The year is 1900, and on a chilly February morning, a group of men in heavy woollen suits are deep in conversation in the Congregational Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street in London.
Exasperated by the existing political parties, these grizzled trade unionists have come together to form a group of their own, the Labour Representation Committee. In the future, it will be better known by the name it adopts six years later — the Labour Party.
Labour’s rise was extraordinarily swift. In less than 25 years, it had overtaken the Liberals to become one of the two great forces in British politics.
In 1924, Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a farm labourer and a housemaid, became its first prime minister.
In 1945, Labour reached its peak, winning a landslide victory under Clement Attlee and establishing the NHS and the modern welfare state. It governed for two stretches under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s, and enjoyed another halcyon period under Tony Blair in the 1990s and 2000s.
Today, such victories seem like ancient history. Labour has known its fair share of disasters, but rarely has it seemed so feeble, so utterly pointless, as it does in the spring of 2021.
Labour’s rise was extraordinarily swift. In less than 25 years, it had overtaken the Liberals to become one of the two great forces in British politics. In 1924, Ramsay MacDonald (above), the illegitimate son of a farm labourer and a housemaid, became its first prime minister
Of course, political fortunes can turn in the blink of an eye. The national mood has rarely been more unpredictable.
All this week Labour has been hammering the drum of so-called ‘Tory sleaze’, clearly hoping that revelations about David Cameron’s lobbying efforts on behalf of collapsed financier Greensill Capital, as well as the furore over the leak of Boris Johnson’s text exchanges with Sir James Dyson, will shift the polls in their favour.
‘Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze!’ cried Sir Keir Starmer in the Commons on Wednesday, trying to revive the spirit that carried Blair to victory in the mid-1990s.
Yet as the former New Labour Svengali Peter Mandelson argued yesterday, accusations of sleaze are simply not enough. He’s almost certainly right, not least because there’s little evidence the public are listening.
With Mr Starmer facing his first electoral test in the forthcoming Hartlepool by-election on May 6 — where Lord Mandelson has been campaigning — he needs a more positive message to sell to voters. But as Labour activists take to the streets of Hartlepool this weekend, the underlying facts make for excruciating reading.
In 1945, Labour reached its peak, winning a landslide victory under Clement Attlee (above) and establishing the NHS and the modern welfare state
Labour governed for two stretches under Harold Wilson (pictured) in the 1960s and 1970s, and enjoyed another halcyon period under Tony Blair in the 1990s and 2000s
Sinking to its lowest level since 1935, in December 2019 their party won a pitiful 202 seats.
Under Jeremy Corbyn it had become associated with national self-loathing, economic illiteracy and the hideous poison of anti-Semitism. And in great swathes of its industrial northern heartland it haemorrhaged votes and seats to the Conservatives.
Mr Starmer, Corbyn’s former Brexit spokesman, has been leader for a year now. A grammar-school boy from a humble background, with a measured, lawyerly style, he was supposed to be the man who would purge the poison and make Labour relevant again.
Yet now it looks like Labour is going backwards. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Hartlepool.
Labour has known its fair share of disasters, but rarely has it seemed so feeble, so utterly pointless, as it does in the spring of 2021. (Above, a poster from the Tory party campaign in 1979)
The North-East port town has not sent a Conservative to Westminster since 1959. Yet, earlier this month, one of the first polls ahead of the by-election suggested Labour was heading for defeat, with its candidate seven per cent behind his Tory rival. While that finding was disputed by Labour, anecdotally the view is that the Tories are in with a good chance.
A Tory victory would be an extraordinary achievement. No government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election since 1982, when the Falklands War propelled the Tories to victory in Mitcham and Morden.
Labour might still squeak home on the night, of course, but the fact that it is struggling so badly in its own heartland, after 11 years of Conservative government, could hardly be more ominous.
For Mr Starmer the small print makes painful reading. His net favourability among Hartlepool’s voters has been recorded at minus 14 per cent. Boris Johnson, by contrast, was on plus 19 per cent.
Despite his forensic Commons performances, the new Labour leader has failed to impose himself on the national imagination.
His supporters praise his earnest manner and lawyerly style. But I am increasingly reminded of George Orwell’s cutting remark about Stanley Baldwin, prime minister in the 1930s: ‘One could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.’
