Keir Starmer has announced his intention to make Labour more ‘patriotic’. But will embracing working class patriotism win Labour the keys to N010?
Imagine the scene. You’re a senior Labour Party apparatchik and you’ve been called to a secret meeting inside the party’s HQ in Victoria Street. It’s January 2021 and the party’s still reeling from its disastrous General Election defeat of 2019. Keir Starmer has only been leader for nine months and is yet to find his footing. Already there are rumblings that his performance has been lacklustre.
You arrive and are ushered into a conference room. There, you are greeted by the party’s head of research, who after preliminary niceties gives a presentation. Slides, based on research carried out by brand agency Republic, detail a strategy to win back “foundation seats,” the term the party now uses for the Red Wall. Data from focus groups held across the country feed into this plan. For example, an ex-Labour voter from Grimsby is quoted as saying: “They (Labour) are the voice of the students. They have left real people, taxpayers behind.”
From this a strategy is born. One of the leading recommendations is that: “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial, etc, give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.”
The leadership gets behind the new approach. Indeed, WhatsApp messages fly through the ether, urging party officials to: “prioritise the union jack header images, not the plain red ones.”
And it continues. In a twenty-one minute speech on 4th January 2021 to outline his, and the Labour Party’s, new contract with the British people Keir Starmer’s uses the word “patriot” or “patriotic” six times, talks of his pride in Britain twice, and describes Britain or one of its institutions as “great” four times.
The new strategy is in keeping with a narrative which has taken hold since the election defeat. According to influential critics, Labour lost because it was out of touch, a party dominated by “political hobbyists” pursuing “ideological purity” over improving ordinary working people’s lives.
Such a view was put forward by John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw in an article for LabourList in which he stated that his voters were ‘fed up with Labour’s anti-Brexit metropolitan elite’. The same sentiment was expressed even more starkly by the ‘Blue Labour’, pro-Brexit trade union activist Paul Embery who asked in an Unherd post why the Left sneered at the traditional working class.
But is this a true reflection of the country’s mood in 2019? Is it why Labour lost? And if so, will the new strategy propel Starmer to N010?
Let’s look at the evidence. Opinion polls are far from perfect. They’ve been very wrong in the past, most infamously in the 2016 US election when they predicted Hillary Clinton would beat Trump, and in the same year when they said Remain would trounce Leave. But the pollsters have tried to improve since, and regardless, outside an election they’re the best we’ve got for taking the pulse of the nation. So, with that health warning in mind, what do they say? In a YouGov poll of February 2021, respondents were asked how patriotic they felt the Labour Party to be. 41% felt the party lacked patriotism, with only 35% feeling otherwise. Contrast this with the Tories, where 55% of respondents felt they were patriotic, and just 24% thought they weren’t. Finally, let’s look at how patriotic people feel themselves. 61% of respondents answered they were patriotic, with only 32% saying they weren’t.
Conclusively and if we trust the polls, we may argue that Brits are patriotic (61%), and feel the Tories are too (55%) but don’t think Labour is (only 35% think they are). This is a problem, right? It’s bad for a political party to be so out of synch with the electorate. But is it?
Why voters cast their ballots for a particular party is surely complex. And patriotism is just one virtue. Labour has traditionally been strong on health and education, yet the Tories have won more elections than Labour since 1945. Would anyone seriously suggest that all the people who ever cast a ballot for the Conservatives wanted to see illiterate children and untreated patients? Similarly, the Conservatives are seen as strong on defence and law & order, but Labour has won its fair share of elections. Did those who voted Labour want the country invaded, or overrun by criminals?
That said, some issues undoubtedly matter more than others. The Labour party has often been viewed as profligate with the public finances, and this is something a major study found to have historically damaged their electoral chances. So, the question is not so much whether Labour is at odds with the public mood on patriotism, but whether this is a key value which damages them at the polls.
The idea that Labour should embrace patriotism is inexorably tied to the concept of the Red Wall. But what is it? The term conjures an image of something impregnable, like Hadrian’s Wall which the Romans built to keep the Picts from rampaging south. In reality, it’s a little (a lot) more prosaic than that. But in the months and years since the night of 12thDecember 2019, it’s taken on almost mythic importance. Indeed, a narrative has emerged that these are constituencies comprised of working-class people, whose views and attitudes were held in disdain by the Labour Party, not least by the far left, embodied by the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, summed this up most when he wrote in ConservativeHome that the Tories had been “calling for a ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ revolution and a focus on the issues that matter to those working class towns outside of the Westminster bubble.” But is this an accurate reflection of what the Red Wall looks like?
The concept originates with the Conservative pollster, James Kanagasoorium, and a Twitter thread he posted on 14thAugust 2019, it was the ninth tweet in the thread which coined the now (in)famous phrase of a red wall stretching across the North of England which posed cultural barriers to Tory penetration.
Kanagasoorium talks about “cultural factors” against voting Conservative. But his point has been misunderstood, and this is key to how the Red Wall has been seen ever since.
