Left for Dead?: The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party
William Collins, 352pp, £20
Over the past decade, defending New Labour’s record has become the toughest job in British politics. Labour’s great election winner is easily the most unpopular post-war Prime Minister. Despite Brexit, David Cameron receives higher favorability ratings with the electorate.
Nowhere is the shift in narrative more prominent than at the top of today’s Labour Party. From Jon Lansman’s; “Blair was in the wrong party”; to Len McCluskey’s; “he wasn’t Labour’s most successful leader”; to John McDonnell’s; “he lost us five million votes”, the message is clear: Tony Blair was not ‘Real Labour’.
Just five years ago, McDonnell told the Artist Taxi Driver that he tries to make a citizen’s arrest of Blair every time he comes back to the UK:
“Tony Blair should be arrested because we believe that he should be brought before the Hague… we need to bring the liars into court so we can then prosecute them.”
Yet for millions of people at the bottom, the New Labour year’s were both life-saving and life-changing. Beneath all the posturing, a voice that is so often missed from the debate – and most others – is the working class. In Left for Dead, Lewis Goodall – Political Correspondent for Sky News – takes up the task of assessing the Blair years from his own working class perspective. His part memoir/part political state of the nation book analyses how the party has been reborn – for good or for ill – under Jeremy Corbyn.
The Decline of Working Class Politics
Like myself, Lewis Goodall is a child of New Labour. For our generation, Labour were thought of as the natural party of Government. When the 2010 election came, many expected us soon to be back in power within months. Yet the election marked the end of another era. For first time – middle class Labour voters outnumbered the number of working class ones. In the same election, Gordon Brown came face to face with Gillian Duffy. In a precursor to the next decade, Duffy attacked him on the issue of immigration in Rochdale. Brown agreed, smiled and took her ‘concerns on board’. Then, in the safety of his car he proceeded to label her ‘a bigoted woman’. Perception is important. And while Labour supporters still maintain that Duffy is a bigot, the incident spoke of a disconnect between the elites and the voter, at a time when the financial crash and the MPs expenses scandal had rocked public trust. The elites have been taking a kicking ever since.
Goodall argues that “Labour brought this on itself. Throughout the New Labour years the refrain was the same: that voters had to accept this new world. Do or die. Sink or swim”. In a sign of how far we have moved – and the paralysis that Brexit has induced – both Blair and Brown agree with Duffy that freedom of movement can and should be curbed. Duffy had her finger closer to the pulse of Labour’s heartlands than the party could have ever imagined.
The growing disconnect is, in part, due to the dwindling number of people who now identify as working class. In 1964 – when Harold Wilson returned Labour to power – two-thirds of the electorate classified themselves as working class. Labour chalked up 10 million of their votes. The decline of the traditional industries means the working class has lost most of its industrial and political muscle. It is a far cry from the 1950s, when the Labour Government vetoed British membership of the European Steel Community because – as Herbert Morrison pointed out – the “Durham miners won’t wear it”.
The Labour Party were slow to adapt to the change. In the late 1960s, John Goldthorpe argued in The Affluent Worker, that the level of support for Labour remained high but the nature of it changed. Support for the party moved from one of class and community solidarity to one of rational economic choice: will the next Government make me better off? It is why, in 1979, more trade union members voted for Mrs Thatcher than Jim Callaghan. Goodall, nevertheless, points to his own family rationale that “they are for us and the other lot are for them” – which has remained at the heart of Labour’s core vote.
We’re all Middle Class now
Labour’s last two Prime Ministers – and the prospective one – first came to Parliament on the same manifesto in 1983. Goodall highlights that Blair was the quickest to disown Foot’s left-wing programme. Just a few days after his election as an MP, Blair urged Labour to change its ‘style’ to appeal to people “who work in services rather than manufacturing and that means a change in attitudes and a change in attitudes we’ve got to wake up to”.
In Phillip Gould’s Unfinished Revolution – the Blair endorsed account of New Labour’s rise to power – Gould surveys “the land that Labour forgot” – where the average person “neither privileged nor deprived, but struggling to get by” turned to Thatcher’s policies of individualism. Offered a stake in a different society, people wanted to:
“improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth”.
It was this freedom – the freedom not to join the closed shop trade union, to buy a council house or invest in shares that Blair defended resolutely. For New Labour, the advancement of working class people could not be halted by outdated notions of solidarity and community. In an early Blair speech after becoming leader, he defined the party as the new middle ground:
“no more bosses versus workers – partnership at the workplace; no more public versus private, just cooperation to rebuild our nation’s road, rail, inner cities and regions”
The working class could “no longer get by on former glories”. Goodall says that critics of New Labour fail to see that the programme was a reaction to the “historical and political moment” of the time. It was a time when the politicians became less representative of place, industry, class and were ‘professionalised’ in their approach. The rise of the career politician saw the parachuting of candidates such as Yvette Cooper in Pontefract and Castleford; Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood; Ed Miliband in Doncaster; David Miliband in South Shields and James Purnell in Stalybridge and Hyde. For Blair’s New Labour “what matters is what works”. Even John Prescott – the self-styled link between the party and its industrial past – declared “we’re all middle class now”. No Labour MP would dare say that today.