Focus groups paint a similar picture. ‘Keir Starmer has been a massive letdown,’ remarks one voter in a survey of former Labour seats in northern England. ‘He sits on the fence, and in wanting to appeal to everybody he is appealing to nobody.’
But we should not be too hard on Mr Starmer, who seems a decent enough fellow. The truth is that he inherited a party in dreadful long-term decline, and it may well be impossible to fix.
One obvious problem is the Corbyn legacy. The bitter row about Mr Corbyn’s brief suspension from the Party last autumn is a reminder that in some parts of the Labour Party, factionalism, sectarianism and conspiracy theories continue to flourish.
The cultists of the far-Left make no secret of their loathing for the new leader. A recent Guardian column even declared that he was facing ‘political death’ and that Labour MPs were already ‘preparing for life after Starmer’.
Ever since the 1960s, Labour has been increasingly dominated by a high-minded, well-heeled Left-wing elite, from Michael Foot and Tony Benn to Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn (above, in 2020)
That tells a wider story. Labour has never been a stranger to cults and factions, but its activists are now so divided it is hard to see how they can ever come together.
Their trade union paymasters seem to have learned nothing from the 2019 election. Len McCluskey, boss of the giant Unite union, appears outraged by the new leader’s moderation. In a recent radio interview, he said Starmer was heading for the ‘dustbin of history’.
Even Mr Starmer’s greatest supporters, the ultra-Remainers who see this North London lawyer as their natural champion, appear to be living in a fantasy world.
Almost incredibly, some 59 per cent of Labour members think he should campaign to rejoin the European Union. Yet that would surely destroy any prospect of winning back working-class voters in the North and Midlands.
Then there’s Scotland, where Labour is on to its fifth leader in barely a decade. To win a majority nationally without making major gains in Scotland seems almost impossible. Yet a recent poll for Holyrood’s parliamentary elections put Labour on just 18 per cent, a pitiful total by historical standards.
All this is bad enough, but the deeper historical picture is worse.
The original Labour Representation Committee was born at the end of the Victorian era, when millions of men worked in mills, mines, factories and shipyards. Its heartlands were places like the South Wales valleys, the towns along Scotland’s River Clyde and the great industrial areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and County Durham.
Its aim was to ‘promote legislation in the direct interests of labour’ — meaning ordinary working-class people, impatient for better pay and conditions, proper holidays, unemployment benefit and decent pensions.
For decades Labour’s purpose was clear. Not everybody agreed with it, of course. But even its critics could see what it stood for.
Yet who would say the same today?
All this week Labour has been hammering the drum of so-called ‘Tory sleaze’, clearly hoping that revelations about David Cameron’s lobbying efforts on behalf of collapsed financier Greensill Capital, as well as the furore over the leak of Boris Johnson’s text exchanges with Sir James Dyson, will shift the polls in their favour. ‘Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze!’ cried Sir Keir Starmer (above, on Thursday) in the Commons on Wednesday, trying to revive the spirit that carried Blair to victory in the mid-1990s
Just look, for example, at the collapse of Labour’s position in Hartlepool. Back in 1997 it piled up more than 60 per cent of the local vote. Yet in 2019, the Labour candidate, Mike Hill, scraped home with less than 38 per cent. Had the Brexit Party’s Richard Tice not been standing, there is a good chance that Hartlepool would be true-blue Tory already.
In scores of other Northern working-class constituencies, the picture is the same. For decades, Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in seats such as Bassetlaw, Dudley North, Blyth Valley, Workington and even Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield. All fell to the Tories in 2019.
Brexit is part of this story but it’s not the only factor. Time and again, working-class voters have told pollsters that they are repelled by Labour’s apparent contempt for patriotism, softness on immigration, indifference to law and order and general scorn for their cultural and social values.
But the party’s leaders have simply refused to listen.
In a bleak interview with the Observer recently, one of Labour’s most thoughtful MPs, Jon Cruddas, talked of his despair at the party’s plight. A sailor’s son who worked his way up the ladder, Mr Cruddas is appalled by the party’s detachment from the ‘traditions and memories’ of its old heartlands.
As he sees it, Labour has abandoned the British working classes, and is becoming the party of a narrow metropolitan elite, obsessed with ‘individual rights and equalities’.
