Why is the Labour party in a mess?* The plight of the British Labour party in its current general election campaign—heading for a third successive defeat—owes much to the breakdown of its historic alliance between working-class and progressive middle-class constituencies. All majority-seeking parties in unequal societies require a cross-class coalition, but in Labour’s case a very particular alliance is written into its DNA. The party’s 1918 constitution, masterminded by the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, refers pointedly to “workers by hand or by brain,” and its governing structure formally divides power between trade unions and affiliated membership organizations such as the Fabian Society itself.
This coalition has had its ups and downs, but on the whole it served the party well through the twentieth century. At first the cultural clash between trade unionists and middle-class socialists could be fierce. “The General Council [of the Trade Union Congress] are pigs,” was Sidney Webb’s famous verdict when trying in 1931 to negotiate with them a way through the financial crisis. But after 1945 the alliance got stronger and smoother. The solidarities of war and the welfare state helped; so too did the unionization of white-collar workers, which for a time narrowed the cultural gap between the classes. The postwar decades saw unprecedented social mobility, in which something like half of the working class moved into white-collar jobs, while still retaining a class identity and allegiance to Labour.
In retrospect, the 1980s proved a decisive decade—in some familiar, in some yet unfamiliar ways—that drove a wedge into this coalition. Thatcherism obviously moved the national discourse to the right, to Labour’s disadvantage. But it also created longer-term problems for cross-class relations. Deindustrialization, very rapid in the early 1980s, decisively shifted jobs and tax revenues away from Labour’s working-class heartlands in the “central belt” of Scotland and the industrial North of England and South Wales. And Scottish national identity, for a long time expressed through British political institutions (including the Labour party), began to take a much sharper anti-British turn in the 1980s. Neither of these trends hit Labour directly. Anti-Thatcher fury kept working-class sentiments in these traditionally Labour areas clearly focused on national politics, and sustained the Labour vote. But there were warning signals. Political engagement of any kind fell off; party membership and voter turnout stuttered in such places, which came to feel like “rotten boroughs,” living off old allegiances and memory. Thatcher’s policy of reining in local-government spending from the center deprived councils of the ability to serve their own people and conserve local political identities. Trade union density, which had peaked around 1980, fell to prewar levels. Outbreaks of populist anger in declining areas were brief but intense. For example, in deprived areas with high Asian immigration, places like South Lancashire, the West Midlands, Leicester, and pockets of London, fascist parties reared their heads, though rarely polled more than 3 percent of the local vote. Scottish nationalism was stirring.
The rise of “New Labour” papered over these differences. Unlike any of its immediate predecessors, including Labour governments in the 1970s, Tony Blair’s did have a coherent social policy. Their program involved tackling “social exclusion” in deprived areas, joining up policies for “community cohesion” (tackling crime, environmental degradation, housing supply), early-years education, and a new focus on “social mobility.” Median household incomes, which had plateaued in the 1990s, began to rise. Child poverty was cut; educational performance probably improved. Yet all of these achievements did surprisingly little to rebuild the cross-class alliance. Levels of alienation in deindustrialized areas remained high. The new strategy was very top-down and technocratic. It did not substantially re-empower local government. It parachuted into Labour heartlands highly educated, indeed “elite” figures such as Blair himself, who was the MP for Sedgefield, a fomer mining town in the North of England. The proportion of Labour MPs who had been manual workers had been falling for decades, as one might expect, given the falling share of manual workers in the population. But it collapsed suddenly to only a handful between 2001 and 2005. And more than the other parties New Labour relied ever more heavily on professional politicians based in London. Even the proportion of schoolteacher MPs, which had been rising in the 1990s, fell sharply.
Although its policies benefited the heartlands, there appears to have been no renewal of trust or identification between New Labour politicians and Old Labour voters. To the contrary, other social and cultural trends were driving them further apart, though not yet with direct political consequences. While economic growth in the 2000s did benefit depressed areas, it benefited prosperous areas even more. London especially, but also other metropolitan areas, gained disproportionately from structural changes in the labor market that favoured creative and knowledge industries, and from increased immigration of high-skilled workers. An equally significant cultural gap overlaid these economic changes. Britain shifted in the 1990s and 2000s to a mass higher-education system. The proportion of the population entering higher education boomed from about 14 percent in 1990 to nearly 50 percent today. Despite this rapid growth in numbers, the income advantages for the educated remained stable. London and other metropolitan areas proved magnets for these young, newly educated strata, both for their high-skill jobs and for their cosmopolitan milieux. One striking consequence was that whereas London had one of the worst-performing school systems in the country in the 1980s, it had one of the best-performing systems in the 2000s.
If in retrospect the 1980s marked the first cracks in Labour’s traditional cross-class alliance, the 2000s was the decade when the crack became a chasm. Even before the economic downturn of 2008, public opinion in general was turning sharply against professional politicians, and even more sharply in Old Labour areas where New Labour politics seemed increasingly inauthentic, even corrupt. Populist rebellion increasingly focused on immigration and its alleged impact on jobs and local and national identity, and, in part because most immigration was then coming from Eastern Europe, on the EU. The far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which had gained a negligible 1.5 percent of the vote in the 2001 general election, won 16 percent in the 2004 and 2009 European Parliament elections, scoring well not only in Labour heartlands in the North but also in depressed coastal areas of the South and East.
