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Sir Keir's Torment

The Royal Navy sailing towards Jersey may have had something to do with Labour’s shellacking in Hartlepool : after all, according to local legend, the people of that fine town once hanged a monkey as a French spy. It is probably more to do with the vaccine rollout. Maybe even more to do with changing demographics – many in the ‘left behind’ seats are better off than they once were.

But how ever shattering this result and the others, it is much worse than you thought.

Conventional wisdom has it that Sir Keir Starmer has a ‘mountain to climb’ to become Prime Minister. It is considerably harder than that. After all, the most distant, difficult peaks are regularly scaled with the application of skill and fortitude. Labour’s task is more like the torture designed for Sisyphus, that Greek chap who was condemned to rolling a boulder up a very steep hill, only to see it roll back down again. Camus says we ‘must imagine Sisyphus happy’ as he trudges downhill to resume his never-ending task. It sometimes feels as though Labour leaders have no alternative but to embrace the futility of their thankless mission.

Labour persistently avoids facing up to the hard truths behind its ever shrinking electoral power base – first to fall were the seats in Essex, then most of the South outside London, in 2005 Scotland was lost, and by 2019 even the old English heartlands of the Midlands, Wales and the North crumbled. Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn had their flaws, but this is a clear and steady trend, not the particular failure of a single leader. It is down to the collapse of the alliance at the heart of all social democratic parties, between the liberal urban middle classes and the old working class in forgotten towns. Sir Keir’s task is made worst facing a cynical, populist Conservative party willing to pay lip service to one half of that old alliance.

That needs to be confronted head on. But first consider the scale of the problem.

Judging by the results of the last election Labour needs to win 124 seats to win a precarious majority of just one. But the task is bigger than that. The boundary changes which will be recommended in the Summer of 2023 are likely to give the Conservatives 15 extra seats, and cost Labour 9.

The slope will the that much steeper, the stone that much heavier.

If that wasn’t enough, Labour victory at the next election requires not one but two separate miracles. First the collapse of Boris Johnson’s vote – OK, there’s no sign of that happening, despite the pounding Johnson has taken in the media over the last few weeks, but stranger things have happened.

The second miracle looks less likely – the collapse of the SNP vote in Scotland. Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 included 56 Scottish seats. By the time

Gordon Brown was kicked out of Downing Street in 2010 that had declined to 41 : not bad for over a decades wear and tear. Now ? Just one remains, Edinburgh South.

Without a really dramatic turnaround North of the border the first miracle has to be that bit more miraculous – Labour taking back not just the ‘Redwall’, not just seats in Essex, the South and Wales, but Conservative seats it has never, ever won. Feel that boulder slipping backwards ?

The inescapable fact is that it is very hard to see how Keir Starmer becomes Prime Minister without the help of the SNP. It could be a formal arrangement; it could be done with distaste and reluctance on both sides, vote by precarious vote. But a Labour Government would be forced into some such arrangement, in the absence of those twin miracles. That will be glaringly obvious by the time of the next election – but almost impossible for Labour to cough to. This lack of frankness makes it very hard to design a strategy to deal with the problem.

In the face of this looming inevitability many Labour politicians adopt the posture of the three wise monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil – just whistle a happy tune and hope nobody else will say the nasty words either. Except it is not wise, nor even tactically smart. Come the next election that elephant in the room could suck up all the oxygen and proceed to break the furniture, egged on by Labour’s foes.

It is easy to see why this critical question is plonked in the ‘too difficult’ box. No political party ever likes admitting it may need a partner in power, -- and I write as a veteran of morning election news conference, harrying Paddy Ashdown about the Lib Dems preferred political partner -- but the current fragile state of the Union tied in to bubbling questions of identity, push it far beyond the natural reluctance of a party to face up to its own weakness. Remember that poster of tiny Ed Miliband poking out of Alex Salmond’s breast pocket, warning voters the Scottish tail would wag the Labour dog ? Never mind Mrs May never suffered the indignity of being portrayed as tied in behind an Ulsterman orange sash. Life isn’t fair.

The Conservatives don’t have to be too savvy to deploy a similar picture of Sir Keir under Sturgeon’s arm, to do even greater damage.

It is not just that any hint of a deal would undermine Labour’s valiant struggle to regain seats in Scotland – it would give voters there permission to indulge in a form of ‘cakeism’ – vote SNP and still get a Labour Government in Westminster. It would of course dismay Scottish Labour.

But the impact in the South would be even more profound. Just a sniff of a possible post election alliance would be anathema to the very voters Labour needs to woo back in England. Former Labour voters who switched to Conservative in 2019 disproportionately identify as “English” rather than ‘British’ –according to one study the Conservatives won over 27 such “English” voters for every 10 gained by Labour.

It is reasonable to assume that a heavy baggage of resentment comes with that ‘English before British’ identify – a feeling that the Scots get more than their fair share of taxpayers money, that politicians of the left are eager to salute St Andrew’s Saltire, while sneering at the flag of St George. These voters are the ones Sir Keir is attempting to win back with the liberal application of the Union Jack – and who might be more than a little put off by a deal with the SNP.

So it is not surprising that some are arguing for a pretty hard line – a firm promise of no coalition, no pact, no deal and, just to hammer home the point, - no indi ref 2 (or perhaps by then 3) during the life time of a Labour Government. This has the virtue of clarity. It has the disadvantage of not being particularly believable. It is easy enough to rule out a formal coalition, seats around the cabinet table, ministerial cars and what not. It is less credible for a minority Government to refuse to talk seriously with the people who are keeping them in power vote by vote. A second election on ‘who rules Britain?” perhaps ? That always works so well, doesn’t it?

More credible is some sort of firm promise to those ‘English first’ voters. Some argue for a separate English parliament but there’s merit in a simpler approach – a formal commitment to change the law so that only English MPs can vote on English laws. True, it raises a whole host of questions – could you have a Scottish Education or Health Secretary, or indeed Prime Minister who couldn’t vote on their own legislation ? Such constitutional questions traditionally bore voters, but it is pretty clear, after years of piecemeal devolution, the Union could simply fall apart without some sort of tinkering. Some exasperated Labour MPs, who’ve been banging on about the problems for years might settle for members of the shadow cabinet saying “England” or “English’ every now and then.

This won’t be enough on its own to stop the boulder rolling down the hill again -- Labour has to confront the fractures in its old alliance, and think beyond the eternal battles between the party’s two wings. But confronting unpalatable truths would be a start.

In saying ‘we must imagine Sisyphus happy’ Camus is arguing that only by embracing absurdity and the pointlessness of it all can we even pretend to contemplate contentment. The danger for Labour is almost the opposite – cheery optimism in the task, while deep down accepting the inevitability of failure. Imagine Sir Keir happy ? I’d like to try.

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