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Labour Isn’t Listening by Mario Laghos

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Labour Isn’t Listening

The Labour Party’s biggest problem is the average British voter. While the Tories’ view is that the customer is always right, Labour sees the electorate as an obstacle to overcome. If Boris Johnson is a kindly waiter, serving up your every want, then Keir Starmer is the assistant manager, obstinately pushing last week’s soup of the day onto you. 

In the 120 years since the party’s inception, Labour has governed for just 30, despite becoming the official opposition a century ago. Citizen X refuses to buy into their prescriptive ideology; instead, he votes on issues. Death penalty for serious crimes? Absolutely! Slash immigration? You bet! In the same breath he wants nationalisation of utilities and a tax system that puts the burden on the richest. In short, they’re tougher at the border than Priti Patel and to the Left of Rachel Reeves on the economy. For Keir Starmer to sell his brand of socially liberal, economically centrist Labour to the mean small ‘C’ conservative voter of Britain is like stubbornly plugging a round hole with square peg, all the while believing that it is the hole that must change.  

Throughout the noughties, the two parties competed to woo the Waitrose shopper. Tony Blair dropped Clause Four to win Yuppie trust on the economy, and David Cameron legalised gay marriage to put a friendly face on ghoulish austerity. Both peppered their programmes with social conservatism, from introducing anti-social behaviour orders (better known as ASBOs) to tax breaks for married couples, but the overall drift was toward progressivism. This intense electoral battle to win a decisive slither of voters in places like Stroud was made possible because both sides’ core vote remained loyal, and, as Peter Mandelson once remarked, the working-class have got nowhere to go. But the rise of UKIP fractured traditional party loyalties, and both sides haemorrhaged support to the insurgents. At its peak, UKIP led on immigration, but dropped its laissez faire instincts on the economy to accommodate the reality of voters’ wants, pledging to clamp down on corporate tax dodgers and opposing foreign market intervention in the NHS.  

If UKIP was as a tease to disenfranchised voters, then Brexit was the full monty. A chasm opened up between the ‘somewhere’s’ and the ‘anywhere’s,’ and into it, continuity politics—ironically represented by Change UK—disappeared. The man who got Brexit over the line, Boris Johnson, had the nous to remake his party in the image of the somewhere’s. David Cameron’s policies of finding the terminally ill fit for work and hugging hoodies were jettisoned in favour of levelling up, locking up and throwing away the key for terrorists, and getting Brexit done. Labour on the other hand, stubbornly refused to budge. 

Boris recently accused Starmer of being a Corbynista in an Islington suit. That’s not quite right: it is more like Milibandism with a Union flag. All the bits that nobody really liked about Corbynism—the free broadband, the anti-NATO sentiment, and ambitions to unilaterally disarm our nukes—have been dropped. Keir Starmer spent his first year as Labour leader insisting, he had listened, learnt, and was fundamentally transforming the party. The truth, though, is that discarding these whacky hangovers from the 1980’s was the path of least resistance, given the disposition of his own MPs. On all the other major issues—the increasingly outrageous ‘wokeness,’ border control, and law and order—Labour look very similar, if not worse than they did when they were historically rejected in 2019. 

What’s new is that now the leader is seen flanked by Union Flags when he speaks. There’s no singing of the Red Flag. Labour MPs and shadow ministers are keen to get themselves column inches in The Sun and screen time on GB News. Starmer can’t stop insisting he’s a patriot, and that he wants to ‘make Brexit work.’ But these superficial gestures belie the same old policies, now served up in the most cynical and disingenuous ways possible. Given that Peter Mandelson has emerged from the wilderness to resume his role as Labour’s Prince of Darkness, it’s no surprise that working-class priorities have, again, been dumped. 

But Labour’s apparatchiks aren’t so foolish as to come clean, and admit they find the idea of meeting voters where they are as uncouth or unbecoming. They know what the consequences of that would be, having just suffered their worst defeat in a century campaigning to overturn Brexit. Instead, on contentious issues, they deploy all manner of clever tricks and ambiguous slogans to keep up the patriotic charade. 

