ANDREW ADONIS argues the opposition leader needs to repair economic wounds in the Labour heartlands.
Maybe the most significant thing to happen in Keir Starmer’s first 100 days as Labour leader, almost precisely on the 100th day, was the announcement that John Lewis’s flagship store above Birmingham New Street station is closing for good.
John Lewis Birmingham opened with fanfare less than five years ago, as the anchor tenant in the new retail area above the formerly desolate New Street station, rebuilt at a cost of £750 million over the previous six years.
As a symbol of the long-term economic degradation in the so-called Red Wall of parliamentary seats across the Midlands and the north, which heralded Labour’s post-2010 demise as 41 of their formerly rock solid Labour constituencies went Tory in last December’s election, the demise of John Lewis Birmingham is totemic.
It is true that the hard-pressed retailer is also closing stores in Croydon and Swindon in the wake of Covid-19. But the word on the high street is that the flagship Birmingham store never made much money even before the latest crisis, and it would have closed anyway under the company’s new chief executive.
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Its demise is the equivalent for the Midlands of shutting down both John Lewis and Waitrose on Oxford Street in London’s West End, those citadels of aspirant southern England. Were that to happen, John Lewis would be winding up or going entirely online.
The immediate politics of John Lewis Birmingham point both ways. A casualty may ironically be Andy Street, the self-same chief executive who did the deal to open John Lewis at New Street and who is now Tory mayor of the West Midlands, elected in that once solidly Labour region two years ago as an early breach of the Red Wall. But Street is a canny and energetic Brummie and I wouldn’t write him off.
But whatever happens in next year’s mayoral elections, a fundamental problem for Labour is that it bears such deep political scars from the economic decline of the Midlands and the north as the dominant representative of these regions for decades past.
There was nothing inevitable in the collapse of the Red Wall, given how much of the devastation in the Midlands and north, relative to London and the south, was down to Thatcher in the 1980s and Cameron/Osborne austerity after 2010.
But blame in politics isn’t a matter of trial by 12 jurors after exhaustive deliberation on the evidence. It is a matter of gut feeling and narratives.
If there were an inquest, I could give evidence on Labour’s behalf as the minister who invested hugely in schools across the Red Wall and started both the New Street reconstruction and the HS2 high-speed line to Birmingham and the north.
But it is party leaders, not minions, who frame national narratives. And the narrative that won through in the past decade is that Labour and its southern metropolitan leaders let much of the Midlands and the north rot and are still doing so.
A brilliant new book by Steve Rayson, The Fall of the Red Wall, makes this argument compellingly. ‘The Labour Party no longer represents people like us’, is the refrain of his study of the recent history of the increasingly challenged and largely deindustrialised townships of the Midlands and the north, which account for most of the seats which went Tory in last December’s general election.
The city centres, with their universities and services, have fared better, but even that may be about to change.
One of his key arguments is that political trends don’t just follow economic data and objective responsibility. They are driven by narratives and messengers. Since Tony Blair, Labour has had no effective messenger, particularly north of Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington.
The Tory narrative that Labour is to blame and what the north needs is a fresh start, symbolised by Boris Johnson’s Brexit, has won through, however ludicrously.
It will take more than 100 days of a mainstream Labour leader to rebuild the Red Wall, particularly another one from North London. But I can see an immediate Starmer-shaped opening in the wall. Birmingham New Street needs a new anchor tenant. How about moving Labour’s headquarters there, 100 miles north of Westminster?