Labour’s Centrists Ignore What Working-Class Voters Want

After Labour's setbacks in May's local elections, moderates claim the party needs to tack to the center to win. But their economic ideas offer 1990s-style neoliberalism — not the jobs and investments working-class voters want.

Keir Starmer visits St Mary’s Community Center in Pontefract, England. (Ian Forsyth / Getty Images)

Labour’s loss of once rock-solid Hartlepool in May’s parliamentary by-election topped off woeful results for the party in local contests across England. With Labour’s support plunging, the crisis-stricken leadership around Keir Starmer announced a wide-ranging policy review to try to reconnect with voters. Kicking off this latest round of ideological soul-searching was the creation of a new organization, “Progressive Britain.”

On May 17, it held a one-day virtual conference on how the party must change in order to win power and achieve a new “post-Brexit, post-pandemic” political settlement. Yet despite its promise of open debate around the party’s future — offering a platform for “critical thinking, political education and policy making” — Progressive Britain and its supporters remain trapped in the ideological and factional comfort zones set by the legacy of Tony Blair and New Labour.

Progressive Britain is the latest organized expression of Blairism within the Labour Party; a merger of Progress (a once explicitly “New Labour” body, founded in the late 1990s as a grassroots base for Tony Blair) and the think tank Policy Network, founded and run by some of the leading lights of the 1997–2010 New Labour government, notably former Blair strategist Peter Mandelson. While a new organization, the merger is the product of a much amalgamation process on the party’s right, which has previously overcome its own ideological or cultural differences through a common opposition to the Left.

In 2020, Progress and the more traditional “old right” faction Labour First untied under the name “Labour to Win,” while in 2019 almost a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party joined the “Future Britain Group,” set up by then deputy leader Tom Watson as an umbrella group for anti-Brexit and, crucially, anti-Corbyn Labour MPs. After a decade in opposition and nearly six years of deep factional conflict with the Left of the party (including most of the party’s grassroots membership), Blairism’s shift to more productive policy work could be a welcome change. Or so it would be, if its ideological signposts weren’t so obvious.

Far from an open-minded platform for policy innovation, Progressive Britain assumes the party right is pragmatic, electable, and modern, whereas the party left is old-fashioned, dogmatic, and uninterested in even getting elected. Implicit throughout is the assumption that the Right is the only faction with policies capable of winning, and any political contributions from the Left are by nature illegitimate.

While such factional hostility may have proven useful to the Right in internal elections — and fixing — during the Corbyn years, they are an anathema to any kind of open intellectual discussion. Worse, Blairite dogmas about what is “electable” are completely out of step with what the public want — refusing to recognize we don’t still live in the 1990s.

Stuck in the Past

In his speech to the conference, Keir Starmer claimed that the party needed to be “forward-looking” instead of obsessed with policies and debates of the past, and that it could not simply preach to the converted. Yet the very language of the Progressive Britain conference still reveals an ideological compass defined by the legacies of New Labour, and catered for a shrinking factional audience.

Wes Streeting MP could not help but recite the mantra “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime” while Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar spoke of the need for a “Respect Agenda” — both iconic soundbites from the Blair era. Starmer’s talk of re-skilling the population for the twenty-first century echoed Blairism’s idealistic obsession with the liberating power of technological change and the restricted, technocratic role of government — designed merely to prepare the individual for the harsh winds of the market, rather than itself playing any creative role in the economy. Even Alison McGovern’s critique of “nostalgia” in a recent article for LabourList falls rather flat when we consider that the current leadership has restored old New Labour gurus, most notably Peter Mandelson, to key positions.

At times, contributors to the conference were honest about the shortcomings of Blairism over the past decade (Mandelson describing it as “intellectually stale” and academic Patrick Diamond highlighting the declining electoral relevance of promising low taxation). But most found themselves unable to match self-criticism with even begrudging praise for the successes of the Left. Here, too, the ideological blinkers were obvious.

