Labour pays the price for internal party democracy

We don’t have a complete body yet, but the post-mortem has started. (Credit to The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the post-mortem without a body metaphor, which I find very appealing). The Conservative victory in the traditionally Labour seat of Hartlepool is not especially surprising, but the scale of that victory is greater than expected. Looked at in a broader, longer term perspective, though, and it is quite startling.

The scale of the result was not because the Tories did unexpectedly well (most people thought they would hoover up the Brexit Party’s substantial vote), but because Labour’s vote share sank from 38% to 29%. An independent candidate picked up nearly 10%, and that seems to be were most of the Labour loss went – though a string of other candidates picked up about 1% each. That included the Lib Dems who sank back from 4%; they had been in second place no so very long ago.

The first thing to say about this is that the Brexit referendum of 2016 has proved an astonishing political success for the Conservatives, if an unintended one. It has fractured the Labour Party. At first many of their voters went to Ukip and then the Brexit Party. The Tories then undermined and demolished these insurgent parties and scooped up the bulk of their votes. The party has been brutal to its own Remainer supporters, but has managed to keep many of these in tow – though as Hartlepool as on one of the most Leave-supporting areas of the country, the by-election itself does not provide much evidence of Remain-supporting Tories staying with the party. Now that the country has left the EU, the politics of Brexit are much easier for the Tories to navigate. Remainers can still be painted as bad losers, unpatriotic and metropolitans sneering at the working classes, while Remain supporting politicians have no convincing policies to rally around.

But Labour’s failure has deeper roots than Brexit. It is often attributed to the party’s estrangement from its working class base. It certainly seems to be true that what might be called “traditional” working class voters have been deserting the party for some time. These may be characterised as white, less educated and less physically or socially mobile people, often living in towns rather than big cities. And yet this is a shrinking demographic, and Labour’s hold on the more modern version of the working class voter (living in big cities, insecure job, rented accommodation, often with an ethnic minority background) looks as strong as ever. Labour is also missing out on a substantial non-metropolitan middle class vote, which is well represented in places like Hartlepool. Back in the 1990s these voters used to be called “Middle England”, and were the particular focus of Labour leader Tony Blair. Mr Blair proved very successful at this, but his success was denounced as treachery by many Labour activists. In the end Mr Blair, a consummate Metropolitan if ever there was one, was losing this demographic, especially because of his liberal approach to immigration.

But Labour’s rot turned toxic after 2010, after they lost power, and with the selection of Ed Miliband as its leader. This was about the time that I started this blog, and there was still some engagement on social media between Labour and Lib Dem supporters, before we fractured and disappeared into our separate bubbles. Those Labour supporters proved right about the Lib Dems, and how long-term the damage the Coalition would be to the party. But we proved right about them, when we suggested that Labour neglected Middle England at its peril. This was denied furiously. Labour supporters were convinced that their route to victory would come by consolidating their support amongst “progressives’, including people who had been too disillusioned to vote previously. They did not need to convince people who had voted Tory to change their minds; the collapse in the Lib Dem vote would be to their benefit. Tory and Lib Dem hating became a signature theme, along with increasingly shrill condemnations of “austerity”.

In fact at the next election in 2015 Labour succeeded in winning the Conservatives a majority in their own right, by scaring many Lib Dem voters into their arms, and by undermining the Lib Dems in Tory facing seats. That, of course, is not how Labour activists saw it, and they doubled down by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. The relatively strong Labour performance in 2017 seemed to vindicate this. But Labour success was as much due to mistakes made by Tory leader Theresa May as the ability of Mr Corbyn to mobilise new voters. Mrs May still made headway with her strategy of pressuring Labour in their heartlands. There followed a further two years when the party hollowed itself out, ending in the disaster of the 2019 election. Hartlepool has shown that the Tory victory then was no flash in the pan.

