Why Isn’t Labour Working?

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Can Labour win the next General Election in the UK…and do we want them to?

The first thing to note is that while the Tory Party can win elections with 36.9% of the vote, it’s now unlikely that even 40% would be enough for Labour to make any kind of impact, which in turn means that Labour probably can’t win in its own right. Centrists in the Party like to point to Blair’s three General Election victories and suggest that a return to Blairism is all that’s required. The reality is that a lot has changed since then. Blair’s first two victories produced the largest parliamentary majorities since the war on unspectacular vote shares of 43.2% and 40.7%. His third victory, in 2005, produced a healthy working majority of 66 seats from only 35% of the vote. Compare this to Labour’s 40% of the vote under Corbyn in 2017, which left the party 68 seats short of a majority. The reasons for this dramatic change date back to before the Corbyn era – between the elections of 2010 and 2015 the Liberal Democrat vote imploded following Clegg’s betrayal[1], the Greens doubled their vote and Labour lost Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).

Labour benefitted massively from the Liberal Democrat collapse, but this was largely masked by the number of voters they were shipping to UKIP at the time. As Clegg’s legacy is eclipsed by the Brexit issue Labour will find it difficult to retain the votes they gained from the LibDems – by some distance now the most EU-friendly of the main parties and an attractive prospect for many disgruntled “remainers”. On the other hand, the “Brexiter” votes they lost, first to UKIP and then to the Conservatives, are unlikely to return to Labour under Starmer, who is – and always will be – perceived as staunchly pro-EU.

The loss of Scotland is also unlikely to be reversed and, because of the concentration of votes, is the most damaging to Labour. The SNP now hold 48 seats on less than 4% of the vote and Labour won’t be winning those seats back anytime soon. Even with Boris Johnson’s government on the ropes after a succession of scandals and a catalogue of corruption, Labour under Kier Starmer is failing to break through the 40% mark in opinion polls. A Labour victory is already looking unlikely, and if Johnson is replaced as Tory leader (and therefore as Prime Minister) before the next General Election, that prospect will become even more distant.


Labour’s answer to this situation is to try to win back the “Red Wall” – a collection of seats in the North of England formerly thought of as safe, solid Labour heartlands, but which returned Tory MPs to Parliament in 2019. (Labour strategists now refer to these as “foundation seats”). Labour’s approach to winning these seats has been to attempt to out-Tory the Tories with Starmer committing to “wrap himself in the flag” and the promotion of populist and media-friendly policies such as tougher policing and a war on drugs. The right-wing media predictably waste no time in calling this out as insincere and point to the Labour leader’s efforts to appease the centrist wing of the party by taking the knee for George Floyd or fumbling the question of what defines a woman. Labour needs to be careful not to alienate its remaining support with this pandering to a perceived demographic of “foundation” voters and their “traditional values”. Party membership has collapsed as many on the left have defected to the Greens and an assortment of new micro-parties, or just to the political wilderness. At the same time, many others in the party are staunchly in favour of the EU and will have no problem slipping over to the Liberal Democrats who are now no more centrist than the Labour Party anyway. What all this spells is another Tory victory at the next General Election.


Who is the Working-Class?


In part, Labour’s cluelessness derives from their distant view of who their “natural supporters” are – they retain an outdated, almost paternalistic idea of the people they’re trying to appeal to. Labour strategists appear to imagine a working-class composed overwhelmingly of white, male, blue-collar workers with socially conservative views and a no-nonsense approach to progressive issues. This caricature is embodied in Labour’s desperation to win back the red wall, an astoundingly wrongheaded approach.


