Tony Blair has urged Keir Starmer to reject “woke” politics and present a programme for government that is “radical without being dangerous”.
A report published by the Tony Blair Institute analyses the impact of class on voting in the 2019 general election and beyond. Based on analysis by the veteran pollster Peter Kellner, it points to particular problems for Labour with two groups: the 26% of voters who fit into the formal definition of middle class; and the 12% who would be defined as working class by pollsters but consider themselves middle class.
The first group voted 57% to remain in the EU, yet the Conservatives were 22% ahead with these voters in 2019, despite their central message being that they would “get Brexit done”. These voters, the former Labour leader suggests, are “worried about issues like tax and economic competence”.
The second group, whom Blair calls the “aspirational working class”, voted to leave the EU by a narrower 53% but backed the Conservatives over Labour by a 32% margin.
In a punchy foreword, Blair claims of this latter group: “A large number voted Conservative despite disagreeing with the party on Brexit. They thought Labour’s far-left economic policy was a bigger threat than Brexit.”
Without what he calls the “millstone” of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, Blair claims Labour can win many of these voters back – and analysis of recent polling in the report shows a 12% swing to Labour among this “blue-collar aspirational” group.
The former prime minister suggests they are social conservatives, and thus urges Labour to ensure it is on the centre ground on “culture war” issues such as transgender rights.
Blair says the party should “plant Labour’s feet clearly near the centre of gravity of the British people, who want fair treatment for all and an end to prejudice, but distrust and dislike the ‘cancel culture’, ‘woke’ mentality.”
Labour has sometimes appeared to struggle with culture war issues. For example, Starmer and the party chair, Anneliese Dodds, were criticised recently for being unable to give a straightforward answer to the question: what is a woman? A clearer frontbench line has since been agreed, resulting in the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, telling an interviewer: “Men have penises, women have vaginas, here ends my biology lesson.”
The Conservative party co-chair Oliver Dowden has sought to capitalise on the party’s discomfort, accusing Starmer in a recent speech of “kowtowing to the cancel culture brigade” and claiming: “The Corbynistas, they are still there.”
Starmer has been accused by some on the left of Labour of winning the leadership under false pretences by espousing key tenets of Corbynism during the campaign in 2020 and then moving towards the centre ground.
Blair also calls on Labour to work on rebuilding its economic credibility, as he says the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has already begun to do.
“Labour must cure both its cultural and its economic aspiration problems. It must do the first to regain those voters who went Tory despite being traditional blue collar. These are the northern ‘red wallers’. But Labour must also do the second to have any realistic chance of winning,” he says.
He also warns Starmer against excessive caution – something the Labour leader is charged with by some colleagues. “The bane of progressive politics is to think the choice is between being voter-friendly and boring, or exciting and voter-repellent,” he says.
As an example of the kind of radical policy he would like to see, Blair suggests tackling concerns about illegal immigration by introducing biometric ID as a precondition for accessing work and public services.