A lot of the responsibility for this disaster rests with the two leaders, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. But both were elected by the party membership and the membership placed them under particular pressure, though party processes on policy. These processes are usually referred to as “democracy”, which the party prides itself on. The Lib Dems, and I assume the Greens, are just the same, and indeed often criticise Labour for not being “democratic” enough. As you will notice, I am extremely reluctant to use the word “democracy” in connection with the processes by which members of a political party exercise their rights. Political parties are self-selecting groups of people, who can leave at any point, and who may be expelled if they annoy other members too much. Democracy is about broader society and the inclusion of people who don’t have a choice about whether they belong. This is one of the paradoxes of our political system: political parties are an important and necessary part of the democratic system, but they themselves are fundamentally not democratic. The Conservatives are so successful because their members have the least influence over leadership and policy out of all the main parties.

The Lib Dems and Greens have little choice but to give their members a strong say over what their party does and who leads it. They are insurgent parties that need to offer reasons for members of the public to join and stay with the party. For Labour it is different. They aspire to be a national political institution: part of a two-party system which shares nearly all the important political power. The party has an institutional assumption that political parties other than themselves or the Conservatives are a damaging distraction that no politically responsible person should support. But a successful institution of that nature can’t be over-fussy about about political values – it constantly needs to be thinking about recruiting support from any group of voters it can. That’s an exaggeration; the two big parties do have core values running through them. But whereas the Tory Party can dump a large part of its core support (in the case of the Remain supporting political elite) in a drive to recruit Middle England voters, Labour has been unable to pull off a similar feat since the days of Mr Blair. The membership naturally wants the party to focus on people like them; they cannot be counted on to take a cold hard look at the facts. It was the Labour membership, not the leadership, that fought tooth and nail against Brexit. That was seen as betrayal in Brexit-supporting parts of the country, though it did help Labour drive back a real Lib Dem threat in places like London. Mr Corbyn then compounded the trouble by appearing incompetent and unpatriotic – and yet the membership enthusiastically backed him as their mascot, preventing MPs from removing him when they could see all too clearly the damage he was doing.

That membership may now be chastened, and more accepting of compromise. Labour’s position is far from hopeless. They can still win the next election. They have a secure base among the metropolitan middle class and the “new” working class. They have strong support among younger voters, and escalating property values are creating a growing class of people excluded from the Tory dream. The Conservatives are not widely trusted. But in order to win Labour must go after groups of people who normally vote Conservative, and pressure Tories in areas where they had previously felt secure. That will mean taking Labour into places that it is not comfortable about. To date I have not seen any sign that anybody in in Labour’s higher echelons understands that. Perhaps the shock of these elections will jolt them into decisive action.

8 thoughts on “Labour pays the price for internal party democracy”

  1. Labour have created a toxic environment for itself – too narrow a metropolitan focus to make headway in the “Lisa Nandy” towns and small cities demographic and hopelessly uncertain about the union, the fate of Wales or the fears of Scottish separatism. It does not desire to be the English Labour Party and it is frightened about being a British Labour Party in a world of globalised media, culture war narratives and rising nationalism.

  2. Matthew – I think you’ve hit on an issue that is both important and perhaps taboo for activists in most political parties – namely the inherent conflict between democracy and party democracy. It’s an issue that has exercised me since Hugh Gaitskell came and addressed sixth-formers at my school. After his address, one of my form-mates asked him why the Parliamentary Labour Party was not following the policy on nuclear disarmament agreed at the Labour Party Conference. Gaitskell replied that MPs were accountable to their electorates and it would be undemocratic for them to be accountable to anyone else. Hence the Parliamentary Party did not take orders from Conference.

    Gaitskell’s words were still with me when, as a young Labour councillor, I faced pressure from some members to toe the party line as agreed at party ward meetings. I was firmly of the view that, whilst I should listen to what other party members were saying, in the end I had to decide for myself what line to take. The experience was one of several factors that made me feel relieved when I finally left the party and became a founder member of the SDP.

    This doesn’t mean that party members should give their MPs and councillors an easy ride. Questioning and debate are a party’s lifeblood. In any case, ordinary members of most parties have a big collective say in the selection of their candidates for public office and so wield considerable influence. This doesn’t mean that party members, a self-selected group, should expect public office-holders to obey their collective instructions.

    As you rightly say, for a party with very few MPs and not holding the balance of power, the issue is not so acute. For us Lib Dems it will only become a big issue if and when we recover the scale of influence that we had in 2010. For today’s Labour Party, party democracy seems to have become an existential threat.