For one thing, the obsession with “left-behind” voters in the North is unhelpful, given that the poorest people in the UK live in London and the South East of England. Of course, poverty is more widespread in the North than the South, but if you’re on minimum wage in Slough or Windsor, the fact that the guy up the road has a new Audi isn’t much compensation for the extra two days work you have to do to pay your rent every month. Monthly rent on a low-budget house (cheapest quartile) in Yorkshire & the Humber will cost you 39 hours of work at the local median wage. In the South East you’ll be working for 55 hours to pay a month’s rent on a similar house – in London 78 hours.[2] Below the median wage the situation is even worse. The minimum wage and benefits such as Universal Credit are uniform across the UK but prices for housing and pretty much everything else are wildly different. Poverty in rural areas is exacerbated by the difficulty of accessingthinly spread services. The Tory catchphrase of “levelling up” is meaningless sloganeering in place of a strategy to deal with poverty, but Labour, like a rabbit in the headlights, and terrified of alienating their supposed red wall heartlands are powerless to say so. If “levelling up” is to mean anything it should mean levelling up those in poverty to the position of those who are better off – regardless of where they live. I’m not arguing that regional inequalities don’t exist, or that they shouldn’t be addressed, or even that certain regions don’t need specific policies, but the plan should be to address poverty wherever it’s found – if an area has more than its share of poverty it would therefore necessarily get more assistance, without ignoring extensive poverty in statistically well-off areas.


As well as focusing on people in need, wherever they live, Labour would do well to note that the working class is far more diverse and far less socially conservative than they think. It’s become commonplace in the UK, particularly since Brexit, to note that the real cleavage in voting behaviour runs along educational lines and superficially this plays into the idea that voters can be divided into middle-class, white-collar, pro-EU, centrist graduates on the one hand and working-class, blue-collar, socially conservative Brexiters with no further or higher education on the other. This is an outdated view though. In decades gone by education was correlated with earnings and wealth, but that was because the people who went to university then were already from well-off families and destined for well-paid careers. Since the advent of wider access to university, there’s been a divergence between education and incomes. Many graduates are now firmly working class. The median salary for university graduates in retail, wholesale, accommodation & food services is lower than the median salary for blue-collar workers with no qualifications at all in the water and waste sector. At every level of qualification, workers in construction, manufacturing and mining earn more than their equally-qualified counterparts in education, health, and social care. The point of all this is that Labour needs to stop chasing votes based on imaginary and out-of-date demographic cohorts that they think ought to support them because of their job, or education level or location – particularly if that demographic can only be won over by promising to out-Tory Boris Johnson on crime and punishment, immigration, and fiscal restraint.


Perhaps it’s time for Labour to decide what they stand for and to start chasing voters who agree with their values and policies, many of whom are working-class by any reasonable definition but are very different to the fabled red wall voters of Starmer’s imagination. That doesn’t mean they have to make themselves unelectable, they still need to take account of a political landscape that is largely shaped by a hostile right-wing media. Many on the left of the Labour Party think (correctly) that it should reconnect with its working-class roots, but also think (incorrectly) that means trying to appeal to an ageing, red wall demographic who were prepared to vote for Johnson’s Tories, and all they stand for, and to inflict all the damage they have done to the country. Maybe Labour should be trying to win the votes of Green or Liberal Democrat voters many of who are just as working class as the red wallers, but who already agree with many socialist aims, such as tackling poverty or putting the planet before profit. There’s also the chance that genuinely trying to make the country a better place, rather than just trying to win power, might inspire some of the millions who currently just don’t see any point in voting for any of the available options.


Several socialist policies are already popular with large sections of the electorate – reinstating the NHS, bringing essential utilities and public transport into public ownership, investing in education and training and – probably most importantly – electoral reform, which brings us onto the second strand of Labour’s failure to understand how to proceed.


The Electoral Conundrum


Although we’re now (encouragingly) seeing cooperation among parties for recent and upcoming by-elections, Labour strategists still refuse to admit formal cooperation, let alone contemplate a much-needed electoral alliance. We’ll get onto why socialists should support an alliance shortly, but first, we should briefly have another look at some electoral maths…


In order to win a majority, Labour need to take 119 seats.[3] Their softest 119 targets (compared to the 2019 General Election) are 102 currently held by the Tories, 16 by the SNP and one by Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales), requiring a mathematically nominal minimum net gain of 495 thousand Tory voters, 92 thousand SNP voters and nearly three thousand from Plaid Cymru. The only plan to achieve this seems to be not-Corbyn – convince the electorate that the Corbyn days are well and truly behind Labour and the voters will come flooding back. The problem with having “Under New Management” as the only message is that Labour was already two defeats into this four-election losing streak before Corbyn became leader. The two previous losses (under Brown & Miliband) returned lower vote shares, not only than Corbyn’s high point in 2017, but also his low point in 2019 (according to his critics, the “worst performance since 1935”[4]). Significantly, more than half of Labour’s current 119 target seats had already been lost before the Corbyn era. Even if the message not-Corbyn wins back every former Labour voter who defected since he became leader, Labour are still a long way short of making any impact at the next General Election.


