323 votes separated Labour’s Kim Leadbeater and her Tory challenger, Ryan Stephenson, in the Batley and Spen by-election. To use a footballing analogy, Labour managed to get over the line in a scrappy, ill-tempered 1-0 win. Or perhaps a 2-1 win, including an own goal on each side!
Although Batley and Spen is a marginal seat, Labour has held it since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. Yet despite approaching the mid-term point of this Parliament; a point where any governing party expects to lose support, there was a 2.9 per cent swing from Labour to the Conservatives. Labour held on to this seat by the skin of its teeth. Labour should have increased its majority. Instead, it is losing support.
But we are not living in normal times. The Conservative Party managed to win a by-election in Hartlepool in May. Labour did not help itself by selecting a candidate (a former MP) who passionately campaigned against Brexit. Hartlepool, lest we forget, voted 70 per cent in favour of the UK leaving the European Union; however, Labour’s problems are much more deep-rooted than that.
I was born and brought up in Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham. Until the 2019 general election, the constituency had never returned a Conservative MP. The late and much missed former Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, Derek (later Lord) Foster secured a majority of 21,000 in 1997. That majority was eventually eroded. He stood down in 2005 and was replaced by Helen Goodman. Her majority in 2005 was 10,047. In 2010, it went down to 5,218. In 2015 it was 3,508; just 502 in 2017. In December 2019, the Conservative candidate, Dehenna Davison, won the seat with a majority of 7,962.
I can give you many other similar examples. It is like coastal erosion: unless you pay close attention, you do not notice how much ground has been lost. Labour has been found wanting; asleep at the wheel, and it could not halt its decline in Co. Durham during the elections to Durham County Council two months ago. Labour was still the largest party with 53 out of 126 seats, but still could not cling on to power as a partnership of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Independents and one Green took control at County Hall. This is the first time in a hundred years that Labour has not controlled the council.
Any serious political party would be doing its best to regain the trust of its traditional supporters. But instead, the party is beset by infighting. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership being roundly rejected in 2019, many voices on the left seriously believe that Labour’s problems stem from not being left-wing enough. Many MPs would happily see John McDonnell installed as the new leader. It is as if having an iron grip on the party is more important than defeating the Conservatives and forming a government. For some, it is.
Reports of Labour’s death have been greatly exaggerated over the years, but this time I am not sure if the party can bounce back and ever form a government for several reasons.
In Scotland, at the 2010 general election, Labour won 41 out of the 59 seats. The Liberal Democrats won 11; SNP 6; and Conservatives 1. Since 2015, Labour’s support has dropped like a stone north of the border. There is no chance of Labour becoming the dominant party it once was anytime soon. It has just one Scottish Westminster seat, and the party cannot win a general election without Scotland.
As I have previously mentioned, there has been a steady erosion of support for the Labour Party in its traditional heartlands – the so-called “red wall.” Its support did not suddenly fall-off a cliff edge in those areas. Many voters stuck with Labour through thick and thin – just fewer of them every time they were asked to go to the polls. Much of that support which the party took for granted has evaporated. Some of it may come back, but that is not going to happen anytime soon. Labour cannot win a general election without its former traditional heartlands in the North and Midlands.
Most working-class people are patriotic; they are proud of their country. A greater proportion of those from working class backgrounds have served their country in the armed forces. The Queen is their boss. They will not have anything said against her. It is clear that those from the hard-left who are still significant voices inside the Labour Party are not proud of our country. They get triggered whenever they see an image of the Union Jack. I regularly have our flag in the background during broadcast interviews. The amount of abuse I have received from some on the left has been astounding. Hating your country is not a good way to win support for your party. That should be obvious. It should go without saying, but it appears that it does need saying nonetheless.
No list would be complete without identity politics and cancel culture. If you are white, you have white privilege. You are also a racist. If you state that you are not a racist, you are in denial, and if you admit that you are a racist, there is still no redemption. There are no winners in this current culture war. Our country is poorer because of it. It is a race to the bottom. It also really annoys those white people from poorer backgrounds. If you were brought up on a rough council estate, what white privilege have you had or do you have? Your life chances are less than those of just about every other demographic in the UK. Continuing to say to your core voters that you are privileged and racist is a recipe for disaster – as is pandering to certain sections of the community. Labour still has not learnt this lesson.
The Labour Party appears to be in a complete state of denial. However, many believe that it is not their fault, it is those stupid former Labour voters who voted for the “evil” Tories. They will soon realise the error of their ways, and they will learn the hard way, too. They will come running back to us with their tails between their legs.
Labour does not feel that the party has changed. It is the voters who have changed. To a certain extent, though, it is both of those things. Those living in former red wall seats have had enough of losing out. They want the good things in life. Despite decades of voting Labour, they feel that they have been let down. If Labour thinks that it does not have to change, they are not going to get that support back again.
Some of the examples I have given are fixable. If Labour manages to find a centrist, charismatic leader who is willing to take on the hard-left and win, the party will be able to move forward and become more electable. But Sir Keir Starmer is hardly charismatic. I know a leader when I see one, and I do not see any great leadership qualities in him. With the hard-left snapping at his ankles like an annoying dog which will not leave you alone, it is only a matter of time before Labour moves further to the left.
Moreover, support for the SNP in Scotland is not showing any signs of collapse. Voters in the North and Midlands appear to like their plain-speaking Conservative MPs: people like Lee Anderson, Ben Bradley, and Dehenna Davison, to name but three. Even if voters in those constituencies do not get everything they want, if they see progress (after years of decline) they are going to stick with the Conservatives. It would not be sensible to return to a party which they feel has failed them over many years.
There simply is not a way of Labour winning the next general election. I would go as far as to say that it is mathematically impossible. That will mean five general election losses in a row. The party will still be split internally, and indeed may split into two different parties. A phoenix may rise from those ashes, but it will not be the Labour Party as we know it today. That party is finished. Something else will have to take its place.