The Labour Party’s Survival Depends on a Convincing Narrative

Time will tell whether the Labour Party has learnt from its past four defeats.
Zeyd Anwar
Founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
Photo credits: UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
April 2, 2021

he decline of the Liberal Party in British politics is a well-known historical tale. Once dominated by political giants like David Lloyd George, the party found itself squeezed between an organised working-class movement and an exodus of the middle class, both of whom were ready to lend votes to the Labour and Conservative parties. For the modern-day Labour Party, a similar threat seems all too real. Unless the party can present a convincing narrative for its existence, it may find itself an irrelevant force in British politics.

COVID-19 has exposed fragilities in the current system. In Britain, decades of market fundamentalism and austerity have left public services inadequate to deal with the pandemic. The virus has also entrenched existing economic inequalities. If the appetite for change existed before the pandemic, coronavirus has accelerated this desire. Research has shown a dissatisfaction in Western democracies, with a big jump — 18 per cent — taking place in the past five years.

For all his flaws, the Prime Minister is sensitive to this mood. Mr Johnson has since concluded from Brexit and the 2019 election that there must be a new economic and political reality. Eager to retain his new working-class supporters, he sees investment in the North as an opportunity to entrench his hegemony in the former red wall. Combined with Dominic Cummings’s pledge to re-write the civil service, drastic political change remains at the top of the government’s agenda.

Of course, such promises could be mere lip service or fall flat when faced with practical challenges. But the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings understand what the people want to hear. What they lack in substance, they make up for in rhetoric.

The Labour Party, then, must respond with its own vision for Britain, one that is underpinned by a coherent philosophy based on first principles. But to achieve such an aim, the Labour Party must avoid the trap of resorting to age old narratives. It must have a vision beyond the old “tax and spend” or “boss versus worker” ideal. This does not mean a return to New Labour. Such days are gone. It means delivering a vision of hope, optimism and modernisation fit for a 21st century Britain.

It is in this context that the Labour Party should make the case for a new, technological Britain. Technology has played a pivotal role in all aspects of British life, from the political economy, foreign policy and domestic matters. And it will continue to do so. We are living through a technological revolution, and the first party to create a new social contract, understand its risks and opportunities, and crystallise this into concrete policy will be able to own the foreseeable political domain.

This is not to say the Labour Party should abandon class politics. It should not. But it must take note that class is becoming an increasingly irrelevant factor in how people vote. While the party should be committed to eradicating the inequalities that arise from class, it should not only pursue class as the basis for an election strategy or narrative. What is required is a greater vision, one that involves class but also goes beyond it.

In the end, the Labour Party wins when it holds a big narrative for Britain. Clement Attlee’s story was to reconstruct Britain after World War Two. Harold Wilson’s vision was to advance Britain in the white heat of technology. Tony Blair’s goal was to take Britain into a new century with a different kind of politics, one that went beyond traditional left or right schisms. And all three Labour leaders secured parliamentary majorities. If the Labour Party wishes to remain relevant in the 21st century, Keir Starmer would be wise to follow suit.

Zeyd Anwar is the founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica


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