For an Anti-Tory Alliances


As an alternative strategy, Labour could drop its attempts to win over red wall voters and form an electoral alliance with Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party. Stand one anti-Tory candidate in each constituency and (again, compared to 2019) the number of votes they would need to win from the Tories would be…zero. None. Fifty-two seats – enough for a 12-seat majority – are there for the taking if most of the non-Tory voters in those seats are prepared to vote for a non-Tory alliance. No need to pander to those who were prepared to put Boris Johnson and his corrupt cronies into Number 10. No need to compromise with the right by promising tougher policing and tighter budgeting – and no need to worry about whatever nonsense the right-wing press are going to write every time someone suggests that treating people with decency and respect might be a good idea.

The platform for the Alliance would be simple – one policy – the introduction of a democratic electoral system where all votes count for an equal value so that the country actually gets the government it votes for, rather than endless Tory administrations on as little as 37% of the vote. All of the parties required for the alliance support electoral reform – except for Labour, still hoping that they can win an election in their own right. There are, though, growing calls from Trade Unions and the wider Labour movement for the party to embrace the future and democracy and to officially adopt PR as a policy platform.

There’s often instant hostility to the idea of this kind of alliance from socialists who view such a move as a compromise – it’s no such thing. As democratic socialists we should support, not just a switch to socialism, but also the introduction of democratic elections (ideally both, but we have to start somewhere). As well as the obvious ideological case for democratic elections, there’s also a strategic case. The Labour Party is currently under the sway of the centre-right and the nature of the Party organisation means this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Those on the left of the party – that is the vast majority of members – are squeezed out of any decision-making processes. Many have been subjected to disciplinary measures, been expelled or have abandoned the party under Starmer’s leadership. The party desperately needs to split into the two parties it probably always should have been, but that would be suicidal under the current system. Arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson once said that the Labour Party doesn’t need to bother with socialists because they have to vote Labour as they have nowhere else to go. Odious though he is, he was right. There is no viable socialist party in the UK and there won’t be while we still have the First Past the Post (FPP) electoral system. Under this system, the Tories can win elections as long as the opposition is divided – further division isn’t going to help. Under a democratic electoral system though, the Labour party could split into a centrist party and a socialist party, and each could exert as much influence on government as its vote share could command.


Even with as little as 15% of the vote, this would provide a platform to build on. With enough seats to be a necessary member of a coalition, such a party would be able to make demands in return for its support. (Contrast this to the current situation where you get to vote for Labour as the least-bad viable option and in return they ignore anything you believe in). A couple of policy demands, and a few Cabinet positions might not be much, but it’s far more than we’re getting under the current system. More importantly, it’s a platform to demonstrate to the electorate what socialist policies actually look like and how they might work, that socialist MPs can be trusted to behave with integrity and can offer a much brighter vision of the future. If we actually believe that our ideas are palatable to a wider audience, democratic elections give us the chance to prove it, and we can only achieve those via a temporary, strategic electoral alliance.

[1] In the campaign for the 2010 election, Nick Clegg consolidated growing support for the Liberal Democrats on a centre-left platform, including electoral reform and the abolition of university tuition fees. The election resulted in a hung parliament giving him the balance of power and he rejected the opportunity of a coalition with Labour, signed up with Cameron’s Tories and enabled a devastating programme of austerity in return for the position of Deputy PM. The electoral reform issue was sidelined through a referendum on a change to a non-PR voting system and tuition fees were tripled.

[2] Median earnings by age & region: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8456/ Rental prices by region: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/housing/bulletins/privaterentalmarketsummarystatisticsinengland/april2019tomarch2020

[3] Compared to the 2019 General Election result. I’ve omitted by-elections during the current parliament as the changes are minimal and two by-elections are ongoing as I write.

[4] Corbyn’s critics refer to Labour’s performance at the 2019 election as Labour’s worst result since 1935. This is based on the return of 262 seats. However, Labour’s vote share in 2019 was 32.1% – higher than the two elections immediately prior to Corbyn’s leadership.