The Labour Party is not dying, but it is in retreat

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.

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10 thoughts on “The Labour Party is not dying, but it is in retreat”

  1. It all depends what you mean by “The Labour Party”. Certainly their will be a Party with that name standing in most Seats in 2020 & it will get millions of votes. In fact “Labour” could get as much as 20% in 2020, enough to get them up to 100 MPs.
    The point is that is that the thing called Labour wont be the same thing as The Labour Party that existed from 1900-2015. Labour have collectively abandoned the political mainstream & the niche they occupy will be considerably smaller than their old one.

  2. The Labour party have a fundamental problem. And it’s over the EU. If the party comes out against Brexit or for a very soft type of Brexit, they lose much of their Northern working class base. Their formerly core support.

    I doubt the party would fare any better if Owen Smith or anyone else had managed to topple Jeremy Corbyn. The European working classes have been deserting pro-EU centre-left parties in droves. PASOK have virtually ceased to exist in Greece. The PSOE in Spain, the Socialists in France, the SPD in Germany are a pale shadow of their former selves.

    Somehow, the European left has fallen in love with the worst kind of reactionary neoliberal anti-democratic capitalist organisation. Even when it has betrayed their trust with the most appallingly high levels of unemployment, the left wants the relationship to continue. The PTB in the EU don’t even have to pretend to promise to mend their ways.

    The European left generally, has given the likes of UKIP, the FN, the AfD, and other quasi fascist groupings a clear run and are just standing by helplessly while they they are trounced in election after election.

    1. Indeed the party’s problems go much deeper than Corbyn. I think the leadership hopes to follow the anti-establishment path of Podemos or Syriza, and capture voters’ imagination that way, without having to talk about Brexit. It is, incidentally, possible to develop an anticapitalist idea of the EU – such as that proposed by Yanis Varoufakis. I think he feels that breaking down into separate nation-states will give the capitalists an advantage. That case may be less easy to make for the bigger countries like Britain, but smaller countries face a dilemma.

  3. I do agree with much of what YV says. But he’s made his case to in the Greek negotiations last year. He’s written his “Modest Proposal” which I’m sure he understands is much too modest to be of any real benefit to countries like Greece and what’s happened?

    The PTB in the EU have told him to get stuffed! They made him sit at a separate table and wouldn’t listen. They imposed a humiliation on the Greek government. They needed to show more backbone. I hope he has more success in the future. But what democratic route is there? I fear that his time has come and gone. We’ll see.

    Bill MItchell is an ex-colleague of his, from YV’s Australian days, who’s also influenced by thinking. I might just try you out on one of his questions from this week’s quiz.

    “During the American Civil War, the Confederate states experienced rising inflation as a result of their war spending in 1861. The Confederate Government could have eased the inflationary impact of this spending by issuing more bonds than it did.

    True or False?

    1. I don’t agree with most of what YV says! But he’s engaging, intelligent and economically literate – so I do take time to read him from time to time. But he’s a egoist and a one-man band, and a disaster as a politician. As Finance Minister he played a weak hand badly – more interested in proving how clever he was than in working out how to get the best deal possible. That explains much of his isolation in the negotiations and why Tsipras had to sideline and then sack him. The Greeks didn’t need more backbone: they needed more guile – to show that they weren’t a badly behaved minority of one, but fighting for the future of the whole club. The problem was that too many creditors simply thought that the Greek government (backed by a majority of their voters) just wanted to take a holiday at other people’s expense. That wasn’t fair, of course, but it is easy to see why people would think that.
      And as for your poser, I’m no expert on 19thC US economics – and one of my core beliefs is that most such questions depend on context and not general rules of economics. But at first blush I would suggest that it depended on whether the Confederate government was able to find sufficient foreign lenders, and able then to import sufficient goods to make up for lost production caused by the war. I think the answer is a clear no in both cases. After that it would depend on whether whether domestic buyers of bonds would curb their consumption rather than divert money from productive investments.

  4. Matthew

    I can’t see how Labour can make much of a difference to be honest. They do need to get seats back in Scotland, while it makes no difference to Westminster elections in ordinary times, no matter what people are led to believe, they do need Scottish seats now and that is not going to happen. They look likely to finish behind the Tories next May in Council elections which will just compound their problems in Scotland. They are also seen very much of the right now within the Party and I suspect not trusted by Corbyns Labour. I suspect that if we have an early election, unlikely I accept, I would think the Tories will win a slightly larger majority, Labour pretty much stay as they are, like the Lib Dems, SNP pretty much stay as they are or lose a couple of seats to the Tories but might just gain in the Islands and I would be surprised if UKip do anything in England at all.

    I suspect we are looking at the Tories in Government for the next little while. Depending on Brexit, Scotland will probably call an Indy2 in 2019/20. This will be resisted by Westminster at first but will happen either way and is too close to call to be honest, the YES side will start on around 47% of the vote and not the 20% they started on the last time, that is probably causing more sleepless nights than even Brexit in London right now although no one will say it and the press won’t catch on for a while yet. Add the re-unification of Ireland being at least discussed and Brexit becomes the least of the UK’s problems right now, interesting times indeed. Corbyn has little room to move around in, as you say, he can’t go for a soft Brexit in the north for fear of losing votes, he can’t talk up Irish re-unification (which he historically supports) while talking down Scottish Independence as it makes him look stupid and many voters in the South appear to not trust him to Govern, he just can’t win. So while T May might not survive in the longer term she will win at least one election to get some form of mandate but that will be pretty much it. The Liberal Democrats have looked opportunistic trying to capture the remain vote while promising another referendum on any Brexit deal, now I do not disagree with that but the timing is all wrong and Tim Farron may have blown it by coming out with the idea now so close to the leave vote, and it’s clear he sees this as a way for the UK to remain in the EU with the rejection of any deal, he has treated the voters as if they are stupid in my opinion but it is just my opinion.

    Bruce

    1. Thanks Bruce – it is always interesting to have your perspective. From down here, it does not as if the government is worried about IndyRef2. Indeed their comments about the concerns raised by the Scottish government look high-handed and calculated to make Scottish people resentful over English dominance. Not unlike their attitude to the Leave campaign before last June, in fact. But if they aren’t worried, they should be – Scottish independence looks odds-on to me. Quite what impact that will have on NI I have little idea!
      Comments noted about the LDs – though I wonder what the party has to do that is not going be described as “weak” on the one hand or “opportunist” on the other. My take is that the party is increasingly influenced by the idea of a core votes strategy. That means building stronger loyalty with a smaller group of voters – and not caring about upsetting other voters, or fishing for votes amongst the wishy-washy (that can be done later…). One of the best ways of proving your worth to potentially loyal supporters is advocating unpopular policies – sincerity is worthless if it doesn’t cost anything. The second referendum is an unpopular cause but one that has enough support amongst people who are likely to sympathise with liberal values more generally to be interesting. Many LDs, including me, think a second referendum on the EU is as muddled an idea as the first one – but we’re keeping our heads down, as we sympathise with the value judgements behind it.

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