John Harris

Journalist & Author

Who should Labour speak for now? | John Harris

Labour 2020: In the first of a week-long series looking at the questions Labour will need to answer if it’s to win power at the next election, we begin with the state of the party itself – and who it is there to represent

For the past five years, I have spent a lot of time visiting Labour’s old heartlands. And in the south Welsh valleys, the English north-east and the central belt of Scotland, what has hit home time and again is people’s bafflement about what the Labour party actually is. Its older supporters seem to vote for it merely out of habit; those under 30 have absolutely no idea what is meant to distinguish Labour from its adversaries. In more marginal seats, moreover, mention of the party tends to prompt little more than sighs of indifference.

Right to its roots, Labour and the supposed “movement” some dreamy people still talk about seem to be rotting away. In the days after Margaret Thatcher died, I pitched up with my film-making Guardian colleague John Domokos in Merthyr Tydfil, where we spoke to an 18-year-old woman who couldn’t find a job. Domokos whispered: “Ask her if she knows what a trade union is.” I duly did. “No, I don’t,” she said. “What’s that?” Labour has endured crises, but this kind of profound estrangement is why its post-election troubles feel existential.

Outside the Westminster fishbowl, they seem cold and mechanistic, and devoid of any real sense of how people live

Related: Tristram Hunt: ‘Labour needs a summer of hard truths’

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