Written 8 May 2021
I’m writing this as the Hartlepool by election result and most council elections are through but before having final results from Scotland and London. Certainly more than enough to keep the opinion columnists busy, and to be honest it’s unlikely I’ll be able to add too much to the huge amounts that will be written over the coming days and weeks let alone the reams over recent years on the realignment in English politics we are seeing.
What we are seeing is the working out through the first past the post system of changes that have been underway for many years. FPTP provides stability of outcomes and significant advantages to incumbent parties, because to have become an incumbent you must have a large block of support. But we are seeing that it has also protected the Labour Party from a long term deterioration in its appeal and support amongst groups it has taken for granted. And when this finally feeds through to results under FPTP we see dramatic results. Like a company going bust, a stock market crashing or a ship holed below the water line sinking, it happens very slowly but then all at once.
I feel rather sorry for Keir Starmer, trying to work out a way forward for what is really a rag tag party of ideological obsessives, and it’s this perspective that has seemed the most important to me over the last few years watching English politics. I’ve spent lots of time on Twitter, I’ve always read lots of politics and history and I even sometimes look at comments below the line on the Guardian website. The conclusion I’ve reached is that there are perhaps a quarter of a million people in this country who are ideologically very left wing. They describe themselves as progressive and probably socialist and their energies are directed towards seeing the world in these terms. They spend a lot of time talking to each other and it doesn’t occur to them that the huge majority of the people of the country in which they live, and whose interests they imagine they promote, simply do not view the world or life in the same terms at all.
In the car yesterday, I listened to Radio 4 for an hour or so (something I very rarely do these days). It consisted of endless interviews with Labour figures, wondering what to do and largely breaking into two groups: broadly more Jeremy or more Blair. Setting aside the fact that these two positions are fundamentally irreconcilable, I couldn’t help thinking that the mistake really lies in believing that an ideological vision is what politics is all about. If large numbers of people thought visionary policy platforms were important, large numbers of people would join political parties or campaigning organisations. They don’t. I think that a key part of Labour’s problem lies here. Tories just aren’t ideological to anything like the same extent that the Left is. Tories do believe things of course, but not in the obsessive, theoretical and disembodied way that the ideological Left does. Tories do not view the word through an ideological lens in the way that the Left does, their politics are not as all encompassing as the Left’s. The Left has all the energy, but also attracts all the cranks. The Labour Party is to a large extent made up of ideologically driven weirdos who spend their lives on Twitter and for whom politics fulfills almost a religious role. A member of the Tory Party is likely to have joined because of the social life and keeps paying his or dues because the beer at the ConClub is cheap. A Tory party member listening to a Left wing activist in full flow will chuckle to himself and think they’ll grow out of it soon enough. The Left wing activist assumes all Tories are evil. The problem this presents for the Labour Party is that it has led to a self-perpetuating feedback loop where normal people are less and less likely to be members, those that remain talk only to one another and so move further away from the people whose votes they need.
I’ve always been sceptical of predictions of the end of political parties, and possibly Labour can find a way back, but it does look more and more difficult. Wales seems to provide some sort of model, at least a small base, but it needs to recover in Scotland (where the route back will be different than in England as it faces fundamentally constitutional questions) and in England (where the Greens and LibDems seem to be looking to capitalise). It does not seem to be able to communicate with large parts of the country that used to vote for it but imagines that with a “vision” they will come back.
Going back to ideology and policies, I see that the Labour Party is going to launch a policy review. There are the usual refrains that the party needing to “change” and must “listen”. But genuine change seems unlikely with its membership as it is. Its problem is itself, and I’m not sure I see a way back. Dave Spart is going to be rolled out and tell the masses that he has “listened” and “changed” but will still go along to staff meetings or Question Time and heckle everyone and then hang around on Twitter stinking the place out. The ideological left doesn’t change, because it knows its theories are correct. It can’t listen because the only way it can authentically communicate is to explain ideology to the masses. How will ideological socialists listen and take on board a message that the English are not socialists?
As an ex-member (I left in the late 1980s) and someone who was brought up in a strong Labour family I have rather mixed feelings about it. I am not a socialist and I have no wish to see the Labour Party in power, I think on the whole it is bad news. For a long time it was a broad church and it will always be an important part of the country’s history. But it has degraded into something rather toxic, sitting in the middle of our national life emitting a bad smell and perhaps it needs to just get to the vet’s so something better can come about. What that is I don’t know, but a party picking up perhaps a third of the seats in Parliament with no credible route to government needs more than a policy review.