Defend Truth


Labour Party has a mountain to climb


Lord Peter Hain is a former British Cabinet Minister and anti-apartheid campaigner whose memoir, ‘A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, is published by Jonathan Ball.

In common with parties of the parliamentary left across Western Europe, the link between Labour and our working-class base has been dissolving under our feet.

Last year, it was Turkeys-for-Christmas behaviour by the Labour and Liberal leaderships to give Boris Johnson the election he wanted on the Brexit agenda he wanted at the time he wanted.

Some of us warned privately and publicly against that fateful move, but were ignored: both party leaders had the delusional belief they could be prime minister. The entirely predictable outcome? Labour has to climb a mighty mountain to win the next British general election: Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy for his successor, due to be announced on 4 April.

The party’s defeat in December was prodigious. Labour’s 32% share of the poll was one of its lowest ever, with 203 MPs the lowest since 1935 when the party was still badly weakened after its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, led a break-away into a national government. 

There is now just one Scottish Labour MP where there were habitually around 50, and there were massive losses to the Tories in our generational stronghold of Wales, where in 1997 the Conservative Party lost all its seats. 

Across the whole of the south of England, Labour has just six seats outside London and Bristol. We also suffered huge losses across the north and the Midlands. 

By the 2019 election Labour’s voting base had become overwhelming metropolitan-city, middle class, young, multi-ethnic and post-school educated. We are nowhere in towns we once dominated and we are nowhere in rural areas. Altogether we are trailing badly in the majority of the UK.

One December 2019 polling-day survey put Labour’s core vote at around a measly 20%.

As Lisa Nandy, one of the three Labour leader contenders, has eloquently reminded us, Labour lost working-class seats never lost before, symbolised by veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner’s defeat in Bolsover, which astonishingly now has a Tory MP. 

We hung on in Neath, the former coal-mining and manufacturing constituency I represented for a quarter of a century and where I still live. But that was more out of inter-generational loyalty than any strong allegiance. My majority in 1997 was 27,000; my successor’s last December 6,000, and in a predominantly working-class so-called-Labour stronghold the Tory vote surged. 

In common with parties of the parliamentary left across Western Europe, the link between Labour and our working-class base has been dissolving under our feet. I could feel it happening over the years since I first won Neath in 1991. The umbilical cord through trade unions and community clubs to Labour voters has been severed in similar former Labour strongholds right across the country. 

With deindustrialisation, trade union membership has dwindled away in such working-class communities, and clubs and pubs have closed by the thousand. The solidarity and community reflecting Labour’s values in all these institutions has faded away and been further undermined by neoliberal job insecurity and exploitation, leaving migrants as convenient scapegoats.

To form the next government, the party needs to do something never achieved since the Attlee 1945 landslide – win an extra 124 seats.

That doesn’t mean we can’t win, still less that Labour is finished. We have won general elections before after historic defeats. But it took 18 years to do so before 1997; 13 years before 1964; and a world war on top of a Tory decade before 1945. 

On each of those three occasions Labour’s working-class base was still solid, if changing, and, crucially, we had visionary popular leadership.

That is offered by just one of the three Labour leadership contenders: Lisa Nandy. Corbyn protégée Rebecca Long-Bailey offers more of the same, albeit without his pedigree. Front runner Keir Starmer has the gravitas and ability but has still to acknowledge the sheer scale of the defeat because to do so might offend supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in whose top team he served.  

Lisa Nandy has been winning the Party hustings, winning support wherever members hear her in person, and outclassing her rivals in tough TV or radio interviews.

Although pollsters put her in third place, hundreds of thousands of party members and trade unionists haven’t voted yet.

In my view, they have to decide whether they’re just as serious as she is about winning next time. Beginning with acknowledging that mighty mountain to climb, not pretending it isn’t there, or can be skirted around. DM


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