Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.
Not only is it 16 years since Labour last won a general election but, 11 years into a period of Conservative government, when all political precedent suggests they should be gaining ground dramatically, Labour are actually rolling backwards.
The writing has been on the wall for some time, but Labour politicians have refused to see it. They have sneered at the values of their own voters, implied that they were stupid to vote for Brexit, and have harangued them with a “woke” agenda that either disinterests or alienates them.
When Emily Thornberry was forced to resign over a tweet showing a white van and England flags during the Rochester and Strood by-election, it was not because she was out of line with the Labour leadership’s instincts, but because she had let the mask slip.
Labour despised the very values of patriotism and economic self-improvement that made people like my grandparents vote for them. After the referendum, they not only told voters that they were wrong to vote for Brexit, but they tried every parliamentary manoeuvre (assisted by the disgraceful behaviour of John Bercow and a handful of ultra-Remain Conservatives) to try and thwart the democratic decision itself.
The party’s current policy of saying “Brexit is done”, without trying in any way to make it a success, and with no policies whatsoever on how Britain should view its future outside the EU fools no one – including the voters of Hartlepool. Many of them strongly believe that the Labour leader and much of his parliamentary party are closet rejoiners who simply lack the courage to say so. Labour may be doing relatively better in areas that voted Remain, but that is not where they need to be recovering.
Dominated by a London-centric metropolitan core, they obsess endlessly about “culture war” issues, whereby “taking the knee” is more important than any concrete ideas on how to run a complex pluralistic country like the UK. The image of Keir Starmer kneeling may have thrilled supporters in their urban base, but it has not gone un-noticed in their former heartlands, where they are haemorrhaging votes.
In the north of England, while the Conservatives have talked about levelling up and providing much overdue capital investment, Labour has talked to its own ever more unrepresentative echo chamber of metropolitan culture warriors. According to voter segmentation studies, only around 13 per cent of voters fall within the “progressive activists” label (what many of us would have referred to as the trendy lefties in the past), yet they account for some 58 per cent of all the activity on social media.
Labour has become so obsessed with listening to, and responding to, its activists that they have forgotten to listen to the voters. Many of those who used to support them simply do not know what the Labour Party is for.
Are they still an aspirational socialist party in the mould of Harold Wilson, the paler social democratic version of Tony Blair – or the full-blooded hard left epitomised by Jeremy Corbyn? In their former heartlands in the north of England and Scotland, once their banker for electoral success, they struggle even to be relevant – never mind dominant.
To blame Starmer, as the Labour left have been quick to do, for their current predicament is (at least to an extent) unfair. It will take some time to expunge the memory of Corbyn and his team’s toxic brand, tainted with tolerance of anti-Semitic behaviour, comfortable with the bully boy tactics of Momentum and a twisted worldview that despised the United States, but admired Venezuela.
There is a temptation for any political party, at the time of dire results, to take comfort in the belief that “things can only get better”. I remember Conservative MPs taking this line after the defeat in 1997, and before the drubbing of 2001. We need only look across the channel to see how once dominant political parties have become increasingly diminished or completely swept aside.
In the last German federal election, the once ultra-dominant CDU and SPD parties won barely 50 per cent of the vote between them while, in France in 2017, the runoff did not include a candidate from one of the traditional left or right parties, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic – with their combined vote share a historic low of 26 per cent.
One of the greatest strengths of the Conservative Party is that it understands that if it wants to avoid external coalitions, it needs to maintain an internal coalition. Periodically, usually after an extended period in office, the party can forget this, and engage in a bout of factionalism and ideology which lands it a period on the opposition benches.
But its ability to understand this one basic electoral truth is what has made it the most successful political party in the history of Western democracy. But in every healthy country, a credible opposition is required to hold government to account and to ensure that the national interest always takes priority over internal party politics.
Whatever the short term advantage to the Conservative Party of a dire, divided and directionless Labour Party, the national interest requires a respectable, patriotic and competent alternative to be available. Labour are far, far away from being that alternative at present. If they do not understand their predicament and react accordingly there is no reason why they should survive a realignment in British politics. The principles of Darwinism apply in the political world too: adapt or disappear.