“If Starmer really wants to win back the Red Belt, he should heed the advice Drakeford gave him as the incoming leader to ‘retain the best ideas from the last two manifestos.’ As Wales shows, elections can be won from the left.”Steve Howell
One of these days, the Labour party will actually have a grown-up discussion about an election. But over the last week or so that prospect has seemed more distant than ever.
The dismal tone was set within minutes of the Hartlepool by-election result being announced when Steve Reed MP popped up on our screens spinning the excuse that ‘while voters like the leader, they don’t trust the Labour party’.
A few hours later, Lord Mandelson appeared arguing the same line and saying it was because of the long shadow Jeremy Corbyn cast over the party.
If your aim was to provoke uproar among the membership, this was certainly the way to do it. Thousands of us, whether canvassers or candidates, had been out campaigning for weeks and were bound to be indignant that those in charge were saying it was all our fault – either for being distrusted ourselves or for previously electing such a dodgy leader.
But the spin soon ran into reality. As the other results came in, a different picture emerged: while Labour had bombed in Hartlepool, we were doing exceptionally well in several other areas.
Were we, in fact, seeing the exact opposite of the Reed-Mandelson spin? In Hartlepool, Keir Starmer was effectively on the ballot paper, but we were doing better where he wasn’t a big factor in how people voted. Was he the problem, not the party?
So, let’s test all this against some hard evidence. No one disputes that Labour’s national equivalent vote share in these elections was 30%. This can validly be compared with our 32.9% British vote share in the 2019 General Election. In Hartlepool, our share fell from 37.7% in 2019 to 28.7% in the by-election.
Given a drop of nine points in Hartlepool and three points across the country, it’s hardly credible to say this is the fault of the predecessor who did better. It’s even less becoming to then attack that former leader for doing interviews to defend himself.
A new explanation had to be found, and the commentariat soon obliged by telling us that the Tories had had a vaccine bounce and that the pandemic had made it extraordinarily difficult for the opposition to get its message out.
This, it has to be said, is a more credible line of argument. It can be no coincidence that the two Labour figures who delivered the best results were Mark Drakeford and Andy Burnham, both of whom had a high profile throughout the pandemic as leaders of Wales and Greater Manchester respectively.
Burnham saw his vote share rise from 63.4% in 2017 to 67.3%. Meanwhile, Drakeford was to the fore as Labour equalled its best performance in Wales by winning half the Senedd’s 60 seats, including 27 of the 40 constituency ones. Its vote share of 39.9% was five points higher than in 2016.
The Wales result is arguably the most instructive for Labour because the Welsh electorate – while different from England’s in some respects – spans the full range of demographics, from cosmopolitan Cardiff through rural conservatism to former coalfields with the same deprivation levels as those over the border.
Labour lost six seats in Wales in the 2019 general election. All of them had Leave majorities. All went to the Conservatives, with Labour’s vote share fall by an average of 10pts. This contrasted sharply with strong Remain-voting seats – such as Cardiff North and Cardiff Central – where Labour’s share hardly fell at all. The problem, clearly, was Brexit.
Wind the clock on two years, with Brexit out of the equation, and four of those six seats – Delyn, Wrexham, Clwyd South and Bridgend – returned Labour candidates to the Senedd. Of the other two, the Tories narrowly took the Vale of Clwyd and Plaid Cymru hung on to Ynys Mon, which they had held since devolution began while vying with Labour and the Tories for the Westminster seat.
It’s extraordinary that, in the thousands of column inches devoted since Hartlepool to discussing how Labour can win back the Red Belt, there is rarely even a passing mention of the fact that in Wales the party has shown how it can actually be done.
Prior to the election, the feedback from voters in the Red Belt seats in Wales was that they were looking for reasons to come back to Labour and that they knew and liked the fact that we were for ‘community’ and not being ‘held back’. They wanted Labour to show ambition not only for them but for young people on issues such as jobs, social justice and the environment.
This became encapsulated in the campaign message ‘Build Back Fairer’ and was underpinned by a raft of progressive policies in the manifesto, ranging from commitments on jobs, low-carbon housebuilding and workers’ rights to policies that would extend social ownership, including an expansion of renewable energy generation by public bodies and community groups, the creation of a Community Bank for Wales and a commitment to eliminate private profit from the care of looked-after children.
The manifesto, while being realistic in terms of Welsh Government powers and the likely funding available, reflected the radical politics of Drakeford who, as an adviser, was the architect of the ‘clear red water’ strategy that previous First Minister Rhodri Morgan used to distinguish Welsh Labour from Tony Blair’s government and was the first Senedd member to declare support for Corbyn in the 2015 UK Labour leadership election.
His success is at odds with claims made by Starmer’s principal adviser. In April, Mandelson told students at King’s College in London that “it’s simply a myth that Labour can win from the left”. To back up this up, he made the absurd assertion that the 12.8 million people who voted Labour in 2017 were voting for Remain, not socialism.
He said: “It was like a rerun of the referendum the year before, when the Leave half of the country lined up solidly with the Tories, and indeed increased the Tories’ vote share, and the Remain vote quit the Lib Dems and swung around behind Labour, raising our vote share too.”
In fact, according to the authoritative British Electoral Study (BES), fewer LibDems (600,000) switched to Labour than UKIP voters (700,000) in 2017 compared to 2015. This is why Labour’s vote share increased in that election almost as strongly in the North East (+8.6pts), Yorkshire (+9.9pts) and the West Midlands (+9.6pts) as it did in London (+10.8pts).
Indeed, Hartlepool itself is testimony to how well we did in winning Leave voters back. While UKIP’s vote share there fell from 28.0% in 2015 to 11.5% in 2017, Labour increased its share 17pts to 52.5%. The Tories only edged up 6pts to 32.4%, and the LibDems lost their deposit in both elections.
Winning Leave voters back was key to Labour holding nearly all the Red Belt seats in 2017 – and even gaining some (of the 30 seats we gained in 2017 in England and Wales, 17 were Leave voting). This was achieved because we had largely neutralised Brexit as an issue by pledging to honour the result of the referendum. People were voting on everything else that was in an explicitly radical manifesto, contrary to Mandelson’s claim.
To win an election, Labour has to capture dozens of seats in Leave voting areas, where all the polling suggests there is strong support for public ownership, workers’ rights, public investment and ending privatisation in the NHS. If Starmer really wants to win back the Red Belt, he should heed the advice Drakeford gave him as the incoming leader to “retain the best ideas from the last two manifestos”. As Wales shows, elections can be won from the left.
- Steve Howell was an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn and is the author of Game Changer, which gives an insider’s account of Labour’s 2017 election campaign. His second novel, Collateral Damage, was published in April and tells the story of a Palestinian woman’s battle to expose a Foreign Office cover up of her lover’s death.