Yesterday’s Batley and Spen by-election near miss may well be further evidence of a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates of British political history.
Blair’s glory days of 1997 (418 Labour MPs by comparison to today’s 202) must seem a distant memory to Sir Keir Starmer, nursing his wounds and preparing to see off a leadership challenge from hard lefty, Angela Rayner. Labour’s hegemony in Scotland is all but destroyed (41 seats reduced to just one, and a wipe out in local government). And Tory victories in a whole slew of ‘Red wall’ seats across the North of England and Midlands, including the unheard of mid-term by-election victory for the Tories in Hartlepool and coming so close in Batley and Spen must mark a new low point in Labour’s history. They are ten or more points behind in the polls when, after 11 years of Tory Government, they ought to be riding high.
So what is going on here? It seems to me - and political predictions come with an automatic self-destruct mechanism to prevent readers smirking when they are wrong - that Labour have outlived their usefulness. They have lost their Unique Selling Proposition, as the advertising men call it. For a century, their role (as they saw it) was to represent working people; to uphold the virtues of Socialism; to fight for a big state against over weaning capitalism; and to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Yet some of those ideas are now simply outdated. Working people are all aspirant middle-class people now, and the flat cap and muffler trades union comrades of old Labour look antique. If you are an aspirant climber in society; if you care about having enough funds for outstanding health and education; if you realise that a strong economy is a fundamental must-have; if you live in a decent house in a some pleasant suburb somewhere, then you are hardly likely to vote Labour. In other words, the question before the House is: “What are Labour actually FOR?” I really find it hard to say.
The final demise of a political party has, of course, happened before. The Whig Party existed for the best part of 200 years (twice as long as Labour) and ruled supreme from 1714 until 1783 leading historians to describe the period as ‘the Whig oligarchy’. Yet by about 1850 they disappeared altogether and were never heard of again.
The Liberals formed governments for much of the following 70 years yet disappeared by the 1920s when they were replaced by Labour as the main opposition to the Tories. By the 1950s they were winning as few as six seats at general elections (it’s eleven today), and apart from notable by-election victories, their only moment of greatness came by forming the 2015 Coalition. How they must now rue that day.
My personal instinct is that the whole British political landscape is undergoing some pretty fundamental changes, and the disappearance of Labour may well be part of it. Like Twain, they would no doubt protest that “News of our death is greatly exaggerated.” On behalf of some of my very good friends on the Labour benches, and as someone who firmly believes that we need a strong Opposition, I very much hope it is.