People often ask what is the point of the British Liberal Democrats; the same question, for similar reasons, might be asked of the country’s Green Party. The raison d’être of Labour seems self-evident. But the party is failing and the question needs to be asked again.
A century ago Labour broke through the country’s two-party duopoly to replace the Liberal Party as one half of Britain’s two-party system. At that time the point of Labour was clear: it was to represent the interests of Britain’s working classes. The party’s founders argued that working people were ill served by the existing system, and that the Liberals in particular were letting their working class supporters down. Working people needed a more radical reworking of the political economy than the Liberals seemed capable of offering. It was an argument they won as the Liberals were riven by division and failed to offer a coherent raison d’être of their own. Labour then struggled to reconcile their radicalism with the practicalities of government, but eventually, in 1945, they succeeded with a radical programme of welfare reform, combined with relatively conservative economic management and foreign engagement. Ironically the two principal architects of this reconciliation were in fact Liberals: William Beveridge and Maynard Keynes. Such is politics.
Since then the function of the Labour party changed, as the nature of work in the British economy changed. The agricultural and industrial workforces were steadily replaced by bureaucrats and service industry workers. In the 1960s and 1970s trade unionism, which formed the backbone of the Labour movement, seemed out of touch with the times. They opposed more efficient industrial organisation and often entrenched conservative attitudes to race and sex. Labour struggled to adapt. It was riven by division when in government in 1964 to 1970, and failed to convincingly win power back in 1974, finally succumbing to a Conservative monopoly of power in 1979. When it retook power in 1997 it was as “New Labour” under Tony Blair. In its new form its job was simply to oppose the Conservatives by marshalling a coalition of working class and middle class voters. In this view the British political system had become a two-party institution like that in the USA. Political organisation outside the two main parties was pointless, each of the two had to be a broad coalition. The days when a political party could be based on narrow class interests were gone.
The British political establishment, from most politicians to journalists and civil servants largely accepts this idea of what the two main political parties are for. But it has a problem, evident in the USA as well as Britain, though it is resolving differently in each country. It is too tempting for an ideological clique to try and take over the machinery of one of the major parties in order to impose a programme on the country based on minority support. The ideologues may fail, but in doing so they leave the field to their opponents, and the system fails to become truly competitive. That is what has happened to Labour following its loss of power in 2010. Labour was still run by a relatively broad coalition, representing the interests of public service professionals and the “new” working class, dominated by ethnic minority workers in the big cities, but they dropped more conservative supporters.
The two-party system then fractured badly in 2015, when in Scotland as the SNP took almost all the seats. Since Labour had previously dominated there, it has ruined their chances of being truly competitive on the national stage – the party has little prospect of governing on its own, even if they deprive the Conservatives of a majority. An ideologically hollowed-out Labour Party has proved unable to challenge the SNP, and has even lost out to the Tories in Scotland. An ideologically-focused Labour Party has proved just as uncompetitive.
The Labour leadership since this disaster, Jeremy Corbyn followed by Sir Keir Starmer, has chosen to ignore it. Both clung to the possibility that the party can win enough seats in Westminster to govern on its own. Mr Corbyn sought to do this with ideological radicalism in the hope that this would motivate enough disillusioned and apathetic voters to overcome the legions of older, more conservative voters who turn out more reliably. This came closer to succeeding in 2017 than anybody expected, but led to disaster in 2019 – which of those elections was the outlier due to special circumstances remains hotly debated. Sir Keir is going back to the idea of an unideological party that can challenge the Conservatives on competence.
Sir Keir’s strategy seems to be navigating that awkward ground between success and failure. At this year’s conference he needed to show that he was in charge of its party. This he has largely done – the disunity and “chaos” described by some are in fact evidence of authority being asserted. But does Labour look like a competent government in waiting, as Mr Blair’s did before 1997? Not yet. Will it ever? Open to question. And if it can’t show evident competence, what else does it offer? Above all this looks like a strategy that depends on the Conservatives losing the election, rather than Labour winning it. For all the government’s incompetence, however, the current Tory leadership knows how to win elections by changing the subject. And remember Labour can’t just win – it has to win big.
Meanwhile there are those who think Labour should instead break the system that is now so loaded against it. This means changing the answer to the question of what Labour is for. It would cease to be one of the pillars of a two-party system, but an ideological vanguard fighting for the interests of its metropolitan voters in a multiparty system. To do this it has to work with other parties, including the SNP. Above all it needs to adopt electoral reform. That means adopting a system of proportional representation to the UK parliament – lesser reforms such as the Alternative Vote won’t do. This has two advantages. First it allows serious cooperation with the Lib Dems and the Greens, which should improve the party’s chances of winning, and of forming a successful government if it fails to win a majority. After the Lib Dem catastrophe following coalition with the Conservatives in 2015, the minor parties will seek a high price for their support and serious electoral reform must be part of it. Second, once implemented, it will pose big problems for the Conservatives, who will have much more trouble fighting off the populist right, as well as hanging onto liberal Remainers.
But this strategy brings its own problems. There is no upwelling for this sort of political reform amongst the public – support is broad but shallow. It would come under sustained attack by the Conservatives who would claim that it was throwing away the county’s cherished traditions and inviting weak governments. If they want to change the subject away from their competence to govern, this might present them with just that opportunity. This is why I was sceptical of such a strategy when I looked at Labour’s prospects last year. Back then, though, I thought that the Conservatives’ weak performance in government would make them vulnerable. I am much less confident of that now.
As it happens Labour’s conference rejected a motion in favour of electoral reform. It was backed by 80% of constituency members, but blocked by Britain’s ever-conservative unions, doubtless after nudging from the Labour leadership. There is no sign that the current leadership wants to go in that direction. Labour seems too weak to win, but strong enough to prevent any other parties than the Conservatives and the SNP from succeeding. So just what is the point?