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.