These are not homogenous concentrations of working-class people, who live in social housing and work in traditional heavy industries. Instead, these seats are made up of a similar proportion of older voters who own their own homes to comparable seats elsewhere, where people are far less reluctant to vote blue. What Kanagasoorium was saying, was these were places which had undergone demographic change and social mobility, to the point they reflected Conservative constituencies.
This is a subtle, but vital difference. Because as the political analyst, Lewis Baston, wrote in The Critic, if we think of the Red Wall this way, the question isn’t why the Conservatives won these seats in 2019, but why they failed to do so in 2010 and 2015. Part of the explanation was undoubtedly historical. Deindustrialisation scarred these areas but as memories faded and new opportunities arose, the toxic legacy attached to voting Conservative wore off
Or, as Neil Carter, Professor of Politics at York University pithily put it when speaking to YorkshireLive: “The people who started talking about the ‘red wall’ seats were looking at them demographically – age, occupation, and housing…If this seat was somewhere else, it would be a Conservative seat, but it was still voting Labour.” None of this is to say all is well in these constituencies. The pain caused by the decline of heavy industry has healed somewhat, but major disparities remain. And it is these which explain why the Red Wall finally crumbled.
There is no better explanation for why Labour lost the Red Wall than suggested by Danny Mckinnon. In an article titled Regional Inequalities and the Collapse of Labour’s Red Wall, McKinnon argues that that the UK has one of the highest levels of regional inequality of any major European economy, and globalisation has made this much worse. The result is three regions, with very different economies: the dynamism of London and the South; the weakly performing North, Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland; and Scotland, which is more prosperous than the second group. These regional inequalities began in the 1980s and coincided with the government of the day abandoning policies which aimed for equality across the regions. Instead, they pursued neoliberal strategies designed to support the growth of the most economically competitive areas. This in turn led to a concentration of infrastructure investment in London.
But the hard fact for Labour is the voters blamed them for having taken them for granted and not responded to the economic woes and needs of those working-class and lower middle-class citizens who once represented their base and who – out of sense of frustration more than anger – voted Conservative.
Indeed, such was the accumulated anger caused by Labour’s perceived abuse of trust, that some voters blamed their local Labour MP and council for national government policies, despite the fact Labour hadn’t been in power since 2010. This was most starkly demonstrated by an interview the BBC Political Correspondent, Chris Mason, conducted with two former Labour voters in Hartlepool.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the specifics, Labour has a serious image problem. It isn’t that they don’t wave the flag, or cheer enthusiastically for the England squad, or whatever other metric of patriotism one might choose, but rather a sense they had their chance and blew it.
In making my case, I risk accusations of burying my head in the sand, or worse, patronising Red Wall voters. Readers of this article might assume I’m saying there’s no problem and Labour doesn’t need to change, or that their woes are all Red Wall voters’ fault for misunderstanding the causes of their complaints.
But this isn’t my argument.
Labour is at fault.
They do need to take responsibility.
To return to the quote above by the ex-Labour Grimsby voter, they acted like the voice of students, rather than hard-working taxpayers. For years they failed to tackle those historical, regional disparities identified by Danny McKinnon, and that’s simply unforgivable.
Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 Presidential campaign coined the phrase “The economy, stupid”. I contend that quite simply, what the Conservatives promised in 2019 was to reverse the abandonment of redistributionist regional policies. In effect, they promised to turn their backs on monetarism. Is this not the very definition of their levelling up agenda?
This is something Labour could have, and should have, done after Blair won his huge majority in 1997. It is shameful cowardice that they didn’t. The Tories undoubtedly made a real and lasting breakthrough in 2019. Its unlikely Labour can ever rebuild an impregnable Red Wall. As Lewis Baston puts it, any wins will be leasehold, not freehold. But this is no different to many other seats. Indeed, once safe Tory seats in the south are now vulnerable due to demographic change to LibDem challenge.
And there is good news for Labour.
Another famous quote which is relevant, albeit one which harks back to Watergate: “Follow the money.”
And a lot of Government money is flowing north. What’s more, much appears to be going to the constituencies which voted Conservative, as the party seeks to shore up support amongst those who abandoned Labour. They need to do this, because Tory support is soft.
An opinion poll last month found two thirds of respondents in the North East and North West think Government spending in their region is too low, but only 12% expect the Government to keep its levelling up promises.
Labour needs to capitalise on this and take advice from none other than…Dominic Cummings. Writing in his personal blog, his advice to Labour includes telling good economic stories and picking apart the government’s economic failings. Conspicuous by its absence is anything about waving the flag.
Cummings is right. Labour needs to convince Red Wall voters it can level up better than the Conservatives. Because only by offering a truly convincing alternative on economic parity, can they hope to restore their fortunes.
A journalist and author, James worked for over 10 years in Current Affairs television and documentaries, researching and producing films for Channel 4 Dispatches, PBS Television and National Geographic. In print, he’s penned articles for the Times Educational Supplement and the Times Higher Educational Supplement. James also has PR experience, working for three years as a Political Officer for Slough Borough Council where he advised local councillors on policy implementation and media relations.