The fluidity of politics led to accusations that politicians were ‘identikit’ and the dominant theme became that ‘you can put a cigarette paper’ between the main parties policies. Shaun Woodward became a case in point for this theory. In 1992, Woodward was John Major’s communications chief and had been credited with the attack ad – Labour’s ‘tax bombshell’ – which destroyed Labour in the 1992 General Election . Woodward – who lived on a £24million Cotswolds estate, married a Sainsbury heir and employed servants – was given the ‘golden ticket’ of the safe seat of Whitney. Unfortunately for him, it came at a time when the Tories were destined for a decade in the wilderness.
After clashing with William Hague’s stance on Section 28 and the Euro, Woodward crossed the floor of the house to join New Labour. It was seen as a huge coup for Blair. Whitney, however, remained one of the few areas untouched by Blair’s revolution. Facing humiliation if he stood in a by-election, Labour parachuted him into my own constituency – the rock-solid northern seat of St Helens – an area with some of the highest rates of poverty in Europe. The first question journalists asked Woodward was “will you will be taking your butler out campaigning in St Helens?”
The tough post-industrial town of St Helens became the big news story in an otherwise turgid 2001 General Election campaign. The press lapped up the spin, stitch up and nepotism of Blair’s ‘Millbank Machine’. On the ground, local activists protested that a local councillor Marie Rimmer – who is incidentally now the town’s MP – was not included on the shortlist. Three prominent left-wingers expressed dismay at proceedings. They were Chris Mullin, Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn,
Corbyn ignored the agreed party message to state:
“I am not comfortable that somebody who organised the 1992 Tory election campaign which complained about Labour’s so-called tax bombshell should now say the his suddenly so fed up of the Tories that he is joining Labour.”
It was Corbyn who was viewed as a reactionary, tied to the old political battles of the 1980s. Woodward, of course, won his election. Looking back now though, you can see the roots of a left-wing fight back. Resistance came in the form of the Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Labour Party, who received 12% of the vote between them. The ‘Tory Turncoat’ Woodward received less than 50% of the vote, which was Labour’s worst performance in the seat since 1983 (when the SDP took 22% of the vote). Turnout reached an all time low. In 1997, turnout in St Helens South had been 5% less than the national average. By 2001 it was 10% below.
After Blair’s landslide, the media disappeared and Woodward eventually made it to the Cabinet. The disconnect between place, career politician and the voter bubbled under the surface. Yet – as a teenager growing up in the St Helens/Wigan area – local politics and the importance of local candidates seemed irrelevant. Woodward, Balls, Miliband et al were an asset to Labour in Middle England, which meant Labour won elections. It meant that Labour could introduce policies such as the Minimum Wage, the Winter Fuel Allowance, Tax Credits, SureStart, EMA, Compensation for Injured Miners – all of which benefited working class people in St Helens. It is for this reason that Goodall admits that when he met Blair for the first time “part of me – a not insignificant one – wanted to thank him.”
The Party of Southwark and St Helens
Goodall laments that the initiatives that the working class “kids of New Labour” enjoyed were all too easily reversed in 2010. As austerity bit, areas such as St Helens were inevitably hit the hardest. The ‘luxury’ New Labour politicians – drafted in to bring national success – seemed incompatible with the harsh realities of local politics. Three of the great hopes of Blairism vacated their communities; David Miliband moved to America; James Purnell became a Director at the BBC and Shaun Woodward quit politics.
The St Helens that Woodward left behind is now scrambling to survive. The town’s Hardshaw Shopping Centre – opened in 1982 – stands as a relic to a by-gone era that will never come back. The big stores – such as Woolworths, WH Smith, HMV and Burtons have all disappeared. It leaves a desolate collection of budget bakeries, vape shops and bookmakers in its wake. Six months ago the town received another poignant blow: the most-cherished ‘jewel in the crown’, Marks and Spencer, is to finally vacate the high-street. It will bring an end to a ninety year association with the town centre.
St Helens is not the only town to have had its high street decimated. The sense of loss and an urge for revival within working class communities goes along way to explaining the Brexit vote. Labour must address it, if it is to credibility state that it is back ‘as the party of the working class’. Goodall admits that when he listens to working class people: “I wonder how long, in its current form they’ll keep voting Labour”. For the new left, the answer lies in ‘Fully Automated Communism’ and the hipster policies of Universal Basic Income. In St Helens, jobs and place still matter and it will be the toughest political sell since Thatcherism. Yet a positive solution seems impossible to find. Britain is again in a transition from an old order to a new one. The role of the Labour Party, its place within the community and its relevance to the modern age will be questioned like never before.
In this respect, the task facing Jeremy Corbyn is much bigger than the one faced by Tony Blair back in 1994. While both leaders have made a conscious effort to appeal to a new urban middle class base, Corbyn can no longer rely on – as Goodall puts it – people voting Labour because “the party is for us”. The Brexit proxy-vote threatens a culture war between the somewhere’s and anywhere’s, that Labour would lose. For Goodall, the volatile forces of Brexit that saved Corbyn in 2017, may prove to be his downfall next time around.
Like many Labour supporters, Goodall feared “Corbyn might well spell the end for Labour” in the heartlands. Corbyn proved everybody wrong. Does that mean he is on course for Government? It remains an insurmountable task without Scotland. One thing is certain: if the party continue to edge towards a Remain/Second Referendum position, it will – if nothing else – finally test those old party loyalties to the extreme.
Lewis Goodall is Political Correspondent at Sky News. His new book Left for Dead: The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party is out now: https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008226695/left-for-dead/