership. Long before Corbyn took over, the party had started to prioritise the agenda of the urban, liberal middle-class over that of its old working-class heartlands. As it did so, support from the latter began to ebb slowly away.
Brexit provided an opportunity for the party to reconnect with its traditional base, to show working-class voters that it understood their priorities and was on their side. But it flunked the test, choosing to indulge its own membership rather than appeal to those whose votes it needed. Its decision to support a second referendum spelled electoral suicide. There could be no greater signal to the disaffected millions in the party’s old heartlands that it did not represent them or respect their democratic wishes. From that moment, the writing was on the wall.
So where now? If Labour is to again be the party of the working-class — and there must now be serious doubts that it ever will — it must undergo radical surgery. It must somehow rediscover the spirit of the early Labour tradition that spoke to workers’ patriotic and communitarian instincts, and offered them a natural home. It must exploit that sweet spot in British politics that marries demands for economic justice with those for cultural stability. It must move heaven and earth to reconnect with voters in Britain’s hard-pressed post-industrial and coastal towns who looked on bewildered as their communities were subjected to intense economic and cultural change, and felt that Labour was indifferent to their plight. It must rekindle a politics of belonging built around shared values and common cultural bonds. And, crucially, it must be unremittingly post-liberal in perspective and policy development.
But, to achieve any of that, Labour must stop treating the traditional working-class as though they were some kind of embarrassing elderly relative. It must learn to respect those who, for example, voted for Brexit, oppose large-scale immigration, want to see a tough and effective justice system, feel proud to be British, support the reassertion of the role of the family at the centre of society, prefer a welfare system to be based around reciprocity – something for something – rather than universal entitlement, believe in the nation state, and do not obsess about multiculturalism or trans rights.
Such people were once welcomed by the Labour party and felt entirely comfortable voting for it; but now so many of the party’s activists look upon these voters as if they were a different species altogether. And the price has been paid in millions of lost votes.
There is a danger that some in the party will see the calamitous events of this election as some kind of mandate to return to Blairism. They could not be more wrong. It was the Blairite embrace of globalisation and liberal cosmopolitanism, with all their destructive consequences for working-class communities, that did so much to damage to the relationship between the party and its traditional base. And, as we saw with the abject failure of Change UK, very few in our country want a return to that kind of politics.
Cliché though it is, Labour stands today at a crossroads. Those whose strategy has led to the most ignominious defeat for the party since the 1930s can choose either to plough on in the delusional belief that working-class voters really would support their philosophy if only they could be shaken from their false consciousness, or instead engage in an honest and frank debate about why things went so disastrously wrong and what it might take to put them right.
We are witnessing the beginnings of a fundamental realignment in British politics. The old tribalisms are crashing down around us. How Labour responds to this will determine whether it remains a serious political force or is instead destined to become a party of permanent protest.