    1. Yes I remember this being very much a live issue in the 1980s as Labour constituency parties bore down on MPs. The SDP constitution tried to strike a careful balance between members and MPS. Some of this carried forward to the Lib Dems, but the party culture is very much one of control by membership.

  3. Do we really political parties so much? For my money, what I would like to see the House of Lords reformed so that it became an elected second chamber in which whipping on party lines was forbidden The lower chamber would then become the Chamber of Government, and the upper chamber the Chamber of Representation. If the two were in deadlock, then nothing would happen until they agreed, subject to a semi-judicial procedure for the Government to get its way in conditions of imperative urgency.

  4. “But in order to win Labour must go after groups of people who normally vote Conservative, and pressure Tories in areas where they had previously felt secure.”

    We’ve seen many comments from the Labour Right along these lines recently which is perfectly understandable. They want the Labour Party to be a more right wing party.

    But, I don’t understand why Lib Dems are saying this. Why would you want the Labour Party to encroach on your centrist political patch? From a Labour left POV we might ask why Lib Dems, who aren’t doing too well at the moment, should be arguing that moving to the centre ground is going to be a sure fire vote winner?

    You haven’t mentioned the very low turn out in Hartlepool. Given a choice of 16 candidates 57.3% of the electorate couldn’t find a single one they wished to choose on the ballot paper. Sure, it would be good to persuade a few Tories to switch to voting Labour, but that’s not going to happen by changing Labour into the Lib Dems MkII . Neither will it enthuse the 57.3% to vote for anyone at all, especially Labour. Andy Hagon seems a perfectly decent candidate. Why didn’t they vote for him if the centre ground was so politically popular?

    There have been 8 elections in the Hartlepool constituency this century. And the one with the highest turn out? Yes, this was in 2017 with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It wasn’t huge at 59.2%, but it was significantly better than the 42.7% on Thursday which was a record low. Sure, Theresa May didn’t run the best of campaigns but that wouldn’t have encouraged anyone to vote for something with which they weren’t in agreement.

    It is better for democracy if the electorate has a choice of left, centre and right. It is better that the Tories should be the right rather than any of the other even less attractive alternatives. Most Labour members are happy to leave the centre ground to the Lib Dems. We certainly wouldn’t argue that you should encroach on our patch by becoming more left wing! We think you are better at attracting disaffected Tory voters than we are.

    We are much better going after the apathetic non voters. But we have to offer something different to raise the general level of enthusiasm. Jeremy Corbyn was starting to do that in 2017 and the 40% share of the vote should have been the springboard for a future success. However, it wasn’t a success that the Labour right wanted to support and then there was the Brexit problem!

    1. No it probably wouldn’t be good for the Lib Dems if Labour broadened their attack on the Tories as I suggest. But the Lib Dems have retreated into a comfort zone and need to move beyond Remain-supporting professionals. That’s another story. I don’t think our electoral system can tolerate a three-way choice, and that means both of the main parties has to go for the the “centre ground”, though that may look very different from Lib Dem home turf. The centre ground at the moment consists of Brexit-sympathising working class and lower middle class people living outside the big cities… where the LDs are doing very badly, for the most part.

  5. “…. both {Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn} were elected by the party membership and the membership placed them under particular pressure, though party processes on policy.”

    Not in Ed Miliband’s case. The process at the time of his election in 2010, involved a relatively complex electoral college system involving the Parliamentary party, the Trades Unions, and the membership. The system was shortly after changed to the present system whereby the leadership is elected directly by the members.

    You can make arguments either way for each method. The change to the present system was championed by the Labour right. There wasn’t any real opposition. Such as there was came from the left who were concerned that the Trades Unions would be losing out by the change and that it would weaken the link between them and the Labour Party.

    Somewhat ironically, the first leader elected afterwards was Jeremy Corbyn. Not what the right had intended at all!

    You don’t make it clear what your favoured process might be. Even the Tories have moved away from the concept that the old Leader nominates his successor. Yes, there are problems with democracy at party level but what is the alternative?

    1. Yes you are right that Ed was selected by system that wasn’t particularly democratic, but he did succeed, against the odds, because of the way the selection process had been opened up to members and trade unionists, if I remember correctly. The alternative to member-controlled processes is ones were MPs and other elected officials are given more weight, especially over leadership of the parliamentary party.

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