Keir Starmer has let Boris Johnson off the hook and ignored good policy. He urgently needs to change direction

Instead of waging war on the left, party leadership needs to build on the popular, progressive work in previous manifestos and craft a vision for the country voters can follow

Richard Burgon
Friday 07 May 2021 15:10
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Today’s daily politics briefing

The defeat in Hartlepool is a huge blow for Labour. With the possibility of a general election in just two years’ time, we need to quickly learn the lessons.

The starting point for any Labour revival must be to rebuild the kind of broad voter coalition that denied the Tories their majority in 2017. Then Labour won 40 per cent of the vote nationally.

Would that be that good enough? Clearly not. But it would be a key staging post on the road to victory. After all, 2017 was the first time in 20 years that Labour increased our number of MPs. It was our second highest vote in England in almost half a century. We even won 53 per cent of the vote in Hartlepool.

Constructing such a broad alliance is especially important given the Tories have used the Brexit debate to reorganise the right of British politics. Since the referendum, they have secured more than 42 per cent in both general elections, compared to 34 per cent on average in the five elections before.

How does Labour do this? Strong opposition, a clear vision and popular policies can win us back seats from Keighley to Kensington. The first job of any opposition is to oppose. If you are going to build a broad voter base against the Tories, you need to take the fight to them, both to weaken their support and to pull all anti-Tory voters behind you.

But in the past year Labour’s leadership has treated the government with kid gloves. The Tories have been let off the hook for their disastrous Covid-19 response.

Most importantly, Labour must start to spell out its own vision. But in this election campaign, it simply wasn’t clear what the party stood for.

Policies from our recent manifestos continue to be much more popular than the party itself. They are backed by a large majority of voters. The pandemic has made many more relevant than ever: from free school meals for all primary school children, to an end to zero hours contracts, big investment in rebuilding public services and free social care.

Here, the wind should be in Labour’s sails. Even the Tories have had to adopt the language of “levelling up” and “building back better”. While in the US, Joe Biden is pursuing a progressive domestic agenda funded by tax increases on the rich.

Labour should be acting with similar boldness to paint a picture of the country we want to build out of the pandemic: a fairer, more equal and more inclusive country.

Yet during the past year Labour’s leadership appears embarrassed by much of the progressive policy developed under Jeremy Corbyn and has quietly sidelined it.

So our attempt to win back those who left us for the Tories or Brexit Party has been reduced to nothing more than shallow flag-waving. This fails to appeal to those voters on issues where Labour can best win their support. We should be the party offering them a vision of how an active state can guarantee people economic security, well-paid jobs, decent homes and local services they can be proud of.

Ditching our popular policies has also seen many of those who did back us in the disastrous 2019 election going to the Greens and other progressive parties. We simply can’t afford to take those voters for granted.

In Washington, Biden has sought a constructive relationship with progressives in his party and adopted many of their big policy ideas. In contrast, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have waged war on the left to show Labour was “under new management”. That approach has failed.

Labour can’t go on as we are. The leadership urgently needs to change direction. We have the popular policies needed to rebuild our support. The leadership needs to start championing them.

Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East and a former shadow secretary of state for justice

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