On Labour, leadership, and the Labour leadership (part II): Painting towns red

Craig Berry

The first part of this essay argued that an ability to (re)construct a governing project should be central to how Labour’s leadership candidates should be assessed. Part two considers the policy programme and associated narrative which could underpin the party’s next governing project.

There is a strange case of cognitive dissonance underpinning the contest between Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy for the Labour leadership. Constituency nominations – a useful proxy for member preferences – are seemingly being dictated by classic left/right positioning. Long-Bailey is the continuity Corbynism candidate, and as such most popular among the outgoing leader’s core support base. Keir Starmer, on the other hand, is the frontrunner due to winning support on both the left and right – he stuck with Corbyn until the end, but his advocacy of a second referendum (and, of course, his professional background) is also a signal to Corbyn’s opponents. Starmer is the big tent candidate, albeit not necessarily by design.

Lisa Nandy is trailing both, yet seemingly winning the debate. Nandy’s narrative on ‘towns’ is the intellectual equivalent of Boris Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done’. Indeed it is so effective that Johnson has himself nicked bits of it in an attempt to create divisions within the North and Midlands for the Conservative Party to exploit. Brilliant: when Johnson fails, Labour have a ready-made plan for tribal reformulation. Labour may yet fill the vacuum, described in the opening post, soon to emerge as the Brexit trade negotiations falter. For some, Nandy’s towns schtick is maddeningly simplistic. Perfect: if it is meme-able, it is memorable.

The towns narrative encapsulates both some of the main causes of Labour’s electoral defeats, and some of the key building blocks of how the Labour Party (and Labour statecraft) can be reoriented. Its diagnosis of Labour’s predicament was vindicated by the loss of seats such as Mansfield in 2017 and Leigh in 2019 – part of a broader trend of working-class disengagement from Labour very much evident in Britain’s cities too. And its prescriptions for bottom-up governance apply equally to party organisation and the political system.

As simple as it seems, there is no doubt that the towns story contains dense layers of meaning about class relations, daily life and the everyday economy, democracy and governance structures, and the management and distribution of public services – as well as helping to define communities of interest that need to be reimagined and reintegrated into the labour movement. Towns in this account are not simply administrative units – but rather exemplary of the failings of an over-centralised economy where some places, and people, seem to matter more than others.

The towns narrative is also, perhaps, the first step back to relevance in Scotland, insofar as it indicates an appeal to those voters for whom Holyrood might seem as remote as Westminster. Labour cannot win, in the foreseeable future, without Scotland. Labour’s recent complacency on this issue has to end.

Some aspects of the towns story infuriate me, insofar as one of its layers is labelled ‘Blue Labour’. There is no future for Labour as a left-wing UKIP. However, as one of Labour’s key advocates of a ‘progressive alliance’, there should be little doubt about Nandy’s liberal pedigree, including a commitment to free movement and to resisting anti-immigration sentiment more generally (or indeed her green pedigree).

Representing the parts of our country too often overlooked does not mean seeking to reengineer some imagined idyll of working-class life. Blue Labour was a reaction to New Labour’s maxim that globalisation’s victims had to prepare themselves for a post-industrial future through a willingness to receive less reward for more toil. A socialist solution demands that working-class communities are given voice to shape the forces the right would have us believe are immutable.

Nandy was criticised recently by the writer Nesrine Malik (a must-read author on the stories and tribal identities which shape political life) for describing the Brexit debate as a ‘false culture war’. In this account, Labour’s younger supporters in metropolitan areas and older supporters in smaller cities and towns are depicted as belonging to opposite sides of the culture war – and however much we may sympathise with the latter’s plight, it is not permissible to dilute or abandon the liberal values embodied by the former.

Yet it seemed to me Nandy’s argument was rather different to that suggested by Malik. Whatever the terminology, it is clear that Nandy recognises the ‘culture war’, and has done more than most to join the fight on behalf of progressive values, as a mixed race woman committed to respecting and representing her electors whichever way they voted on Brexit. Her point, surely, was that the Corbyn leadership had succumbed to a simplistic view of the enveloping cultural conflict of which Brexit is symptomatic, and that this had determined its attempt to simultaneously get Brexit done and offer a second referendum, rather than advocating firmly for a softer version of Brexit from an earlier stage. In this more nuanced account, Britain’s towns are not a participant in the culture war, but rather its front line – Labour should be actively involved in fighting for liberal values within towns, not writing them off from afar.

Labour should obviously be categorical in opposing the Atlanticist, ultra-neoliberal Brexit that Johnson is drawn towards. But Labour can utilise the prospect of national renewal and local autonomy narrated by Brexit, injecting it with urgency, substance and solidaristic values. The agendas around community wealth-building and worker ownership – associated with Corbynism, to some extent, but supported across the Labour Party – have begun to sketch such an approach. The challenge now is to ensure their next iteration better encompasses the lived experience of the communities and workers who will become carriers of these ideas in practice. The urge to press a replicable ‘model’ of local governance and generalise about a ‘turn’ in institutional practice is, for the most part, well-meaning. But it confuses observation for action, and in itself does little to address the alienation at the root of Labour’s predicament.

That said, at its best, this agenda presents opportunities to integrate new and existing civil society institutions, including trade unions, into the Labour’s next governing project. (That EU membership is no barrier to this approach in practice is irrefutable but, for the moment, irrelevant. Labour must choose relevance.) The towns narrative is Labour’s best hope of unlocking these opportunities. But the choices the party makes in the next few weeks will decisively shape its prospects in this regard. Accordingly, the final part of this essay moves on to considering the strategic dilemmas which will confront Labour’s next leader.

Craig Berry is Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Part 3 is here.

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