Recently, a piece in the Guardian (I forget the details) stated that Starmer’s main task was to revitalise the Labour Party which was demoralised by the 2019 defeat. I suspect that in this statement ‘the Labour Party’ refers to the Parliamentary Party and/or the London Establishment. In this Westminster bubble-centred view, the 2019 result occurred because of Jeremy Corbyn suddenly losing support in a swath of previously safe Labour seats (the so-called Red Wall). This typically lazy view can only mean those who repeat it have not taken the (small amount) of trouble to look at the data – which shows over and over that in very many of those seats the Labour share of the vote had been declining in one election after another, dating back to the Blair era, when they were taken for granted and the Party focussed on gaining support in ‘middle England’. Interestingly, there was one election in which this trend was markedly reversed. That was of course 2017, and the Party leader was Jeremy Corbyn. They have to ignore that, because the message would be very different – that the way to go would be to present a genuine alternative set of policies under a leader who could be regarded as showing a different way forward.
The 2017 election, and the run-up to it, was very remarkable, for those of us on the ground. There was a massive upsurge in membership, which was reflected in the large number of people out canvassing and delivering leaflets. I recall one councillor, in a safe Labour ward, commenting that in previous elections he had to do it all personally, whereas now he was supported by teams of volunteers. And this was also noticeable in the enthusiasm of the voters, despite some who said they couldn’t stand Jeremy Corbyn. One memory stands out: when we were canvassing in one area, a passer-by stopped us to ask for a window bill – I’ve never had that happen before. Furthermore, a bit later he passed by again on his way back from the shop and asked for another – he had given the first one to someone in the shop who had asked for it. In the end the whole town was plastered with Labour posters.
We were ecstatic to win this seat, and we felt that, if there had been more support and enthusiasm nationally, we could have won the election. It seemed that some in the London establishment did not actually want us to win.
That feeling was even more apparent in 2019. My interpretation is that the establishment was frightened by the prospect of real change, in the country as well as in the Party, as it threatened their control of events, and their comfortable existence. They actually preferred Labour to lose, so they could regain control, even if it meant continuing to subject us to Tory rule. That was demoralising.
And what has Starmer done as a response? Suspended or ejected many active members of the Party, refused to allow us a free choice of candidates, and failed to come up with clear policies for radical change. As a consequence, attendance at branch meetings has collapsed, and we struggle to deliver leaflets or raise teams for canvassing. This is a strange way to ‘revitalise’ the Party. What is the point of it, if all we are offered is a (perhaps more efficient) imitation conservative government? Starmer may think he is doing well, with a substantial Labour lead in the opinion polls, but that is mainly driven by the unpopularity of the Tories. Unless he comes up with something that will really revitalise the Party – taking the water industry back into public ownership rather than just imposing fines, would be a start, and would have a lot of popular support – that lead could easily evaporate.