The British Labour Party has had a tortuous time over the last decade. But there are hints of openness towards new solutions to its problems.
The British Labour Party is among the largest and most enduring of social-democratic parties in western Europe. Its fate has long been of concern to social democrats across the continent, even if they have at times taken a critical view of its ideological direction. That was so particularly in the 1990s with the shift towards the ‘third way’, and again following the support of the government of Tony Blair for the United States’ ‘war on terror’ and unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003.
To be sure, Labour does not provide a ‘model’ for others on the left in Europe to emulate. Yet important lessons can be drawn from its tortuous experience in opposition and power since 1979. The last decade has been particularly significant, as the party sought to respond to the 2008 financial crisis while addressing the long-term causes of its election defeat in 2010.
Youthful and energetic
In the wake of that defeat, Labour turned to the youthful and energetic figure of Ed Miliband as its new leader. Miliband had been a prominent adviser and minister in the 1997-2010 Labour governments. Even so, he promised to turn the page decisively on ‘New’ Labour.
Miliband insisted that New Labour had failed to offer a plausible critique of global capitalism, acquiescing in unregulated markets. Blair and his finance minister and successor, Gordon Brown, had embraced financialisation and deregulation of the City of London, direct cause of the 2008 crash. Moreover, New Labour had presided over 13 years of sharply rising inequality in the UK. The rewards going to the top of the income distribution had grown astronomically, while workers on middle incomes had suffered an unprecedented compression in wages, alongside increasing insecurity stemming from technological change.
Under Miliband, the party sought to focus on the ‘squeezed middle’, whose living standards were ravaged by the great recession. Miliband attacked predatory capitalism and called for a revised programme with a higher national minimum wage, tough regulation of large corporations, stronger labour-market protection and a cap on energy prices to help struggling households.
However cogent this economic analysis, the squeezed middle nonetheless soon became an alibi for a ‘core vote’ strategy, where Miliband’s party sought to win a general election under the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) Westminster system by focusing on 35 per cent of the electorate. Labour was heavily defeated in 2015, even losing votes it had won in 2010.
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The party’s overall share only increased because of the disastrous performance of the Liberal Democrats, punished for having enabled the Conservative-led coalition. Indeed, Labour lost all but one seat in Scotland. More fundamentally, the gap between the party and the aspirations of the UK electorate appeared to be growing.
Labour next turned to the unlikely figure of Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader. Corbyn had never held high office, in the party or in government. Yet, crucially, he offered the radical break with centrist social democracy Miliband could not provide.
Corbyn was explicit in his repudiation of global capitalism and his embrace of the politics of social justice. He promised to restore Labour’s traditional affiliation with the working class by strengthening the party’s links with the trade unions and pledging to undo industrial-relations legislation imposed by the governments of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
At the same time, Corbyn mobilised a new generation of university-educated activists on the left. He promised to tackle economic precarity by reducing student debt and building more social housing, while espousing support for progressive causes, notably anti-racism and anti-imperialism.
At the general election in 2017, Corbyn came close to pulling off an astonishing victory. Behind in the opinion polls for much of the campaign, Labour won over 40 per cent of the popular vote, as it mobilised the unique political coalition Corbyn had constructed behind the banner of a transformational socialism.
As the government of Theresa May fell apart over Brexit, Labour seemed to have victory in its grasp. Yet two years on, the party was to suffer another devastating defeat, winning its lowest share of the vote since 1935.
Labour’s problem was that the party was more divided than at any point in its history. What was so striking was the rift between the Parliamentary Labour Party, which largely opposed its own leader, and those grassroots activists who idolised Corbyn. The cleavage between principle and power appeared stark.
Mountain to climb
In the decade after the 2010 defeat, Labour thus failed to make any significant electoral or strategic advance. Unquestionably, Corbyn drew in a new generation of activists from the millennial precariat, spurring an unprecedented mobilisation. Yet the party’s understanding of why it had lost successive elections remained underdeveloped.
Moreover, Labour now has an electoral mountain to climb. Winning an overall parliamentary majority next time would require a larger swing than that achieved in 1945 under Clement Attlee or 1997 under Blair. And the party has never been weaker in Scotland, in the past a key element of Labour’s electoral base.
Even more ominously, the aftermath of Brexit leaves the future of the UK itself in the balance. If it were to break apart in the years ahead, Labour could be left having to secure a majority with only English votes.
Yet the party’s electoral vulnerability reflects a deeper malaise—the lack of compelling political ideas. New Labour’s neoliberalism and fiscal austerity have been fiercely repudiated. Yet there is little sense that the party is able to devise a governing agenda that convincingly addresses contemporary Britain.
As with other social-democratic parties across Europe, Labour has yet to determine what it stands for in the wake of major structural transformations in society and the economy. The politics of Brexit remain fiendishly difficult: Labour remains an avowedly pro-European party, yet many of its core supporters backed Leave.
Despite that, there are tentative signs that the intellectual permafrost which enveloped the party after 2019 might, at long last, be thawing. Many in Labour increasingly question whether the party, historically a constitutionally conservative force, should retain its support for the FPTP system, which condemns it to long periods of opposition. There is growing enthusiasm for forging a centre-left ‘progressive alliance’ embracing Liberals, Greens, social democrats and others on the left.
The left in Britain has historically looked to Sweden and the Democrats in the US as sources of ideological inspiration. But senior figures are demonstrating growing interest in the revised programmes of other European parties.
The forthcoming elections in Germany will be closely watched, as the SPD seeks to forge a robust response to the inequalities created by globalisation and automation, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. And there is a growing sense generally among social democrats that the relationship between politics and capitalism ought to be rebalanced by stronger social protection, a recommitment to the welfare state and sustained public investment.
As ever, there will be no tactical shortcut to power for the left. As with other centre-left parties across Europe, Labour in the UK will only win when it is capable of confronting the difficult strategic choices that will inevitably arise in the politics of the new hard times.
Patrick Diamond is associate professor of public policy at Queen Mary University of London. A former Labour government adviser, he is author of The British Labour Party in Opposition and Power 1979-2019: Forward March Halted? (Routledge).