Labour: tactical errors and a strategic weakness

The disappointment for Labour supporters of last month’s British general election result must be crushing. Back in 2017, after the party’s surprisingly strong performance at the June election, I remember a Labour-supporting union official talking as if the party was going to bring down the minority Tory government and install itself in power in a matter of months. Many Labour supporters had convinced themselves that the evils of the Tory government were evident to all, and that it would be a simple matter to build on their 2017 result and win. Instead they took a long step backwards, more than reversing the advances made in 2017, with their worst electoral result since 1935. It hard to imagine that they can win the next election, itself likely to be four years or more away. So instead of liberation being just around the corner, it now looks as if it could be nearly a decade away.

Understandably there is quite a bit of denial going on amongst Labour politicians. This was evident from its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s graceless speech on election night itself. He blamed Brexit and the media, suggested that Labour’s manifesto had been popular, and (this may have been in a later speech) that Labour had “won the argument”. Only later did he seem to allow the possibility that he and his leadership team might have made mistakes.

Funnily enough, though Mr Corbyn’s claims were widely ridiculed, they were not without some substance. Brexit was indeed the battering ram used by the Tories to break into former Labour strongholds. Mr Corbyn had tried and failed to bridge the divide within Labour on the issue; the party did well enough amongst Remain voters (actually rather better than that, given the party’s other disadvantages), but at the cost of alienating Leave supporters. The printed media was predictably hostile to Labour, and this had the effect of setting the agenda for broadcast media. Many of Labour’s manifesto policies were popular, and its radicalism provoked remarkably little comment. Labour could indeed be said to have “won the argument” on subjects other than Brexit, because the Conservatives did not make much effort to engage with them, so relentless was their focus on “Get Brexit Done”. Tories did not make much attempt to defend their party’s record on austerity, for example, and even made vague promises to reverse it.

And yet most Labour members will realise that these explanations for Labour’s defeat are inadequate. Brexit was not an issue that came out of the blue to take the Labour leadership by surprise. Labour’s predicament arose from the party leadership’s allergy to hard choices. The party needed to back Theresa May’s deal with the EU (or at least let it through by abstention) so that the country could have left irrevocably last March, and the Tories saddled with an unpopular leader trying to handled a muddled aftermath. Or, much more riskily, it could have come out hard and early for a further referendum and pushed it through with the help of Tory rebels. And as for the media hostility, this was another known factor, that the party overcame quite successfully in 2017; print media are much less influential than they used to be. In fact the party’s, and leader’s, unpopularity was significantly reversed in the campaign – but they were never going to overcome problems in their core messaging. Labour rightly claimed its manifesto to be the most radical of any major party in recent history (perhaps since the Labour manifesto of 1945). And so it should worry Labour supporters that this fact evinced very little enthusiasm outside its activist supporters, even if outright hostility was less than predicted. The fact that the Tories left so many of Labour’s claims uncontested was not because Labour had “won the argument” but because the were intent on having another argument, about Brexit, and the public showed little enthusiasm to talk about anything else.

The hard question for Labour, and to pick up on the theme of my posts on the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, is trying to understand how much their problems arose from bad tactical choices and how much from strategic weakness. There were plenty of bad tactical choices. The Brexit predicament had elements of both: the party was in a very difficult strategic position, with so much of its critical core support in the Leave camp, but so many of their activists ardent Remainers. In fact I think the Labour leadership made the correct strategic choice: to allow Brexit to happen but blame the Tories for it, but it failed through weak tactical management. When it came to the election, the party seemed to opt for a sort of micro-targeting strategy: making separate promises to lots of different interest groups. Students were to get free tuition and loan write-odds, WASPI women to get generous compensation, environmentalists got radical-sounding policies on climate change, and there were all manner of goodies for public sector workers, and so on. But the overall result was a loss of focus on core messages; besides a lot of the promises were aimed at people that Labour did not need to convert (younger voters and public sector workers) and not to the people they really needed to win over. The WASPI women promise was an exception (these are older women whose entitlement to state pensions was put back), but the way in which the policy was presented left people disbelieving it – coming after (and outside of) a manifesto brimming with an impossible sounding list of promises.

