ho would have guessed on the night of December 12 2019 that things could ever get worse for Labour?
Boris Johnson can afford to celebrate – but equal attention should really be paid to the Conservative retreat from London. His invasion of Labour’s heartlands is a remarkable achievement. But let’s not forget it comes at a price – and part of that price is London.
Downing Street’s focus – and favours – have shifted up the M1. The levelling up agenda in next week’s Queen’s Speech will be pitched at more Hartlepools, rather than Herne Hill.
Against this threat, the strategic questions that Sir Keir Starmer has to answer now are simply huge. They go beyond relatively trivial mistakes, such as his office hand-picking a Remainer to contest Hartlepool, where seven in 10 backed Brexit, or focusing too heavily on “sleaze” and wallpaper, which voters do not appear to care much about.
The most fundamental change is that class-based politics are dead and gone for most people. Even in the industrial north, where tribal hatred of the Tories has lingered, the Conservatives are now winning working class voters. Brexit was a catalyst that smashed the glass walls around Tory no-go areas. Hartlepool is the final proof that the Conservatives can keep winning in them.
Labour’s heartland in future may be young voters and graduates, rather than the C2DEs that it took for granted.
Diane Abbott or John McDonnell are disagreeing strongly with that analysis. For Labour’s old left, class politics is both an ideology and a route forward. But modernisers like Croydon’s Steve Reed are saying the party needs to change more, not less, to fit into the modern world.
This means hard choices for Sir Keir, who campaigned for the leadership as a left-winger who would eschew the “moderniser” solutions of Tony Blair. I remember one of Blair’s shadow cabinet explaining the party’s unity on the eve of their 1997 triumph: “We got our betrayals in early.” Sir Keir needs to hurry up if he is to get his betrayals in.