Labour is doing well, but it could still lose the election. Here are the three big hurdles it must overcome | Matthew Goodwin

Labour has staged one of the most impressive recoveries in history. After finding itself outflanked by Nigel Farage’s national populism, then Brexit, and then Boris Johnson, the party now commands a 17-point lead in the polls over the Conservatives, more than enough to win a majority next year.

Other things also seem to be moving Labour’s way. The implosion of the Scottish National party opens the door to a serious Labour recovery there, which, in turn, will make life much easier for the party in non-London England where, remarkably, it has not won the popular vote since 2001.

And working-class voters, after abandoning Labour in droves, finally appear to be willing to give the party another shot. Since 2019, after the hypocrisy of Partygate and Trussonomics, the Conservative party’s 22-point lead among working-class people has been transformed into a 13-point lead for Labour.

Labour, in other words, is back. But is it? Is it really? Look a little deeper, past the national polls and the day-to-day debates in Westminster, and you’ll find little evidence to suggest Labour has successfully addressed the three big divides that produced populism, Brexit and Johnson.

In my new book, I refer to these divides as values, voice and virtue, and argue that whichever party gets on the right side of them will dominate British politics in the years ahead.

On values, the blunt reality is that for too long Labour has routinely prioritised the worldview, the tastes and the priorities of the new middle-class graduate minority in the big cities and the university towns, while losing touch with much of the rest of the country.

As politics has become increasingly “two-dimensional”, shaped not just by debates about the economy and public services but also by new debates over culture, identity and belonging, Labour’s decision to go all in on the more liberal graduate class has left it dangerously exposed.

The party’s embrace of hyper-globalisation, a hangover from Thatcherism, mass immigration and the hollowing out of national democracy as power drifted away to distant institutions has chimed with the graduate minority but alienated a larger majority of non-graduates, workers and pensioners.

This directly contributed to Labour’s losses. By prioritising the exam-passing classes, and assuming the workers, non-graduates and pensioners had nowhere else to go, the party was easily outflanked by Farage, Brexit and then Johnson.

Jeremy Corbyn at the launch of the Labour party’s election manifesto, Birmingham, 2019.
‘By prioritising the new graduate elite, as Jeremy Corbyn learned in 2019, Labour has been left dependent on voters concentrated in cities and university towns.’ Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Each of these revolts won considerable support from ex-Labour voters who wanted less immigration, slower social change and more political influence, while no longer believing Labour represented “people like them”. Yet, too often, they were labelled racists, “gammons” and “Karens” for thinking this way.

This was compounded by geography. By prioritising the new graduate elite, as Jeremy Corbyn learned in 2019, Labour was left heavily dependent on voters who are simply too narrowly concentrated in the cities and university towns to win large majorities in a first-past-the-post system.

Things are beginning to change, with Keir Starmer’s acceptance of Brexit and focus on crime a sign that he grasps the need to reach out beyond London and the liberal enclaves. But unlike during the era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the gulf over values is now being exacerbated by other, more recent developments.

One is the rise of a radical progressive left which represents only 13% of the British population but dominates Labour and Twitter. Its growing prominence is making life harder, not easier, for the party because on many issues – gender identity, history, Britishness, the legacy of empire, and its much looser definition of racism – its values seem a world apart from the values of the average voter.

As recent events in Scotland underline, pushing aggressively for policies such as the gender recognition reform bill (which, by December, only one in five voters supported and thought the Westminster government was wrong to block) can seriously backfire and have far-reaching consequences. The more progressives dominate the conversation, the better the Conservatives will do.

The other is the reemergence of immigration as a major issue which, curiously, Starmer failed to mention in his “five national missions”. It’s not racist to suggest Britain should have a sustainable immigration policy or be able to control its borders. Most voters want this. And Labour needs to speak to it, loudly, otherwise it risks losing the gains it has made and reopening the door to populism.

These value conflicts are also being exacerbated by the second big divide over voice, namely who has one and who does not. Over the past two decades, Labour has been seriously weakened by its decision to exclude the voices of working-class and non-graduate voters. This has been visible not just in Westminster but in media, creative, cultural and educational institutions, where the voice of these groups is usually only noteworthy because of its absence.

Today, there are almost no working-class Labour MPs in parliament; the party has been taken over by graduates. Political careerists, people who have only ever worked in politics, are now the largest single group in Westminster.

Dominated by the new middle-class graduate elite, many institutions that focus heavily on diversity are not that diverse at all. Many voters are watching the national conversation – the films, television programmes, adverts, debates and more – with a clear and growing sense that the institutions are simply no longer interested in people like them.

And over the past decade, many of these voters have felt pushed away from Labour by their growing awareness of the third big divide over virtue, how some institutions and activists today have simply come to see some groups in British society as more virtuous, more morally worthy, than others.

Whether reflected in the widespread dismissal of white working-class voters as racists, gammons and thickoes after the vote for Brexit, or symbolised by the recent revelation about plans to exclude white students from applying to a postgraduate programme at Cambridge, the rise of a more divisive identity politics has had a very clear and demonstrable impact on Labour.

Those who instinctively dismiss this as the stuff of rightwing culture wars should look to the US where the Democrats’ continued embrace of identity politics has not only stopped them from winning back large numbers of white working-class voters who defected to Donald Trump, but is now pushing record numbers of Latino and Hispanic voters into the arms of the Republicans. Returning to more unifying themes which cut across rather than amplify the divisions among groups is the way forward.

Ultimately, Labour has done remarkably well to stage such a recovery, but in both Britain and beyond it will be these lingering divides over values, voice and virtue that will determine whether this fragile recovery morphs into a much stronger and more sustainable position of power.

  • Matthew Goodwin is associate professor at the University of Nottingham and the author of Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, published 30 March

The Guardian