Why the Labour Party is Not in Such a Mess After All

Why the Labour Party is Not in Such a Mess After All

Labour fared much better in Thursday’s election than many had predicted—myself included. But to win decisively in future, it still has work to do.

Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in West Kirby, May 20 (Andy Miah / Flickr)

There were many losers in the UK’s general election—most obviously, the Conservatives, who had enjoyed a 25-point lead in the polls at the start of the campaign and ended up squeaking out a 2-point victory and lost their majority in Parliament. A snap general election, three years in advance of schedule, which had been meant to shore up the Tory majority to strengthen Theresa May’s hand in Brexit negotiations, led humiliatingly to a minority government dependent on support from the right-wing crackpots of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Theresa May herself was the biggest loser: hailed a scant few months ago as a second Margaret Thatcher, she is now blamed fulsomely for her robotic campaigning and surely doomed to fall to an internal coup in months if not weeks. It will have been the shortest premiership in the United Kingdom since Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months in 1922–3.

All of the smaller parties were losers too, in one way or another. The Liberal Democrats had been hoping for great things as the only unambiguously “Remainer” party, promising a rerun of last year’s Brexit referendum. Its vote share stalled at its historically low current level, 7 percent, though it picked up a few seats. The Scottish National Party surprised everyone by losing ground to both Tories and Labour, as its electorate tired of a Johnny-one-note campaign for independence. The Green party drew just half the vote it won in 2015. But the biggest loser among the minor parties was the UK Independence Party, clearly now surplus to requirements as its core vote felt assured that the UK was leaving the EU. Where its votes would go was one of the great excitements of the campaign; they duly vanished; UKIP’s share dropped from 12.6 percent to 1.8 percent. The party will likely be relegated to the memory vault alongside such explicitly fascist parties of the past as the (British) National Front and the British National Party.

As a result of the shrinkage of the minor parties, the dominance of the two-party system has been restored to levels not seen since the 1970s. At 40 percent, Labour scored its highest vote share since 2001; the Tories’ vote share, at 42.4 percent, is their highest since 1983 or even possibly 1979.

There was one big winner, however, and a very big one: democracy. Turnout was up from 66 percent (in 2015) to 69 percent. Any rise is surprising, given how fed up British voters are with their third national vote in three years, and this total was the highest in twenty years. Most astonishing was the galvanizing of young voters, typically the least likely to turn out: turnouts as low as 40 percent in the first decade of this century bounced back to closer to 60 percent in 2015 and 2016, and may have reached 70 percent this year. (Compare, however, turnouts of upwards of 90 percent for voters aged sixty-five-plus in the Brexit referendum.) The very large youth turnout helps explains the pollsters’ near-universal failure to call the result. In rebuffing the Conservatives, the electorate appears to have paid much more attention to the campaign per se, and to have turned its back consciously on some of the more manipulative devices of the tabloid press and of campaign consultants.

The scale of the swing itself attests to the impact of the campaign. Labour converted a twenty-point deficit in the polls to near parity, and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal rating, as low as -41 in March, was put at the end of the campaign by one pollster at +39. Labour’s surge seemed to start not with a scandal or a sensation but with the issue of its manifesto, a detailed set of policies with a (possibly credible) plan to implement and pay for them. The Tories’ decline coincided with the release of their manifesto, lacking in detail—the one detail they did proffer, about the cost of care in old age, they withdrew almost immediately—and delivered insouciantly with no cost estimates at all. Their PR guru Lynton Crosby advised them to focus instead on Theresa May’s alleged leadership qualities and a mantra—“strong and stable government in the national interest”—that was more a Zen koan than a political program. Presumably on Crosby’s advice, May also refused to appear in debates, to answer journalists’ questions, or even to slough off her robotic glaze.

To run on leadership and then so egregiously not to exercise it might have worked if the voters really were past caring; but they weren’t. They cared a lot. They acted as voters are supposed to act. Instead of cursing their “volatility,” as the pollsters have been doing to excuse their own poor performance, we should praise their willingness to consider soberly the range of choices before them.

Did Labour win or lose? Both. It did lose its third consecutive election—not to be overlooked, despite its impressive share of the vote. But clearly it won in the court of public opinion. It mobilized that youth vote and may have won as much as two-thirds of it. At the same time, it did not lose as much of its traditional working-class base as had been predicted—including by me. The manifesto’s commitments—against austerity, for higher taxes on the wealthy, for renationalization of rail and other public utilities, for the restoration of funding levels in the education and health services and of free higher education, were modest enough by the standards of 1960s social democracy. But they represented a commitment to the commonweal not seen since that decade, and one that clearly resonated with Labour’s recently fickle core voters. At the very least, wide sections of the public were rebelling against the palpable effects of sustained, unnecessary austerity on their daily lives—museums and libraries closing, hospital waitlists lengthening, school budgets squeezed, public squalor mounting.

We don’t know the answer yet to the question of how many former Labour voters who had defected to UKIP have now defected back to Labour—or whether UKIP served as the “gateway drug” for many working-class voters seeking an excuse to vote Tory. The Tories did win some Labour heartland seats in Stoke, Walsall, Middlesbrough, and most astonishingly, in the old coal-mining bastion of Mansfield. In general, there was a swing to the Tories in Labour seats that had voted to leave the European Union. Older, less educated voters are now more likely to vote Tory than Labour. But none of these effects was as great as expected. Labour still seems to have won a majority of the poorest voters, and the Tories of the wealthiest, though the gaps have narrowed, as the Tories do pick up more of the alienated and Labour picks up more of the precariously privileged.

