For weeks, it has been clear that Labour would have a bad night in this week’s election. The only question was how bad. As we awoke yesterday to disastrous losses in local elections, historic defeat in Hartlepool, and a likely mayoral bloodbath to come, the answer is very bad indeed.
The result should not be a surprise. Polls have been on the slide for months, but behind them, things were even worse. Throughout this election cycle, Labour activists across the country were reporting the same thing: a lack of bodies on the ground. Starmer’s team will cite COVID as a reason, but it doesn’t reflect reality — people could have campaigned in recent weeks if they wanted to, but too many didn’t. The party entered the biggest set of elections in over a hundred years with a base that wasn’t motivated or energized.
It would be easy to blame this on a failure of messaging. Starmer’s focus group approach has worn thin incredibly quickly — leaving Labour looking vacuous, corporate, and insincere. The party has steadfastly refused to outline any policy positions, made supportive noises about even the worst Tory mismanagement during the COVID pandemic, and failed to acknowledge at all the deep frustration felt by millions of people facing the brunt of an economic crisis.
In these elections, the contortion of telling people what they want to hear but never actually supporting the progressive policies they want to see reached farcical levels. Labour promised that a vote for its councillors would increase NHS workers’ pay — despite the fact that local councils don’t have this authority and the party itself couldn’t agree what the pay raise should be. The sound bites of leading figures trying to square this circle in the early days of the campaign haunted the weeks that followed, and the refusal to endorse either the 12 or 15 percent raise demanded by nurses themselves made Labour look lost on its centerpiece issue.
In the aftermath of defeat, the leadership will want to focus on messaging — scrambling to find a technical fix to this failure of a year’s worth of political endeavor. But, unfortunately for Labour, the party’s problems run far deeper than this. One of Europe’s largest political parties — the opposition to a venal, corrupt, authoritarian, and increasingly dangerous right-wing government — has just run the most lethargic national campaign in living memory. A five- or ten-degree shift in trajectory will not save it.
The fact is, under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the party has lost more than 100,000 members. It has waged a war on party democracy, shut down internal debate, and suspended not just activists but CLP chairs and secretaries en masse. It has closed Labour’s Community Organising Unit and sacked its community organizers. And it has landed Labour in a funding crisis that hamstrung campaigns across the country by driving away the army of small donors that sustained it in recent years, alienating the historic funding base in the trade unions, and failing to win over the new corporate donors Starmer has been courting. (In case you missed it: there’s already a very successful party of capital in Britain today, and the rich are doing quite nicely, thank you.)
The Labour Party has been comprehensively hollowed out; you won’t hear this in the national press, but that is one major reason why it struggled in these elections. And, sadly, this wasn’t an error — it was part of a deliberate strategy pursued by Starmer’s leadership team from the beginning. They wanted to defeat and marginalize the Left, but more important, they hoped to turn the Labour Party back into a narrow Westminster vehicle primarily committed to delivering sensible, competent, and technocratic politics in contrast to Boris Johnson’s perceived bungling and buffoonery.
This was always likely to result in disaster. By positioning Labour as a steady pair of hands with little vision of its own for changing Britain, Keir Starmer has managed the extraordinary feat of convincing millions of people that the Tories — the party of the establishment that has been in power for a decade — represent greater change than his own party. You could not conceive of a worse response from Labour to the new national-popular Conservative project that promises greater state intervention into the economy and to tackle the country’s deep regional inequalities.
But the real problem for Labour is that much of this is baked into Starmer’s leadership from the beginning, and it is unlikely to change now. After the deep defeat of December 2019 — which should not be overlooked amid the latest chaos — it seemed clear that the party needed to rebuild its relationship with working-class communities, particularly in postindustrial areas. This required a significant stepping up of grassroots activity, where Labour would need to once again become a meaningful part of people’s day-to-day lives, countering the reactionary narratives of the right-wing press with practical answers to real social problems.
But that was never the premise of Starmerism. Instead, he encouraged Labour members to see the party’s problems solely at the top — issues that could be remedied by an electable leader who looked the part, had a clever communications strategy, and would receive more favorable media coverage. In February 2020, before Starmer won the leadership, Tribune’s editorial described the likely result of this approach:
An idea is setting in among the membership . . . that Labour’s real problem was not playing the Westminster game well enough. The remedies to this are clear: a slicker parliamentary operation, closer relationships with the press and a return to focus-grouped professional politics.
