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Opinion

Labour are in bigger trouble than you realise

Results are still coming in for the 2021 elections and while they’re not all bleak for Labour, writes Jonn Elledge, they are mostly bleak.

As I write, the results of Britain’s bumper crop of elections – 5,000 seats across nearly 150 English councils, the entirety of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, plus assorted mayoralties and police and crime commissioners for flavour – have barely started. The recriminations, however, are in full swing. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Labour is in trouble.

It’s hard to say that’s wrong. Okay, there are vast numbers of results still to declare, including many that should look better for the party and worse for the Tories. Labour’s Tracy Brabin is the favourite to comfortably win the new West Yorkshire mayoralty, which covers a hefty chunk of Red Wall; the party might gain West of England, a sort of Greater Bristol & Bath, from the Tories, too. What’s more, the fact the party of government has seemingly given up hope of ever again governing the capital – whose mayoralty it held a mere five years ago – has gone weirdly under discussed.

But if it isn’t all bleak for Labour it is, nonetheless, mostly bleak. The Hartlepool by-election is shocking not so much for the result as for its scale. If the Brexit Party hadn’t won 25 per cent of the vote in 2019, Labour would have fallen in 2019 anyway, but it’s a 16 point swing, with more than half the votes, 51.9 per cent, going to the Tories. (Now where have we heard that number before?)

We’re going to see a lot of takes over the next few days that can be summed up as “these results show that I was right all along”Jonn Elledge

Jonn Elledge

More worrying, though less discussed, will be the party’s almost certain failure to take the West Midlands mayoralty. That conurbation, of nearly 3 million people, contains 28 constituencies, most of which used to vote Labour. It’s also younger and more diverse, so it’s not immediately obvious why it shouldn’t be following London and Manchester into Labour’s arms.

Oh – and no one is expecting any resurgence in Scotland. Without that, it’s hard to see the party getting a majority ever, ever again.

We’re going to see a lot of takes over the next few days that can be summed up as “these results show that I was right all along”.

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Already today, I’ve read people seriously suggesting that the results show that Labour needs to be more proudly left-wing/centrist; that they remind us how much damage Jeremy Corbyn did/how much his leadership had to teach us; and that the party’s mistake was not to oppose Brexit/to oppose it too vehemently.

Peter Mandelson, who himself got 51.9 per cent of the votes in Hartlepool when first elected back in 1992, has been on the radio to point out that the only time Labour has won elections since 1974 it was headed by Tony Blair. This observation comes under the heading of being true but unhelpful, since last time I checked the party did not have a 1994-vintage Tony Blair, his instincts and charisma as yet un-ravaged by years of war and government, to hand.

My fear – this may also be summarised as “I was right all along”, sorry – is that the truth is that who leads the Labour party isn’t actually the most important thing. Neither is its position on Brexit, nor exactly where it pitches itself on the Blair-Corbyn spectrum, and certainly not its policies. Those things do win or lose you voters, sure (with the possible exception of policies); but they aren’t the big reason that Labour is losing.

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The depressing truth is that Labour is being shafted by demographics. A big reason places like Hartlepool are voting Tory is because they’re stuffed to the gills with older people, who own their own homes, hold more socially conservative views and probably lead pretty comfortable lives: they’re voting along the lines of economic self-interest. The weird thing is not that they’re voting Tory: it’s that it’s taken them this long, plus the referendum/UKIP/the Brexit Party acting as a gateway drug, to start doing so.

How did towns like Hartlepool end up older than the UK average? Basically, because there aren’t any graduate jobs there. Every autumn, a significant chunk of 18 year olds leave red wall towns to go to university, most of them never to return. Instead, they end up in London and Bristol and Manchester and Cambridge and Brighton because that’s where the jobs are.

All these destinations, you note, are places where Labour and the broader left do pretty well – have, indeed, consolidated their position over the past few years. The problem is, this process is unbalanced: there are fewer seats attracting younger people and turning left than there are losing them and turning right. First Past The Post managed to turn a slight popular majority for Brexit into an overwhelming parliamentary majority for it. Now it’s doing the same for the Tories, too.

Still, the results are still flowing in, and this is, as noted, exactly what I thought beforehand. Maybe there’ll be some good news. Maybe I’m just plain wrong. If I’m right, though, the Labour party is in far bigger trouble than even its sternest critics suggest.

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