It’s a mighty strange time when a government that has been in power for 11 years wins a by-election on the slogan: “Time for Change.” But it resonated with people in Hartlepool just as it had and continues to appeal to former lifelong Labour voters mainly north of the Trent residing outside our great northern cities.
Shortly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015, I attended a cabinet meeting in which we briefly discussed the result. George Osborne observed that it was the perfect opportunity to see off socialism once and for all in British politics. We all agreed the election of Labour’s new leader amounted to an even bigger act of political suicide than Michael Foot’s manifesto of 1983 and we were right. In due course, Corbyn led his party to its biggest electoral failure in 85 years. What we hadn’t factored in was losing the EU referendum.
Fast forward to 2019 and I was with one of Labour’s best MPs discussing why we weren’t in the same political party given how much we agreed upon. I was arguing for the new party I was now a member of. The two main parties were in the grip of the extremes, and I urged him to have the courage of a handful of his colleagues, leave the Labour Party and join us in creating something new and radical that better represented the values and aspirations of the people we sought to serve and lead.
He shook his head: “No, no, no. We have to lose and lose badly.” His view, shared by many other Labour MPs, was that a heavy defeat at the ballot box would see off Corbyn and his acolytes, leaving the Brownites the Blairites and the other “ites” to simply and swiftly pick up the pieces, stick their party back together and all would be well.
The super Thursday election results prove how wrong they were.
The Corbyn years have done huge, deep-seated damage to Labour. It’s not just the stench of antisemitism, extremism and intolerance that remains in the nostrils of many lifelong voters, it’s not just that they no longer have the same values as Labour, it’s mainly that Labour doesn’t seem to have any values. And every party, every candidate needs to give people a reason to go out and vote for them. Sometimes that can be as cynical as “the other lot are rubbish”, but by and large people vote for a party that broadly shares their values and is largely competent.
Out of office for 11 years with a shadow cabinet no one’s heard of and a leader hugely constrained by a pandemic of tragic proportions, Labour can’t even get on the competence scale. But there are no excuses for its failure to identify and share its values and vision for our country post-Covid with the electorate.
I believe that failure is because the Labour leadership doesn’t know what their values are or what their vision is. They are torn between their traditional voters who have largely abandoned them and those who have stuck by them, and at the same time, the party is dogged by the unresolved battle between the Cobynites and the rest of the party.
Labour’s proud internationalism, its open-minded, small L, liberal traditions don’t resonate with large strands of its white working-class voters who found their voice when they voted for Brexit. Labour is now more the party of the young, ethnic minorities and middle-class graduates living in metropolitan areas, all of whom overwhelmingly voted Remain. But Labour is utterly mute on Brexit, fails to make the case for immigration, refugees and foreign aid for fear of upsetting “red wall traditional voters”. In short, Labour doesn’t know whether it is Arthur or Martha.
It took Labour 14 years to move from Michael Foot to Tony Blair and the keys to No 10. It was clear to a mere observer that it was a long and bloody process requiring huge determination, courage and sacrifice to rid the Labour Party of its destructive hard left.
I am bound to say that two years ago, Labour MPs had the opportunity to turn the tide that now engulfs Keir Starmer. Instead, they chose the easier option of keeping their seats and their heads down. They can no longer avoid the inevitable. If Labour has any hope of survival, it must root out the far left.
You may wonder why this former Conservative should care a jot about the plight of a political party I’ve been fighting against for a large part of my adult life. We need a strong opposition to have a healthy democracy and especially given the blatant populism, cronyism and corruption of the current government.
And there’s this. I’ve never known a time when so many are not just politically homeless but in political despair. I’ve always been a pragmatic, social democratic, small L liberal Tory firmly in the Ken Clarke camp. I’m appalled and, dare I say, angry at what is happening to our country. We have in our prime minister not just the most incompetent and lazy incumbent of the greatest office of state, but someone who lies as easily as he takes a breath.
Johnson’s cabinet is, with few exceptions, a rag, tag and bobtail of sycophants, chancers and second-raters. We are coming out of a tragic and profoundly damaging pandemic despite, not thanks to, our government, though I give them credit for much of the success of the vaccine programme.
We face a hugely uncertain economic future given the twin catastrophes of Covid and Brexit. There are so many lessons to be learnt and problems to be fixed – whether it’s long-standing health inequalities, record waiting lists and an exhausted and depleted NHS workforce. In addition, we have rising levels of poverty, too many unskilled youngsters, climate change – you get the drift, it’s a long list. Our politics is broken and our political system is unfit for purpose. The least we can hope for is an effective and credible opposition.
Anna Soubry was the Conservative Party MP for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire from 2010 to 2019. She left the party to join Change UK in 2019