The 2008 slump had particularly catastrophic effects on Labour. The Conservatives skilfully shifted blame for the crisis from an underregulated financial system (in which both parties had been complicit) to alleged New Labour over-spending. New Labour’s centrist vote began to shift in their direction. Worse, New Labour had found no way to renew or to revise itself. Labour’s 2010 leadership election was dominated by three Oxford-educated men with only minor differences between them. The winner, Ed Miliband, was the most left-wing of the three, and at least intellectually had a grasp on the grassroots problems of the party, but he had no strategy (or, truth to tell, no ability) to treat them. His party’s performance in the 2015 General Election was dire. Not only did he fail to regain power from the Conservatives, despite the stagnant economy, but for the first time UKIP broke through in a parliamentary election, not in terms of seats but in terms of votes—the party won 13 percent, nearly reaching its European voting levels. While Labour was still polling better among working-class than middle-class voters, so was UKIP, reaching half the levels of Labour in the poorest households. As the pollster YouGov pointed out, “The biggest divides these days are cultural rather than those of class.” Class was no longer the best predictor of voting for a left-wing party; age, education, and newspaper-readership worked better (with the younger and better-educated more likely to vote left).
Worst of all, Labour had already in the 2015 election lost almost entirely one of its key heartlands—Scotland. There the working-class and middle-class alliance had actually held up, but it had transferred its allegiance to the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP had repositioned itself as a social-democratic party, but one in opposition to the professional politicians in London. The Labour share of the vote in Scotland plummeted from 42 percent to 24 percent; it lost all but one of its forty-one seats. Labour is polling 15 percent in Scotland today. Yet the SNP’s solution did seem to signal that the old cross-class alliance was not doomed by history or sociology. Since 2015 the Labour party has sought to distance itself from New Labour and develop its own populist appeal, notably in the election of the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. Why has this not worked?
First, the Labour party’s turn to the left has not been based in its Old Labour heartlands, but rather in the more prosperous metropolitan settings. Since the 2008 slump, a significant tranche of young, well-educated people has been politicized and, to some degree, radicalized. Climate change and inequality galvanized a number of small but high-profile activist movements. Especially in London, where rents are high, young middle-class voters are inclined to feel “proletarianized,” as they are in comparison to their parents, burdened with student loans and perhaps destined never to climb the “property ladder.” But compared to the rest of the country, Londoners remain highly advantaged: property prices are high but so are wages, and growth is much stronger in London even today than anywhere else in the country. Labour’s platform ought to appeal more to working-class voters—it includes higher taxes for the top 5 percent of earners, more money for universal health and education services, and re-nationalization of rail and utilities (this latter actually a generally popular policy on its own). Yet for the first time in its history Labour’s standing in the polls is, according to the pollster YouGov, more or less the same among working-class as among middle-class voters and well behind the Tories among both. Jeremy Corbyn is not as unpopular in Old Labour heartlands as is sometimes suggested, but he has decidedly not galvanized what should be his traditional voters, even with policies aimed at them.
Second, and far worse, something else has galvanized them: Brexit. Just as Scottish nationalism absorbed populist energies in Scotland, so has Brexit absorbed them in post-industrial England and Wales (both of which voted heavily to leave the European Union). In part this is a novel way to express anti-immigrant feeling, a traditional populist resort, but it is also, powerfully, a way to express anti-metropolitan, anti-elite feeling. Although Labour voters in general voted 2-1 to Remain, working-class voters and less well-educated voters voted 2-1 to Leave, and, tellingly, Labour-held constituencies also voted 2-1 to Leave. This is because Remain voters (including Labour voters) were more concentrated in the well-educated metropolitan constituencies. Deindustrialized heartlands have fewer voters, fewer engaged voters, and were highly likely to vote Leave—and now look highly likely to stop voting Labour.
They’re not going to vote UKIP—its vote has crashed back into its natural position in the low single figures. What they are doing now, for the first time in a century in many areas, is considering the Conservatives. As so often before, the Conservatives are effectively mopping up the right-wing populist vote, particularly by promising to deliver a strong Brexit deal, though many of its leaders (including Prime Minister Theresa May) were at least nominally backing Remain a year ago. Conservatives are tipped to win seats in Wales—once a no-go area for the Tories, but which delivered one of the strongest Leave votes—and even in parts of Scotland. They are just ahead of Labour in the North. Only in London does Labour have a clear lead.
As the SNP has shown, it’s not impossible even now to reknit the cross-class alliance. But to do so in England and Wales would require Labour to get voters to forget about the divisive cultural issues, notably Brexit, and prioritize the social and economic issues that might still unite the working class and the progressive middle class. That is what it is clearly seeking to do with its populist policies on tax, welfare, and public services. The problem is, it’s not working. Brexit (and secondarily mistrust of Jeremy Corbyn) seems to dominate people’s views and voting intentions. And Brexit isn’t going to go away soon—it will dominate the political scene for the next two years, while negotiations are under way, and for years thereafter, until its effects become clear.
There is a view that Labour should just forge ahead and try to make the best of this class divide. Cannot a new majority be built on the progressive middle classes—obviously a larger share of the electorate than before—plus ethnic minority votes, concentrated in the same metropolitan areas? It is harder to do this in Britain than in the United States, where there is a much smaller ethnic minority vote, but it’s not inconceivable, and it may be what Corbyn’s Labour party is headed for. Still, a left-wing party that abandons (or is abandoned by) the poorest and least advantaged groups seems hardly worthy of its name.
Peter Mandler teaches British history at Cambridge University.