If only I had a pound for every opinion piece written over the past decade titled: ‘Labour must embrace … if it wants to win another election’. Insert your own quasi-ideology. Some options include, but are not limited to: socialism, centrism, Corbynism, Blairism, its working-class roots, social liberalism, metropolitanism.
The Hartlepool byelections and local elections gave the Labour Party commentators another chance to have a bash on their keyboards and exert their displeasure. Of course, hardly any of them agree with one another. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, they’re never going to.
Those on the right of the party point to the three successful elections under Tony Blair, a man only now being challenged by David Cameron for the title of ‘Nation’s Most Disliked Former Living Prime Minister’. Those on the left point towards the successful 2017 election under Jeremy Corbyn. They were successful in the sense that they still lost and then received their worst election defeat since 1935 under his leadership only three years later.
Perhaps, these aren’t quite the correct success stories to point to for inspiration. Maybe, rather than looking for something to strive towards, Labour needs to recognise what they are and look to the ‘losers’ for inspiration. Enter Michael Howard and the Conservative Party of 2005.
Announcing the 2005 Conservative Party manifesto, Michael Howard emphatically proclaimed that it was “in tune with the longings of the British people”. It’s true; it was. To create the manifesto, the Conservatives had basically copy-and-pasted the polling results of issues the electorate most cared about. Voila! That’s how you write a manifesto. Scrawled across the front page were the words “more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline, controlled immigration, accountability”. What’s not to like?
But the Conservatives didn’t win the 2005 general election, and Michael Howard didn’t become prime minister. They didn’t win because their issues were deeper than that of policy. They lost because many people simply didn’t like the ‘brand’ of the Conservative Party.
“You know what some people call us – the nasty party”, Theresa May exclaimed at the 2002 Conservative Party conference in her role as Chairwoman. For many people, the Tory party were simply a bunch of out of touch, mean, rich, racist, poor-people-hating, miner-hating fox hunters who didn’t like the way society was advancing. Labour and Blair, on the other hand, were synonymous with ‘Cool Britannia’. Popular policies can only go so far when so many people actively dislike you.
Almost two decades on, and aided through the Conservative modernisation project under David Cameron, the Tories have managed to amend their brand image. They might not be ‘cool’, but they’re not as ‘uncool’ as the Labour Party. More than that, they’re no longer the ‘nasty party’ for many voters. Instead, this title now belongs to Labour.
The constant bickering between the Blairites and Corbynites was deafening for the former Labour voters of Hartlepool. As reporters rambled around Hartlepool, still somewhat perplexed as to why the Conservatives had won so resoundingly, voters gave their response in unison: Labour has taken us for granted. Even then, Labour still didn’t listen. The same old voices were wheeled out after the results to spout the same old arguments: ‘people want true socialist policies’, ‘no, we’ll only win if we’re positioned in the centre-ground.
In reality, people just want to feel like their party is listening to them.
In many ways, Labour’s recovery in ridding themselves of the ‘nasty party’ brand will be far greater than that of the Conservatives in the 2000s. Both are, and were, considered out of touch. Yet, after a third straight election defeat at the hands of Blair’s Labour, the Conservatives at least recognised that the problem was with them. While some in Labour echo these sentiments, the party’s actions show that they’ve yet to come to the same conclusion.
The selection of Paul Williams as the Labour Party candidate was staggeringly disrespectful to the people of Hartlepool. Effectively parachuted in from London and a vehement supporter of remaining in the EU, it’s hardly surprising that a constituency that voted 70% in favour of Leave didn’t select him to represent them in Westminster.
Labour’s crime is also far more significant than what the Conservatives had previously managed: they neglect and insult those supposed to be their own. Whether the ‘metropolitan elite’ stamp is fair or not doesn’t matter. It’s clear how people in places like Hartlepool feel.
For them, the Labour party has been captured by metropolitan liberals. The promise of ‘levelling up’, town funds, and freeports suggests the Conservatives are working for their votes. Then, whilst trying to reach out to these lost voters, Labour maintain the ‘Tory scum’, ‘same old Tories’ discourse. Of course, Starmer and Labour need to hold the government to account over corruption. But when 4.3 million UK children live in poverty in places like Hartlepool, there are some things more important than John Lewis furniture and expensive wallpaper.
Policy, ideology and values are essential, but they all fall by the wayside when you don’t show people you care and are interested in listening to them. The ‘nasty party’ branding can be shaken off, as has been done by the Conservatives. Labour just need to recognise that it belongs to them now and start reaching out and showing people in places like Hartlepool that they care.