Why Labour is losing: a response to O’Hara and Pye

15 March 2016

Patrick Diamond - Lecturer in Public Policy, Queen Mary, University of London

Corbyn’s ascendance has compounded Labour’s electoral difficulties, but it didn’t create the problem

In their recent posts for SPERI Glen O’Hara and Robbie Pye articulate the reasons why the Labour Party currently appears suspended between optimism and despair.  O’Hara makes powerful use of historical polling data to reveal why Labour’s position as an opposition party currently appears weak.  A prospective party of government ought to be doing better at this stage of the electoral cycle.  O’Hara’s analysis corroborates damning evidence from local by-elections and predictions of Labour’s performance in the forthcoming Scottish, Welsh and English local government elections.  The argument O’Hara elaborates focuses on Labour’s electoral predicament, but there is ample reason for pessimism about the intellectual crisis afflicting the party.  There is little indication so far that Corbyn’s radical critique of austerity economics is likely to be matched by a powerful policy prospectus akin to the alternative strategy developed by the Labour left in the 1970s centred on import controls, nationalisation and industrial planning.

In contrast, Pye contends it is too early to dismiss the positive impact of Corbyn’s leadership: if Labour’s polling performance currently appears unimpressive, that is largely the result of a hostile media and a divided party.  Labour’s opportunity is to mobilise marginalised sections of society into a new electoral majority.  Instead of focusing on narrow tactical battles, Corbyn’s supporters want to redefine the landscape of British politics, shifting its ideological compass significantly to the left.  He may not yet have a fully developed programme, but Corbyn is embracing the concept of a ‘strategic state’ influenced by innovative economists, notably Marianna Mazzucato, built around sustained government intervention.

Understandably, most contemporary analyses of the Labour Party take Corbyn’s remarkable leadership insurgency as the starting point.  This is not surprising: Corbyn is an intriguing and beguiling figure, almost a political ‘anti-hero’.  He won in 2015 by promising to be the antithesis of Tony Blair. Detractors insist this rejection of New Labour is the central reason for Corbyn’s unelectability.  Admirers claim that only by breaking with Blairism can Labour identify a route back to power.

Nonetheless, an alternative viewpoint is plausible: the Labour Party is indeed in deep electoral and intellectual trouble, but the reasons are much more fundamental than the alleged inadequacies of Corbyn as a political leader.

Electorally, Labour is losing because it cannot secure the base of geographical and class support required to win British general elections in a first-past-the-post parliamentary system.  The party’s former policy co-ordinator, Jon Cruddas, insists this is because blue collar working-class voters have peeled away from the party, alienated by its refusal to address social concerns, notably welfare and immigration.  Other analyses have shown the extent of Labour’s marginalisation in Southern England and among affluent ABC1 voters.  Labour’s growing weakness in England was compounded by the party’s devastating wipe-out in Scotland.  There is something about today’s Labour Party that voters across the United Kingdom dislike, as its reputation for economic competence was destroyed by the 2008 financial crisis.  It is perceived to offer neither sound financial stewardship nor a viable crusade against social injustice.  Corbyn’s ascendency might have compounded that problem, but it was not the cause of the problem.

This electoral calamity is compounded by the intellectual vacuum at the heart of the party.  Having largely abandoned traditional socialism in the fifties and sixties, Labour has embarked on various phases of ideological revisionism culminating in Blair’s third way after 1997.  The strategy of judiciously combining capitalist growth with social reform was found wanting in the 2008 financial collapse.  Moderate social democracy has yet to re-discover a plausible alternative mirroring Labour’s experience after the collapse of the 1931 government during the great depression: this vacuum created the space for Corbyn’s unlikely rise.  The crisis of political and intellectual purpose afflicting the party isn’t merely Corbyn’s.

As the historian Andrew Thorpe has pointed out, however, Labour has been here before: in the thirties, fifties and seventies it might well have been eclipsed as a viable contender for power.  Not only did the party fight back eventually adapting to rapid social change; it was able to exploit the disarray that surfaced in Conservative ranks.  For that reason, it would be wrong to dismiss Labour’s chances of electoral recovery by 2020.  For one, the Tories are themselves a weakened electoral force having secured a majority in 2015 with their lowest share of the popular vote as a winning party since 1945.  The Conservatives are politically marginalised in large parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern England.

Other contingent factors could yet derail the Cameron government.  The economic recovery remains anaemic and is vulnerable to the deteriorating situation in the world economy with the risk of further rapid deflation.  Lower economic growth threatens Osborne and Cameron’s political strategy by making it harder to achieve the central goal of a balanced budget by 2018-19.  At the same time, the Chancellor has less room for manoeuvre in offering palliatives to key electoral groups in the Conservative supporting coalition, notably lower and middle income families suffering deteriorating real incomes and living standards.  The Conservative party is in danger of descending into a civil war over Europe and the forthcoming referendum on British membership.  Divided parties in British politics seldom win elections.

This is not to suggest that Labour can simply sit back and wait for the current government to screw up.  It does indicate that Tory travails might provide the resources for a Labour fight back.  If the Conservatives descend into acrimony and in-fighting, Corbyn will have to demonstrate he is capable of exploiting those divisions; if he is unable to do so, this might hasten a move against him, not by the recalcitrant Blairites but the party’s so called ‘soft left’ together with rank-and-file trade unionists who are unable to stomach five more Tory years in government.  It is argued by Corbyn’s detractors that this would presage a more fundamental and speedy turnaround in Labour’s fortunes.

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