JWhen a series of elections appear in May, including a Westminster by-election in Hartlepool, possibly a key “red wall” seat, Peter Mandelson has reappeared on the political scene, as he usually does from time to time. In fact, he knows Hartlepool well, having been a city deputy for 12 years.
Mandelson is correct in saying that the test for Labor, after the defeat in the 2019 general election, is whether it is now eligible. But the country has changed in the quarter century since the party’s collapse in 1997. Going back to old formulas, partly created by Mandelson and based on an outdated political offer, it will not work.
This eligibility argument is a cover for a deeply ideological attempt to change Labor irreversibly. Mandelson recently said about New Labor that “The conclusion we reached was that there were elements of the Thatcher agreement that were irreversible.”
Of course, New Labor did much to reform the country during its years in power. It’s hard to forget how Labor fought the Conservatives to introduce a minimum wage. Opened 3,632 Safe start centers. The list of his progressive reforms would be long. But there would be another less progressive list: the war in Iraq is the most egregious entry.
Tony Blair did not change the general character of Thatcherism. Nor did he want to. In 2015, the former Labor leader said that if a left-wing government were elected, it would not have their support. New Labor is not simply questioning the eligibility of Left-led Labor; their real objection is that they don’t want a left-led party at all. Therefore, we must view the claims that Labor can never win the left with deep suspicion.
Those who would like to see a return to New Labor face their own questions. They must first explain why between 1997 and 2010 we lost almost 5 million voters. These were often concentrated in the working-class communities that were once the heart of Labor. This legacy endures. In one recent survey Conservatives are 25 percentage points ahead of Labor in working-class communities and among license voters we are almost 60 percentage points behind. This obviously has implications for seats like Hartlepool, where early polls have not been encouraging.
The 2017 election poses the clearest challenge to the narrative that a radical Labor bid cannot win the loyalty of these voters. The people of Blair wrongly claim that “2017, of course, was a Brexit choice”.
I prepared the strategy document for Jeremy Corbyn’s team in February 2017. It proposed a route to an electoral result of more than 40% of the vote, built on a transformative campaign that would deny Theresa May her majority and perhaps even lead to a Labor majority.
This strategy was based on building a wide-ranging electoral coalition that brought together people from all walks of society who wanted change. In the event that we increased our vote, it had been in the mid 20’s, attracting 40% of voters in the 2017 elections.
Of course, we did not win. But we boosted our share of votes by 9.6% – 3.4 million votes. This is the largest increase between two elections by any Labor leader since the war. In fact, Corbyn got nearly 5 million more votes. that Gordon Brown.
So what are we to make of the claim that 2017 was really a Brexit election and that the party was buoyed by an influx of carryover support? It’s a good effort to rewrite history and avoid acknowledging the role that a transformative manifesto and radical leader played in Labor’s success. But it is wrong. In fact, the party leaned even further toward permanence in 2019, but lost votes.
On his time in charge, Mandelson comments wistfully that: “We had not put down roots, I am afraid, to change the culture of the party.” But it was worse than that. They had depoliticized politics. The British Social Attitudes 2011-12 report showed that voters more and more fighting to distinguish between New Labor and the Tories.
Elections are always won from the center. But the center is nowhere near where New Labor would like it to be. Take the Labor voters who supported the Conservatives in 2019. Of these, 81% think “Big companies take advantage of ordinary people”, while 84% think that “there is a law for the rich and another for the poor.” It’s hardly an argument for uncritical pro-business leadership.
And recently we saw the Hartlepool voter poll who were massively in favor of state intervention to create a national broadband network. In 2019, when Labor came up with this very idea, some mockingly described it as a form of “communism.”
The reaffirmation of the well-known New Labor narrative is not to be feared, despised or applauded. It should not be necessary to resort to distorting the facts of our recent history. Let’s have a real debate on eligibility. The 2017 elections showed that the left can attract voters. It is also correct to examine what happened after and in the 2019 elections.
Farewell elections can be fleeting moments in political life. Looking back, both Miliband and Corbyn won their first by-elections, substantially increasing the share of votes for Labor (10% and 7% respectively). Labor may also win this first Starmer election. But whatever happens in Hartlepool in May, it’s time to be frank. We cannot win without rebuilding our relationship with working class voters, in all its complexity and diversity. We should never take those voters for granted again, as i have argued before. This is the key to any future Labor election victory.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism