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.

Labour’s defeat: a long time coming

Labour’s defeat was the result of processes that have been at work for twenty years or more.

The Labour Party has always been based on an electoral alliance of the working class and the progressive middle class. In December this alliance (partially) broke down. The referendum result had already exposed the deep divisions in British society: between those with higher education and those without, between north and south, between the big multi-ethnic cities and the smaller ex-industrial towns and villages, and between young and old. The Tories spotted their chance: by stealing some of Labour’s clothes, especially with Boris Johnson’s promises of state support for troubled employers and investment in the neglected regions, they cracked open Labour’s electoral alliance and forged a new one of their own.

I would argue that, although there were conjunctural factors (above all Brexit), this was also the culmination of a long-term process. What has come back from many canvassers is a sense that a lot of working class voters felt betrayed by the Labour Party, that it no longer represented them (see for example Tariq Ali’s article in the London Review of Books of 23rd January [paywall]). I think that this has been building for some time. Some of it is down to the neoliberal political consensus that reigned from the mid-nineties really through to 2015: that the free market had to be left to operate without state interference, and that there was no alternative to this (TINA, “There Is No Alternative”, was Norman St John Stevas’ nickname for Margaret Thatcher). The massive deindustrialisation of the eighties and nineties (crucially for the labour movement the elimination of the coal industry) left many workers feeling powerless. As Jos Gallacher put it, When Tony Blair told us that ‘globalisation’ was as inevitable as the turn of the seasons, he was defining the costs of economic change as outside the scope of political action. A whole layer of Labour voters was lost after 1997, who felt excluded from the political system and didn’t find a way of expressing their protest until the opportunity of the EU referendum in 2016.

This was compounded by the New Labour concept of “electoral capture”, advocated by Phillip Gould in particular; according to this, the working class had nowhere else to go electorally, and so Labour could focus on producing micro-policies that could attract middle-class floating voters. Organisationally that meant that the historically Labour seats in the Midlands and North were treated as a resource to be exploited; time and again, incumbent MPs sitting on large majorities would be offered a peerage just before an election, and the emergency candidate selection procedure used to parachute in one of New Labour’s favourites. It may be a myth that, when visiting a chippie in his Hartlepool constituency, Peter Mandelson mistook the mushy peas on offer for guacamole, but it indicates a certain perception of the way that the Labour Party was evolving.

From the beginning of the millenium, living standards began to stagnate for the great majority of the population. Labour’s vote was already slumping badly in the 2005 election, but the key moment in the 2010 campaign was when Gordon Brown was confronted by 65-year-old Gillian Duffy in Rochdale. She wasn’t very articulate, but she was trying to complain about unfairness in the benefit system and about EU immigration; disastrously, Brown’s mic was still on in the car as he was being driven away and recorded him complaining about that…bigotted woman (for the transcript see here). It encapsulated the image of Labour as representing the liberal elite; years afterwards a colleague of mine from a working-class background still felt resentment about that incident.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 promised a change of direction, and an opportunity for Labour to break with neoliberalism and offer a real alternative. However, as David Runciman and Helen Thompson pointed out in the Talking Politics podcast (Episode 204, at 0:29:40) his leadership team was still concentrated in London, and a large part of his base in the party was made up of the kind of urban, university-educated, downwardly-mobile millenials who have also been losing out since the beginning of the millenium. Sociologically the gap between the party membership and most of its voters was as wide as ever. Crucially the membership was significantly more pro-EU, and never really engaged with the concerns of pro-Leave voters.

Bridging these divides would be no easy task for any leader, and it will be interesting to see if Boris Johnson can hold together his new electoral alliance. However we should remember that this situation isn’t unique to Britain. In a future post I want to look at the Labour Party’s problems in the context of the wider crisis of social democracy.