Take Labour’s response to the Rwanda plan, the government’s latest attempt to deter illegal migrants by deporting them to Africa. Yvette Cooper, Priti Patel’s shadow, slammed the plans as ‘too costly,’ despite never having once critiqued the billions we spend annually on hotel accommodation for illegal arrivals. Keir Starmer, without evidence, pronounced that deportations would be ‘unworkable.’ When the government moved to push back boats, Labour’s line was that this was ‘inhumane.’ Labour’s alternative plan is conspicuous by its absence, and that’s because, although they dare not admit it, they support open borders. But they do their best to try and con the British public into thinking otherwise. For example, in an interview with the BBC, Starmer attacked the government for failing to deliver on their immigration pledges. He suggested that the cause of the present surge in illegal activity, was a result of the government’s decision to slash foreign aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP. Presumably then, Labour would put foreign aid back up, and if that doesn’t work, keep increasing it, dumping billions into Africa in the insane hope that this would somehow deter migrants crossing from France. It would be cathartic if Labour owned up to their true position—that they welcome illegal immigrants—because for the flagging party, abandoned by their traditional white working-class base, new voters can never be in too short a supply. 

Left-wing parties are in decline across the West. From the French socialists to Syriza in Greece, the Left has been routed. In their place and on the shoulders of their former voters, conservative parties and populist right parties, like Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and the Rassemblement national (National Rally), now stand much taller. But there are exceptions. In Denmark, the Socialdemokratiet-led government, in coalition with far-left parties, are well on the way to securing a Rwanda-deal in the mould of the British arrangement. The Australian Labor party recently affirmed its support for offshore processing and attacks its conservative opponents as not spending enough on the border force. Britain’s Labour, though, would not stoop so low as to meet voters even halfway, content as they are to be a Potemkin party. 

Partygate has been the source of triumph for Starmer, the coming to fruition of his gamble of sloganeering and flag waving, while waiting for Boris to implode. Spring boarding off of the PM’s receipt of a fixed penalty notice for breaching Covid regulations, the Labour leader decried Johnson’s rule breaking as ‘unpatriotic.’ At the dispatch box he asked the House of Commons, ‘How can the PM claim to be a patriot when he attacks and degrades the great institutions of our country?’ Again, this attack is as profoundly unserious as it is duplicitous when delivered by the man who spent three long years doing his utmost to reverse the Brexit referendum. What British institution could be more important than democracy? If there are any, lockdown regulations certainly don’t count among them. 

It’s no different on crime. The Tories are letting crime run rampant, Labour insist. And who could deny it? But what would the prospective alternative do in the government’s stead? Well, they oppose stop and search, a crucial weapon in the fight against knife crime. They had nothing of note to say when rioters broke the sacred lockdown to attack British police and pull-down statues. And despite Starmer’s attempts to trade on his credentials as a former QC, he limits himself to talking about the most easily digestible crimes, never daring to stray into critique of Muslim grooming gangs about which he remains eerily silent. 

Strategically ambiguous slogans occupy the place where policy ought in the Labour party. They’re launching a defensive crusade in the name of Justin Welby at the dispatch box with the passion of a zealot, despite opposing the views of churchgoers on all major social issues from traditional marriage to abortion. These attempts to weaponise the venire of tradition and patriotism are done in bad faith, to trick voters in our fast-moving media world that something has changed. And though this might serve to conjure up a midterm polling lead and see gains in local elections, it’s hopeful that this shroud of darkness which hangs around their real agenda will not survive the harsh lights of the debate stage come the general election. The Conservative government are making many mistakes. The problem is though, where we the voters are dissatisfied—on the border, on crime, with fisheries, with the backstop—a Starmer-led Labour government would only turn the dial of dissatisfaction up to eleven. And that’s a shame, because we need a serious opposition with a serious programme to hold the government to account, but, to our detriment, we’re saddled with soundbites and the odd Union Flag. Come the next election, it’s incumbent on us to punish these posturers and reject Labour for the fifth time in a row. Perhaps then they’ll listen. 

Mario Laghos is a political analyst, author, and the editor of Just Debate.