The party is trapped in an industrial era that has long gone. It must reset itself with a new name and a progressive alliance
Keir Starmer at Cameron’s brewery in Hartlepool last month: ‘Hartlepool … will not be won back by being seen downing more pints of beer because that’s what you’ve been told the working class do.’
Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
In the end, it wasn’t even close. The dam was breached 18 months ago; now the floodgates have opened. Like bankruptcy, political downfall happens slowly but then very fast. Labour’s leadership will rightly say they have only been in charge for a year, and what an extraordinary year! But their problems are much deeper than they know or care to admit. They have wasted a year papering over deep fissures – another wasted year in the long decline of Labour.
Because Hartlepool wasn’t lost on Thursday, or at the last general election. It wasn’t lost when the town overwhelming voted for Brexit or before, when austerity rained down on it after 2008. It wasn’t lost when new Labour set out to humiliate and marginalise old Labour, or when Peter Mandelson was implausibly parachuted into the seat. It wasn’t lost when the Berlin Wall came down, the miners were defeated or when Margaret Thatcher crowed: “There is no alternative.”.
Because the truth is, the forward march of Labour was halted long ago, when the scale and muscularity of the working class began its steady decline. It was halted and reversed when what we consumed became more important to us than what we produced. Hartlepool was lost when the age of deference gave way to an era of individualism, and power was separated from politics as finance, investment and jobs become global private decisions, not national public ones.
Eventually, and inevitably, Labour has fallen so far back in the rear-view mirror that people lose sight of it; they forget what it is even for. Meanwhile, almost out of view, Labour goes through the motions of electing new leaders and rehearsing lines, propped up by a voting system that now means it can never win but never do worse than second – leaving some in a job but a country defenceless.
It is not that Labour has lost Hartlepool: it has lost itself – slowly, and now very quickly.
Roberto Unger, the Brazilian political and economic theorist, describes institutions as the fossilised power of previous political movements. Labour today is merely the trapped energy of an industrial era that has long gone.
So, Hartlepool and all it symbolises will not be won back by getting a bigger flag or being seen downing more pints of beer because that’s what you’ve been told the working class do. It won’t be won back by purging the remnants of the left and doubling down on the 1997 New Labour handbook, which in the end did much to alienate so many in Hartlepool and all the places that share its heartbeat. It won’t be won back by claiming the Tories are the same-old-same-old, by opposition as courtroom cross examination, a reshuffle or even a change of leader.
The only question now is, can Labour be refounded? Ask any management consultant and they will tell you starting a new organisation is much more effective than trying to change an old one. But let’s imagine for a second Labour wants to change. What would it do?
To win another election, Labour must first rid itself of its core creed of Labourism: the belief that it and it alone carries the seeds of political hope, and that progress depends solely on its ability to occupy the state and pull the levers of power – change done to people. In Hartlepool it imposed a candidate on the town and was still issuing scripts for its callers to read out. This just isn’t the way the world works any more. If Labour trusts no one, then no one will trust it back. Can Labour stop being Labour?
To show it wants to change, Labour should call a “refounding process” to which all its members are invited. It would reset the party’s purpose and direction. It could be seeded by a citizens’ assembly of the public to help set the direction of travel. One option to be explored would be a change of name, but only to badge a totally new purpose and practice. Labour would then be reformed not on the basis of old trades but the new energy and vitality of a networked 21st century.
More immediately Starmer must meet all the leaders of the other progressive parties to formally declare a progressive alliance to build a good society – and in the process put his full weight behind the shift to proportional representation. This, allied to a Biden-like economic plan within sustainable limits, would form the bedrock of a new purpose for Labour. If it doesn’t do something like this, the party will die. And it will deserve to.
Keir Starmer carries the name of the first Labour leader and, as things stand, he carries the name of the last meaningful one. Labour has a year. It must change or be replaced.
This article first appeared in The Guardian