Frank Field MP
Your MP for Birkenhead
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Sunday Times Review — Frank Field on the future of Labour

23 September 2018
Sunday Times During the 1983 general election (my second as Labour candidate for Birkenhead) I knocked on a door, behind which were seven voters. The mother answered. Was she voting Labour? No. Her husband? No. The five children? No. How many of them were in work? None. How many had been employed in 1979? All of them. And they were going to vote Tory? Yes. Why? “That woman [Mrs Thatcher] got us into this effing mess and she can effing get us out of it,” the mother replied.

How feelings like this, about the current mess we’re in, will affect the next, post-Brexit election is anyone’s guess. Another consideration for future voters, their approval or rejection of the Corbyn effect, is looked at in these studies.

The books are written from two very different schools of thought. Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon are stalwarts of the old left that sees the Blair-Brown governments as a sellout and harks back to the revolutionary reformation of 1945 and Clement Attlee. They are honest about their book, which began as a history of the Strange Death of Labour England and had to be repackaged after Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election success. Those wishing to know about the Corbyn effect can begin reading at page 227.

Lewis Goodall, the political correspondent for Sky News, whose father worked at the Long Bridge car plant, has none of this traditional leftism. His book opens with a personal recollection of how the Blair-Brown-Blunkett education reforms set him on the path from state school to Oxford and Sky. First, early New Labour reforms gave Goodall’s school an extra maths teacher. A second reform offered scholarships to bright kids so they could attend summer camps at Oxbridge. From the first day of camp, Goodall set himself the goal of getting into Oxford. He succeeded, in spades.

Goodall is an example of a Blair success, one who made a life for himself that his parents, and above all his beloved grandfather, could barely dream of. He describes the look on his mother’s face when the letter arrived announcing his admission to Oxford. Here was the joy of a parent whose own humiliations at the hands of our class-based system were being rectified through her son’s efforts.

All three authors called the last election wrong — as did I. All of us misjudged, in particular, the size of the Corbyn vote — a 40% share against the anticipated 28%. But was this such a great victory for Labour? Despite claims by Corbyn’s team that the election was a glorious success (something that set the whole tone for the political warfare that has ensued), it’s worth remembering that the Tories secured a larger share of the vote than in their 1987 and 1992 victories. Mrs May almost plucked victory from “defeat”.

Nick Timothy was the prime minister’s chief strategist during the election. He, like Corbyn, wanted a class-based voting revolution, and set out to win majorities in each social class. His strategy nearly succeeded, with the Tories gaining a particularly large share among the skilled working-class. But how might this play next time? Will people vote as the Birkenhead mum did in 1983, and be swayed by the Brexit fallout? Or will other forces, like the Corbyn effect, be at work, too?

On this score, the books disagree. Both start by examining the reasons for the surprise Brexit result. Beckett and Seddon read it as a reaction by the dispossessed working class to the Blair-Brown embrace of neoliberalism. Their unspoken assumption is that Corbyn will build on that 40%. One more heave and he’s across the line.

Goodall is far from sure. He suggests that within the programme that has so inspired Momentum also lie the seeds of failure. In particular, those key working-class voters who helped deliver unexpected Tory gains in Derbyshire and parts of northern England could be the precursor to a much wider revolt against Labour if traditional voters are turned off by Corbyn’s ambivalence towards what one might call “love of one’s country”. I see merit in both arguments.

The books see the rise of Corbyn as the inevitable consequence of two decades of neoliberal economics. Long before the 2008 crash, this economic settlement was delivering ever thinner gruel as jobs paying decent wages melted away and were replaced by low-paid work heavily subsidised by tax credit payments. The rejection of this has changed the parameters of the key debates in British politics.

But the next general election will not be influenced by economics alone. Another key factor will be Brexit. People will vote, I think, to defend their sense of place, be it local community, town, region or country. Corbyn is calling it right with his rejection of a neoliberal economy, but how will Labour voters balance this against what seems to be his lack of patriotism? Patriotism won’t reign supreme in all regions. In London, Corbyn’s stance will probably boost the Labour vote, but it might play badly elsewhere.

I know where I stand on all this. A programme of social and economic justice is right, but it must be accompanied by an unwavering love of one’s country.

This is the case I will be putting to the electorate in Birkenhead, whenever the next election comes.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England by Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon Biteback £20 pp342

Left for Dead? The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party by Lewis Goodall Wm Collins £20 pp352


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