But the tactical mistakes mask a huge strategic problem for Labour that has been evident since they lost power in 2010. They have almost nothing of interest to say say to a vast swathe of middle class and working class voters in suburban and rural England and in towns outside the big cities in England and Wales. Labour’s central narrative since 2010 has been anger at “austerity” – the cutbacks to public services and benefits implemented Tory and Tory-led governments. This anger has largely bypassed these voters, who instead tend to think public money is wasted, especially on people they suppose to be undeserving. These voters are largely employed by the private sector or retired, so appeals to secure and improve public sector jobs don’t move them, while they have largely escaped the effects of austerity in their own lives (public pensions have generally become more generous). Labour strategy has been to ignore these voters, hoping that working class voters would stick by the party through traditional loathing of the Tories, while they improved turnout from younger voters, public sector workers and ethnic minorities. They doubtless hoped that demographic changes were working in their favour. But successful as they were in drawing in younger voters, and metropolitan public sector workers, their efforts positively alienated older working class and middle class voters. A lot of their alienation was focused on Mr Corbyn himself, but sure their dislike of him reflected a deeper distrust of the movement he headed.

It is precisely this strategic challenge that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown successfully met in the 1990s, leading to 13 years in power for the party. Their strategy was to ape Tory policies in order to get themselves elected, and then to increasingly give them a social democratic slant once in power. Alas the problem has become much harder. The liberal economics on which the Blair/Brown project was based have run their course; the booms arising from globalisation and European integration are over, and there is no other ready source of economic growth to replace them. Policies that appeal to the voters have lost and those they need to win over, will alienate the party’s core support (Brexit was an acute form of this dilemma). Also Labour have lost Scotland, which the Blair/Brown regime had sown up (Brown was himself very much a Scot, though Blair was despised there, despite his Scottish heritage).

And yet Labour has huge strategic strengths. The electoral system allows it to fend off challenges from rival left of centre parties; it retains strong support among younger voters, with a more socially liberal disposition and locked out of property ownership; it has a huge body of hard-working activists, especially in metropolitan areas. It has avoided the implosion of so many European social-democratic parties. These strengths mean that it is certainly feasible that the party could regain power in an astonishing reversal at the next election, even if it is hard to imagine.

But doing so means making hard choices. More on that in a future post.

4 thoughts on “Labour: tactical errors and a strategic weakness”

  1. The big question is, will today’s younger voters morph into today’s older voters in supporting the Tories? If NOT , that is a demographic time bomb facing the Johnsonites. If YES, “we’re all doooooomed”!

    1. I have often wondered that! Actually I think there is evidence that a lot of it is linked to education. In the UK younger people are educated to a higher level than their elders. In countries where that isn’t the case, like Poland, apparently you find that conservative views pass down the generations more easily.

  2. In the late 1960’s, the Wilson govt lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. So anyone who was born in the period 1949 to 1952, was able to vote in the 1970 election. Now, I’m sure Harold Wilson wouldn’t have done that unless he’d done his research and calculated the extra number of Labour votes he would gather.

    That age group is now 68 to 71 and statistically highly likely to vote Tory. So attitudes do change. I’ve seen that myself in friends as they’ve grown older.

    You can see the same effect in the two EEC/EU referendums. In 1975 the younger age cohort, as now, was more likely to be for membership. But anyone who was 20 in 1975 would be 61 in 2016 and statistically likely to be a leaver.

  3. “Brexit was indeed the battering ram used by the Tories to break into former Labour strongholds. Mr Corbyn had tried and failed to bridge the divide within Labour on the issue; the party did well enough amongst Remain voters (actually rather better than that, given the party‚Äôs other disadvantages), but at the cost of alienating Leave supporters.”

    Yes. I think this is pretty much right. It was Brexit that was the stumbling block. Both for the Lib Dems and the Labour Party.

    The smart thing to have done would have been to go through the motions of opposing Mrs May’s WA bills, but to abstain in just sufficient numbers to allow them to pass.

    Then you’d sit back and watch the Tories tear themselves apart and reap the benefits at the next election.

    But in trying to win a complete victory both the Lib Dems and the Labour Party have being completely defeated themselves. Usually a tactical retreat makes much more sense than fighting on to the last round of ammunition.

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