Labour’s defeat: the bigger picture

Labour’s defeat in December forms part of a larger crisis of social democratic parties in the West.

A recent review by Labour Together of the Labour Party’s major defeat in December 2019 acknowledges that, whatever the specific failings of the campaign or the leadership at the time, there were a number of longer-term processes at work, as I indicated in an earlier post. Labour’s vote had been declining over the last twenty years in many of the seats that it lost (Labour Together review pages 34-36). Many working-class voters had felt alienated from politics as the two main parties were increasingly seen as “the same” (pages 45-46). Cultural issues such as immigration and the European Union are overtaking traditional class loyalties (pages 48-51). There has been a decline in party loyalty and a rise in vote-switching among the electorate (pages 41-43; David Runciman made a similar point in a recent episode of the Talking Politics webcast – his comments are at 18:30).

Whatever the British-specific elements, the defeat needs to be seen as part of a bigger picture of the decline of social democratic parties, both in Europe and the United States. The report cites a study by Giacomo Benedetto et al, that looked at the electoral fortunes of European social democratic parties over the last hundred years, and linked their recent decline to the processes of deindustrialisation and deunionisation that have been at work since the 1980s. The trade union (and co-operative) movement used to bind a large section of the working class to the social democratic parties through a sense of collective interest, and as those bonds have weakened working class voters have been drawn away to the populist right or more radical left. Most notoriously, Greece’s centre-left PASOK shrank to a shadow of its former dominant self, as its voters deserted it: “pasokification” is a threat haunting most of Europe’s centre-left parties.

Those parties have reacted to that threat in different ways. The Netherland’s PvdA has stayed the course on the centre-left, and suffered electoral reverses (and successes). Germany’s SPD has recently elected a left-wing leadership after concern grew in the ranks about the damaging effect of the SPD’s participation in Angela Merkel’s centre-right government. France’s Parti Socialiste under Benoît Hamon shifted to the left but couldn’t reverse the slide in the party’s popularity. The Danish Social Democrats have rejected neoliberal economic policies but have also moved sharply to the right on immigration policy; they emerged as the largest party at the last election but formed a coalition with other more socially liberal parties. All of these parties are contending with the break-up of their old power bases; none of them have come up with a magic solution.

Coming back to the British situation, these trends create massive challenges for Labour in recreating a winning electoral alliance. It seems that a majority of British voters remain broadly left-wing on economic issues (Labour Together report page 51), so that Labour’s call for economic justice should have a broad appeal. However, Boris Johnson was successful in blunting the impact of that advantage by making his own promises to abandon austerity. Moreover two key blocks of voters that Labour needs to win, younger voters in the big cities, and the older working class, are facing different ways on cultural issues (the Conservatives’ electoral base is more homogenous). Keir Starmer seemed to be reaching out to socially conservative working class voters with his recent positive comments about patriotism, but he attracted a lot of criticism for his attack on the Black Lives Matter movement, and he has had to row back. Younger, urban, multi-ethnic voters are more socially liberal, and Labour cannot assume that they will remain loyal if it leans too far in the other direction: if there ever was such a thing as “electoral capture” (see my previous post), there certainly isn’t now. Without these voters, victory will remain out of Labour’s grasp. How can Labour square that circle? I hope to explore possible ways forward in future posts.

There’s one crucial difference between Labour’s situation and other European social democratic parties: the U.K.’s first-past-the-post, two-party system. In a proportional representation system, centre parties are vulnerable to being outflanked from the political edges. In a two-party system smaller parties are squeezed; conflicts between the political centre and the edges tend to be fought out within the two main parties, as the recent history of both the U.K. and the U.S.A. has shown. That means that Labour is less likely to suffer the political near-death of pasokification, but in this economically and politically unstable era, one can predict more internal conflicts for the party ahead.

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