The ‘radical Left’, he thinks, ‘are writing the working class out of history’, cruelly indifferent to the things that ordinary people love and value: family, community and the dignity of work.
Mr Cruddas wants the party to change before working-class Britain loses faith in it for ever. But I suspect it’s far too late.
Ever since the 1960s, Labour has been increasingly dominated by a high-minded, well-heeled Left-wing elite, from Michael Foot and Tony Benn to Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
Even Mr Starmer is basically another metropolitan lawyer with preachy, pro-European instincts, with little feel for the ‘small-c’ conservatism of ordinary people. It is supremely telling that, according to reports, he had to commission a focus group to decide whether Labour would use the Union flag in its promotional materials.
Would the working men who founded the Labour Party have needed advice about whether to wave their national flag? Of course not.
Even more telling was Labour activists’ horror when the report was released to The Guardian. To embrace the Union flag, declared the Left-wing MP Clive Lewis, was to embrace the ‘language and symbols of the Tory Party’.
Reading those words, I was reminded of Orwell’s observation that many Left-wingers think ‘there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution’.
In the 1940s, when Orwell was writing, the self-loathing of the intellectuals was outweighed by the instinctive patriotism of their working-class colleagues. These days, however, Labour MPs with experience of manual working-class backgrounds are vanishingly rare.
From Brexit and the monarchy to flags and statues, senior Labour figures are utterly at odds with the silent majority. As a Grimsby man told Mr Starmer’s focus group, Labour has become ‘the voice of the students. They have left real people, taxpayers behind’.
For Mr Starmer, the trap is obvious. By pandering to the bien-pensant Left in places such as Brighton and Bristol, he shores up his support among the Labour membership.
But there are not enough such seats to win a general election. He needs places like Hartlepool.
Yet how to do that, without antagonising the ‘woke’ enthusiasts who dominate so many local Labour parties?
And how can a former human rights lawyer, who campaigned for a second Brexit referendum, reassure ordinary people who are sick of being smeared as racist bigots because they backed Brexit?
To make matters worse for Labour, they face a ruthlessly pragmatic Conservative Government determined to hold onto its gains in the North and Midlands. And with Boris Johnson banging the patriotic drum and Rishi Sunak doling out the cash, why would working-class voters choose to ally themselves with the statue-topplers, flag-deniers, cranks and cultists? What would they get out of it?
Labour insiders insist the predictions of doom are overstated. They point out that the party was in similar holes in the late 1950s and early 1990s, but managed to haul itself back from the brink.
But no institution has an automatic right to exist. If you keep straying close to the cliff edge, you’ll probably fall off eventually.
In my lifetime only one man has taken the Labour Party from opposition into government. That was Tony Blair, whom the activists now deride as a traitor. Even in my father’s lifetime only two men have done it — Blair and Harold Wilson.
By contrast, the list of Labour losers stretches on and on: Gaitskell, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Brown, Miliband, Corbyn . . .
The underlying reality is that the Labour Party was created to serve a world that no longer exists. Even its name, redolent of the factories and foundries of Victorian Britain, reflects an industrial landscape that has long since disappeared.
Like so many Victorian institutions, then, the Labour Party has outlived its usefulness. Perhaps the kindest thing would be to put it out of its misery, and start again from scratch.
After all, it is very hard now to see what the party is for, and even harder to imagine it winning another majority. So why not furl the red banners, and call it a day?
I don’t seriously expect Mr Starmer to wind it up, of course. Win or lose in Hartlepool, he’ll stagger on, insisting he can win even though most people know he won’t.
So the Labour Party will drift on, burning with righteous passion. Further and further from the concerns of ordinary voters, ever more irrelevant, ever more insignificant…
And what then? Well, just look at the party Labour replaced. A hundred years ago, Britain had a Liberal prime minister in David Lloyd George.
Millions of people had grown up under Liberal governments, and thought of themselves as natural Liberals.
Then, suddenly — annihilation.
Divided, fractious, out of touch with ordinary voters, the Liberals fell from grace. Once Lloyd George left Downing Street, on October 19, 1922, they never won another election.
Their time had come and gone. They no longer mattered. It was over.
A century on, the end may well be coming for Labour, too.