The strange death of Labour Britain

George Dangerfield, writing in his hauntingly evocative narrative of the twilight years of the Edwardian belle époque, The Strange Death of Liberal England, said that 1906 was the general election victory “from which the Liberal party never recovered”. 2005 can be seen in the same light for Labour. Heralded at the time as confirmation of Labour’s status as ‘the natural party of government’, it has instead ushered in an era of destructive infighting that will see the party disintegrate in the same way their Liberal forebears did a century previously. This is not hysteria, or premature – but an assertion that has electoral demography firmly on its side.

The “Dangerfield thesis” contended that Herbert Asquith’s Liberals were undone by pressure for democratic reform from the suffragette movement, nationalism in Ireland, and the rise of a cohesive labour movement. While its validity is ferociously debated by historians, it is impossible not to notice the modern-day parallels. Despite Jeremy Corbyn defining himself around the principle of “returning power to the people”, under his leadership the Labour party is reluctant to countenance electoral reform. Furthermore, as was the case with the Liberal party, identity politics is challenging Labour’s appeal in its old heartlands. And while there is no substantive labour movement to speak of anymore, its decline has created a demographic that is less homogenous in its politics – a phenomenon which undermines traditionalist conceptions regarding the party’s purpose.

This naturally leads to the question of what groups has the Labour party alienated in adopting such stances? First, are fellow progressives – your Liberal Democrat and Green voters, for whom electoral reform is of the utmost salience. But this is a small demographic. Arguably the most significant group from which Labour has lost votes is the working-class. After all, the party’s overriding raison d’etre was to give political representation to working people. Yet if it can no longer do that, what, cynical commentators ask, is the point of social democracy? Indeed, the increasing cultural and political heterogeneity of the working-class makes the social democratic notion that workers can be taken as a homogenous entity look laughably quaint. In today’s economy, with its flexitime and zero-hours contracts, C2 and D1 workers have greater control over their working practices than ever before. Corbyn’s view of political economy, however, is firmly rooted in the 1970s, and this has led many from these backgrounds to conclude that the Labour party simply does not speak for their interests any more.

Additionally, the gradual reversion to seventies leftism has seen swing voters, the bedrock of Labour’s dominance from 1997-2005, abandon the party en masse. Under Blair, the party broadly accepted the tenets of the economic settlement left behind by its former bête noire, Margaret Thatcher. This helped it win in stereotypically ‘Middle England’ constituencies such as Putney and Wimbledon – seats the party had not held for decades. However, Blair’s successors were not so amenable to free market economics. The noises made by Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, signalling their scepticism towards capitalism, allowed the Conservatives to portray Labour as economically illiterate – a potent line of attack in an era when elections are increasingly decided by valence issues like economic prosperity.

Labour is now only the party of the disadvantaged and the wealthy middle-classes. Its old core is being eaten away – most notably in recent years by nationalisms English, Scottish, and Welsh. In last year’s general election, UKIP came second in 44 Labour-held seats – a trend particularly pronounced in the north, where the former’s anti-globalist pitch attracted voters disdainful of what they saw as the latter’s effete cosmopolitanism. Labour’s fortunes in Scotland are already well-known. A victim of the SNP juggernaut in 2015, this year has seen it suffer the ignominy of falling to third place behind the Scottish Tories in May’s Holyrood elections. The same could even be about to happen in Wales, long considered the securest of Labour’s heartlands. In just five years, its vote-share there in Assembly elections has decreased by over six percentage points. From such trends, it is clear that Labour faces a reckoning at the hands of its former electorate.

Not even the surge in membership that has occurred under Corbyn can halt Labour’s declining relevance – and this is perhaps an appropriate note on which to end. Stories from pre-2015 members of the party talk of the new members refusing to partake in campaigning, many of whom prefer to throw their energies into organising rallies and protests. It is a far cry from the days of Blair, when Labour was arguably the most formidable vote-winning machine in western European politics. But the ‘big tent’ has well and truly collapsed – as is shown by the current leadership’s struggle to reconcile the cosmopolitanism of its urban middle-class supporters with the conservatism of its working-class ones. If this remains the case, predictions concerning the death of ‘Labour Britain’ that stem from its refusal to engage with the economic and political realities of twenty-first century Britain look likely to be borne out.


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