On the other hand, Labour surged back in places that UKIP had once eyed and that the Tories were expected to devour: in Wales, where Labour gained rather than lost seats as had been predicted, and also in parts of deindustrialized Lancashire and Yorkshire. But the youth vote, which is of course well spread geographically, helped the party do exceptionally well in some university towns it would never in a million years have expected to win, such as Canterbury and Warwick. These two sleepy medieval towns, with universities on their outskirts, were held previously by the Tories—in Canterbury’s case, for a century.

The size and radicalism of the student vote is only slowly registering in the UK, where higher education only reached large sections of the population in the last generation, but also where pallid student liberalism has unexpectedly burst into full-blown socialism, and not only among elite students. But Labour also did well in places to which recent university graduates have moved, most notably London, which has rapidly become the party’s new stronghold. The biggest shock of the election was Labour’s capture, by just twenty votes, of Kensington & Chelsea, the nation’s wealthiest district, where absentee Russian landlords and Arab oil sheiks roam, not miners and steelworkers. One of the biggest, if least noticed, social changes of the last fifty years—the explosive growth of the student population from 10 percent to 50 percent of the age cohort—has finally told electorally, and it has told for Labour.

The question of the moment—not answerable at the moment, least of all by someone like me who recently made such bad predictions—is how Labour might turn this upsurge of youthful optimism into a parliamentary majority. In my last piece for this magazine, I did suggest that a majority could be built by turning away from the white working class and building a coalition of the young, ethnic minorities, and metropolitans—though it would be hard and, for a left-wing party, morally wrong. Today that task looks both easier and less necessary. Labour’s coalition is now broader and healthier. A striking result of the vote is that Labour and the Tories are now neck-and-neck in England and Wales. This is important because Labour used to rely on a majority of votes from Scotland; as the SNP rose, it appeared to condemn the UK to permanent Tory government.

Yet a party that has been out of government for seven years, much of it in recession, ought to have done better still. To do so it will have to shake off, as the electorate appears to be doing, some time-hallowed “left-right” assumptions. The first of these is that a majority vote needs to be built by moving to the center; how else is a left-wing party to pick up votes beyond its core? But today it is not clear that there is a “center,” or, if there is, the “volatile” electorate has been kicking out against it, with increasing irritation, for some years now. The positive response to Labour’s 2017 manifesto does suggest there is substantial feeling, and not only among young people, for a strong, clear rejection of many of the “center-left” principles that brought Tony Blair’s party to power in 1997 but are now a liability. Labour needs to embrace its own version of populism—emphasizing public services, redistribution of wealth, and investment for growth—while continuing to grapple with the challenges of Brexit, which horrifies most of its new supporters but won a popular majority, and specifically the pressure for immigration control that drove much Brexit sentiment, even more horrific to the youth vote but even more important to Labour’s older working-class base.

For all their success in this campaign, it’s not clear that Corbyn and his old associates from the 1980s left are the best vehicles for such a program. They are straightforward and honest , yes, but, until this campaign, also rather dourly ideological. Certainly they can’t do it on their own. That’s another “left-right” assumption that needs to be ditched.

For Corbyn’s inner circle, you’re either with us or you’re against us. You’re a socialist or (ugh) a Blairite, a “Red Tory.” People who think the Corbyn campaign was all gentleness and goodwill need to look more closely at its followers on social media, who seem to have revived the nasty intra-party sectarianism that haunted the 1970s as well, this time given an extra injection of venom by the abuse that social media seems to foster.

Labour needs to forgive and forget. It especially needs to make the most of its cheerful, doughty fighters for justice who are as often found on the non-Corbyn wing of the party as on its left—figures like Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips, with strong, loyal local followings rooted in tough, diverse communities. Such politicians are most likely to bring along voters who were only protesting against austerity into a campaign for a sustained shift from private to public interests. And it needs to bring back into the fold such leading “moderates” as Chuka Umunna and Lisa Nandy who are showing some signs of giving Corbyn due credit for his victory, without forcing them to undergo ritual humiliation, either (social media are particularly alight just now with imaginatively cruel recipes for such rituals).

Above all, Labour needs to find ways to engage its youthful new army constructively, as it did brilliantly in the campaign, but for the longer haul. The trade unions, while still the party’s paymasters, no longer provide the human infrastructure for Labour as they have traditionally done. It will be difficult to create new structures and methods that keep idealism alive while channeling it to practical ends. But they must be found. The whole political culture of the nation needs to be overhauled to end the war of all against all and cultivate renewed demands for public goods—a big ask in a world dominated by ever more fissiparous identity politics and individual demands for recognition. Local government will surely figure more prominently, as the new regional “mayors” such as Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram will attest.

So will renewed attention to the policy-making process. While Labour was commendably explicit about its headline policies during the election, in many areas, its policy cupboard is bare, since it has spent so much time on infighting and the increasingly hopeless Parliamentary struggle. Again a broad-church approach is vital. Some of Corbyn’s spokespeople were lamentably feeble in the campaign when forced to address the nitty-gritty of their supposed policy portfolios. For the agenda of politics to change takes more than good slogans and precise cost estimates: it also requires excruciating attention to detail, a command of evidence that will convince neutrals and assuage “experts,” and a strong and palpable team spirit. As the parliamentary struggle resumes, Labour’s prospects appear far more hopeful. But enacting the programs the country needs will not be as easy as the party’s enthusiasts think.

Peter Mandler teaches British history at Cambridge University.

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