To judge by the stories coming up in my Facebook feed, you would think that Britain’s Labour Party was in its death throes. The party is further away from winning national power than ever, but it is far from dying. Something more subtle is happening.
The chatter arises from the two most recent parliamentary by-elections, where Labour’s vote has crashed. I have written about Richmond Park already – this was a straightforward squeeze to get the Tory out. A week later came Sleaford and North Hykeham – and this is much harder to explain away. This is a safe Conservative seat in Lincolnshire, which voted heavily for Brexit (unlike Richmond Park). The Conservatives lost a couple of percent in vote share, but Labour crashed by 7% to 10%, from second to fourth place behind Ukip (whose vote share fell by 2%) and the Lib Dems (who increased by 5% to 11%). Various other candidates scooped up an unusually large 11% (up 5%), including a Lincolnshire Independent who took nearly 9%.
The first thing to say about this result is that it is a remarkable victory for the Conservatives, a year and a half into this parliament. While Whitney and Richmond Park showed that pro Remain voters distrust the party, in pro Brexit seats (which are in a hefty majority in England and Wales) there seems to be no problem. It seems likely that they are picking up votes from Ukip, while losing a few Remainers to the Lib Dems. This seems to explain Ukip’s lacklustre performance in what should be home territory for them. But Ukip and the independents clearly picked up votes from Labour.
And thus come the predictions of Labour’s demise. Their lack of a clear message on Brexit, the main issue in British politics for the foreseeable future means that they are being squeezed by both the Lib Dems and Ukip, and will not be able to hold the line between the two. Voters sceptical of Brexit will be attracted to the Lib Dems; enthusiasts for Brexit will be tempted by Ukip or the Conservatives. Meanwhile Labour members’ attention is being drawn by its internal politics, as far left activists led by Momentum, fresh from their victory of re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, try to take control at all levels, and dictate the candidate selection process. The spectre of the party repeating the collapse it has already suffered in Scotland in England is raised. Amidst all the chatter, though, it was instructive to read Andrew Rawnsley in the Guardian. He describes how Labour veterans are consolidating their hold on the Labour organisation through solid, grassroots organisation. Momentum, an awkward alliance of veteran hard leftists (many expelled from Labour) and younger idealists freshly recruited to politics, is, in fact, losing momentum. Internal splits within the pressure group have been widely reported.
The truth is that in much of the country, Labour does not face a serous political challenge, and in a few places it is mounting a serious challenge to the Conservatives. The threat from from the Lib Dems is grossly exaggerated. The Lib Dems have barely begun to claw back their standing amongst both metropolitan leftists (who will not forgive the coalition with the Conservatives and the breaking of the party’s pledge on tuition fees) and working class voters of all ethnic groups. Richmond Park showed that such voters may once more hold their noses and vote tactically for the Lib Dems, but this logic does not affect areas where Labour is already strong. The Lib Dems seem to be mainly picking up Conservative Remainers – and that may help Labour rather than hinder it. Certainly in the area of London where I live the Lib Dem revival, such as it is, is evident in Tory areas, and there is no evidence of it all in the poorer estates.
Ukip threatens more, with an appeal to white working class voters, an important part of the Labour coalition. Labour seems unable to craft a message that appeals to these voters, or not without upsetting other important parts of the coalition, such as ethnic minority voters and metropolitan liberals. But Ukip is not a well-organised party. It lacks maturity. Furthermore its culture celebrates the awkward squad – the oddballs and angry types – from which it is hard to forge a cooperative team, as can be seen from the farcical attempts to replace Nigel Farage as leader. Liberals have a big advantage here – having a predilection to listen and cooperate. Ukip’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, is rightly focusing on Labour voters, but delivering a credible challenge will be an uphill struggle. They do not remotely present the scale of threat to Labour as the SNP have in Scotland.
And we must remember that Labour remains strong in large parts of the country, particularly London. They have plenty of members, strong local party organisations, and councillors. They have the ability to reach out to voters person to person to establish local bonds of trust. The party was not strong in either Sleaford or Richmond Park, so the results in these seats say little about how the party will perform in its strongholds. Around where I live the party is comfortably winning the local by-elections – and is as strong as I have seen it in 25 years or so.
So Labour is long way from dying. But it does seem to be in retreat in areas where it was not so strong in the first place. The Lib Dems do seem to be picking up here, resuming their role as the main challengers to the Conservatives in rural areas, to judge by a steady record of success in local by-elections (with another good set of results last night). As last week’s Bagehot column in the Economist points out, Britain’s political geography is fragmenting, with the country becoming a patchwork of different political contests. Labour will find it very hard to break out of its strongholds, as Lib Dems, Ukip and the SNP consolidate their hold on other areas.
Can Labour break out of this dynamic and regain a national appeal? It has been done before, in the 1990s by Tony Blair. The party’s current leadership, hopes to do so, with a re-launch promised. It hopes to pick up on an anti-establishment mood, using Mr Corbyn’s persona and a left-wing policy platform. We will see. Labour’s problem is less its policies than a perceived lack of competence, something that Mr Corbyn’s persona will do nothing to correct. The public may yet be attracted to radical left-wing policies in these strange times – but the platform is being developed in a process of members talking to themselves (which activists optimistically regard as “democracy”) rather than engagement with a sceptical public.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have little to worry about from Labour. Their main worry is the internal tensions in their party arising from Brexit – a process that will be quite unable to sustain the expectations placed on it. As doubts over Brexit grow, the party’s support is bound to melt. That will be the big political opportunity. The Lib Dems and even Ukip are readying themselves for that moment. There is little evidence that Labour are. But the party is far from dying.