While Anas Sarwar was praised as the “saviour of Scottish Labour” (despite achieving the party’s worst ever electoral performance north of the border) the trend-beating success of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham was mentioned only briefly. While Starmer did speak in vague terms about greater regional devolution, the success of “community-wealth building” projects led by Labour councils in Salford and Preston were not mentioned at all. Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford‘s victory was vaguely attributed to Welsh Labour’s appeal to patriotism, rather than its ambitious green economic program.

Endemic throughout was a refusal to grant any kudos to the undeniable successes of the Left, and to preclude from discussion any political program not in step with the assumed package of “electable policies,” defined not by real electoral appeal but their compliance with a recipe of vague social conservatism mixed with the most minor tinkering with the free market status quo.

If Blairism’s ideological comfort zones preclude discussion of uncomfortable successes for the Labour left, it also ignores uncomfortable weaknesses for the Blairites. While the mythical social conservatism of the ex-industrial “Red Wall” has been a useful prop to justify shifts away from the so-called “woke” policies of the Corbyn era, and for the adoption of focus-grouped patriotic signifiers (the name “Progressive Britain” is itself perhaps a product of this), Blairites have refused to discuss the swathes of younger Labour voters now shifting to the Greens in cities like London, Bristol, and Sheffield, or simply not voting at all.

Implicit throughout Starmer’s speech to the conference was the assumption that the only target voting demographic that mattered were Labour-Tory swing voters. But just as much as Labour needs to win back the essential lost heartlands in northern England, its current trajectory risks throwing away some of the great successes of Corbyn’s leadership, such as the sensational levels of youth support or the party’s near-hegemony in London.

Once again, the Blairites appear under the assumption that these voters are either an irrelevance, or, as Mandelson once said, “have nowhere else to go.” Labour’s decline on the London Assembly and loss of Bristol city council demonstrates quite the opposite.

State Intervention

But far from being simply a cause for factional point scoring, the success of the municipal left also demonstrates a wider sea change in public opinion toward greater public spending and state intervention. Absurdly, the main beneficiary of this so far appears to be the Conservative Party, despite overseeing a decade of savage austerity. Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak’s roll-out of financial support for furloughed workers and businesses during the pandemic, and the brief ban on evictions for tenants, has transformed the party’s image in the eyes of the public as the party of big government and big spending.

The talk of “leveling-up” the country by bringing big-spend projects to deprived regions at least bears an egalitarian tone — and the planned public takeover of the railways could even be perceived as the kind of nationalization which, when advocated by Corbyn, was denounced by hysterical right-wing press as quasi-communist.

Yet far from making the most of this change in public attitudes, Blairites appear to have surrendered this policy ground to the Conservatives. At a time when the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell could convincingly claim that the government are stealing ideas of his once demonized as too left-wing — ranging from a national investment bank and a green industrial revolution to moving the Treasury out of London — Blairites such as Mandelson believe now is the time to hear less from the prophetic McDonnell.

While Starmer has committed the party to supporting a global minimum corporation tax, this comes largely on the coattails of Joe Biden, and  remains overshadowed by previous opposition to an increase in corporation tax promised by the Tories. Such flip-flopping not only compounds growing perceptions that Starmer is a poor leader, but demonstrates a deeper ideological hostility to progressive, and, crucially, electable policies on public spending and state intervention.

Even a national economic plan, which could tap into both egalitarian and patriotic sentiment, has been forgone in favor of literal flag-waving — a clumsy and superficial branding effort which appears insincere and falls flat among voters.

Out of Touch

The Blairites once convincingly portrayed themselves as the party’s “modernizers,” attuned to the changing socioeconomic landscape of Britain and the world. In the 1990s, they spoke of adapting policy and ideology to suit the perceived inevitable march of economic globalization and technological revolution. Yet today, for all its proclaimed concern to be “in touch” with the public, Blairism now appears intellectually adrift. It is unable to recognize either the vast differences between Britain now and twenty years ago, or the modernizing and electorally popular initiatives pursued by left-wing devolved and municipal government.

While the Blairites aren’t willing to overcome their entrenched prejudices toward radical policies, there are increasing signs that the public do want them — and feel they can get them elsewhere, from the Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, or even the Conservatives. So long as the Blairites refuse to recognize this, blinded by their hatred for the Left, they are doomed to remain an ever-shrinking faction, out of step with the times.