This would be a disaster for all of those who want the party’s emphasis to be placed on rebuilding its relationship with the working-class communities it lost so dramatically in December. That requires a longer-term focus that does the hard work of making Labour a presence again in people’s day-to-day lives, work that has to take place a long way from Westminster . . .
If Starmer wins, it’ll be a message that the real problem was at the top — not at the grassroots. We shouldn’t underestimate the damage this could do. Another four or five years of Labour trying to master the dark arts of Westminster, while the party in the broader country continues to wither on the vine. The difficult work of rebuilding social institutions which form the basis of collective politics not being done. A trade union movement already in decline finding little, if any, serious support from the Labour leadership for its organising efforts or on its picket lines.
Corbynism did far too little to address these structural problems — but at least it was premised on changing the game, trying to break from a hollowed-out political system and do politics differently. The Starmer narrative runs in exactly the opposite direction, and is receiving its strongest support in those pockets of the party which want a return to “normality” before Corbyn, before Brexit, and before the collapse of the political centre.
Unsurprisingly, this narrative also suits the Labour Right. By placing the blame for the election squarely on Corbyn, other contributory factors in a long, slow decline of the Labour vote in postindustrial areas can be ignored. The role of Labour councils, for instance. Or of the last Blair government. Or of parachuted MPs who enjoyed little if any connection to the constituencies they were selected to represent. During not just months but years of post-election reforms, Corbyn would be in the dock while these would be largely forgotten.
As Starmer’s team does the media rounds blaming their own disastrous defeat on a leader they have booted from the party — one who, by the way, won Hartlepool twice — we have a right to feel vindicated by that assessment. Not least because the only consistent message Keir Starmer has conveyed during the past year has been that he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn.
But despite this, the Corbyn-bashing isn’t likely to end anytime soon. In fact, Starmer’s failure in these elections and his dismal poll ratings will only make him lurch further rightward still. His leadership team is convinced that the best thing they have done in the past year has been marginalizing the Left, and that the problem in these elections has been that the Left hasn’t been marginalized enough.
There is an emerging divide in politics between center-left leaders who can learn the post-2008 terrain and those who can’t. In the United States, Joe Biden clearly understood at least some of the context that created Bernie Sanders — and saw that the people to whom Sanders appealed would need be brought into his coalition.
Neither Keir Starmer nor the broader British political center is capable of this recognition. They don’t see the Left as representing the aspirations of millions of people for real economic change. Instead, they see it as an alien political force without a social base that is simply despised by the public at large and should be ritually humiliated at every opportunity to maximize votes. In other words, they more or less share the assessment of a large section of their own base held by the likes of the Sun, the Daily Mail, and Guido Fawkes.
Meanwhile, the pattern of Labour’s few successes last night seems relatively clear. Andy Burnham — one of those center-left leaders who has learned the new terrain — is expected to romp home as Greater Manchester mayor. He pursued exactly the kind of combative approach to the Tories that the Left has called for since the beginning of the pandemic, and he combined it with a specific pledge on progressive policy — taking buses back into public control — that promised real change in the lives of his electorate.
In Salford, meanwhile, a left-wing Labour mayor who has pursued radical policies in local government, built the first council housing in a decade, and flies the red flag over town hall on May Day seems likely to achieve a similarly impressive result. Paul Dennett represents an area that, like Hartlepool, is an aging, postindustrial Labour heartland, that struggled in the wake of the demise of its docks and historic engineering industry, and that voted strongly for Leave and ranks among the top twenty most deprived local authorities in the country out of 317. And yet there is no Labour catastrophe in his backyard.
Even amid the ruins of these elections, there are examples we can learn from. Andy Burnham’s messaging has been disciplined but confrontational. It tapped into the widespread popular resentment that exists toward Boris Johnson and his government, despite these latest results. But, more pertinent for the Left, Dennett’s local government approach has delivered meaningful change in working-class people’s lives and sustained Salford’s sense of community, which has been allowed to disintegrate in far too many of the places that built this party and movement over the past century.
Salford, and its equally inspiring neighbor Preston, could have been held up as models during these local elections by a Labour leadership committed to transforming society. It could have talked about living-wage jobs, insourcing, social care, council housing, community wealth building, or any number of other initiatives that would have motivated voters to turn out and support the party. But that is not the Starmer way.
The project of pushing his leadership to the left is a lost cause. Instead, we should turn our attention to the work he refuses to do — and rebuild an unashamedly socialist politics from the bottom up.