In December 2019, the British Labour Party suffered its worst defeat since 1935. Last Thursday, with a spate of local races and a parliamentary bye-election as the result of a resignation, Labour under its new leader Keir Starmer had a chance to redeem itself. But Labour lost the bye-election in Hartlepool decisively and seems to have been drubbed in local elections outside of London and university towns. These sorry results suggest that Labour may in for a long-term decline similar to that which it endured after Margaret Thatcher and the Tories’ victory in 1979.
To rehabilitate their party, some Labour party leaders are looking to the example of Joe Biden and the Democrats. But Democrats would be wise to look across the Atlantic at what happened to the Labour Party. Some of the factors that have doomed Labour in the last elections — for instance, the rise of Scottish nationalism, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal unpopularity — have been peculiar to the United Kingdom, but other factors, such as the rise of a cultural ultra-leftism, could equally affect the Democrats in the United States and lead to their decline. There are, in other words, lessons that Americans can learn from Labour’s fall.
Labour’s electoral decline is largely attributable to its loss of what was called its “Red Wall.” These were seats in small and mid-sized towns in northern England, the Midlands and Wales that were once centers of mining and manufacturing, but have fallen into disrepair. (Americans would call them “deindustrialized.” The British call them “post-industrial.”) This decline surfaced clearly in the Thatcher years and accelerated during the Great Recession.
These towns, like Hartlepool, are primarily populated by semi-skilled and skilled workers — what the British regard as the “working class.” In British labor statistics and in polling, they are listed as “C2DE” in contrast to “ABC1” that consists of white collar supervisory, management and professional occupations. In the 1997 election that finally after two decades brought the Labour Party under Tony Blair to power, 59 percent of Labour’s votes came from the working class. Blair’s genius was to supplement these voters with support from the college-educated middle and upper-middle class.
But the Labour Party began to lose these voters after 1997, and in 2019, they departed en masse. Boris Johnson and the Tories actually won the working class vote by 48 to 33 percent, and in the process won 41 seats from Labour in its Red Wall, which accounted for most of the 48 seats it won that Labour had held in 2017 and for the 78 vote margin that the Tories now enjoyed in Parliament. Hartlepool, which Labour had held since 1964, was the test of whether the Red Wall would continue to crumble. Labour didn’t just lose it. They lost it decisively. Labour’s candidate got only 28.7 percent.
There are some Labour intellectuals, primarily associated with the pro-Corbyn group Momentum, who have argued that Labour can build a new majority based on London and university towns and college-educated workers. After the Brexit vote in 2016 for “leave” rather than “remain,” Paul Mason wrote in The New Statesman, “With its vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia — the cities that voted to stay in Europe.” But for the time being — and perhaps a decade or more — this seems like a sure recipe for failure. As the 2019 results showed, Labour has to share the ABC1 vote with the Tories, Liberal Democrats, and Greens. The working class seats it once held far outnumber the metropolitan and university seats it can now win. The question is why Labour lost its working class base.
Labour’s decline can best be understood as having happened in two phases. Under Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who would succeed him in 2007, Labour cast its lot with the growth of London’s financial sector. They were unable to do much to halt its manufacturing decline. They enthusiastically participated in the European Union (Labour had earlier opposed membership in the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, on the grounds it was a “capitalist club”), and extolled the promise of globalization.
In 2004, when the EU admitted eight less developed countries from Eastern Europe, the member states were granted seven years to allow workers from these countries to emigrate. But Blair waived the transition period, leading to a massive influx of low-wage workers who competed for jobs and social services with British nationals during the Great Recession and who also were seen to threaten the cultural homogeneity of England’s old working class communities.
The United Kingdom Independence Party, which later championed Brexit, and which was founded in 1993, came in second in the 2009 elections to the European parliament. It captured much of the working class discontent with the Labour Party’s commitment to London’s City, Brussels and the EU and globalization. As journalist David Goodhart and social scientist Matthew Goodwin would later argue, working class support for Brexit was never simply about the EU, but about the cultural, political and economic estrangement these voters felt from both parties, which was epitomized by deference to bureaucrats in Brussels.
The second phase begins with Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader after the party’s second defeat in 2015. Labour’s leadership campaign brought hundreds of thousands of new members into the party. Many of them were young and college-educated. Several of Corbyn’s supporters organized a new group Momentum. In 2016, the leaders of Momentum and the members of parliament still loyal to Blair and Brown urged that the party back “remain,” and Corbyn reluctantly complied, even though two-thirds of Labour seats — and particularly those in the Red Wall — would vote for “Leave.” Afterwards, the MPs blamed Corbyn’s lukewarm support for Remain for Brexit’s win, and organized a recall, which Corbyn, backed by Momentum, beat back easily. Momentum would grow to 40,000 members, and by 2018 would control Labour’s Executive Committee.
With the rise of Momentum, what had been implicit in Blair and Brown’s politics — the parties’ identification with London and the university towns — became codified in the group’s support for a cultural politics that broke with Labour’s historical commitments to family, community, and nation. This politics consisted of enthusiastic support for Remain. In the runup to the 2019 vote, the activists joined hands with the pro-Blair MPs to favor a second referendum, a “people’s vote,” which they assumed would repudiate the 2016 results. They championed “open borders,” immediate eligibility for migrants to Britain’s extensive social services, including its free National Health Services, and voting rights for migrants, regardless of their citizenship, in national elections. They extolled “diversity” and condemned supporters of Leave as bigots and xenophobes. Patriotism itself was identified with xenophobia. At the pre-election Labour Conference in Brighton in September 2019, which I attended, speakers called on Britain to provide reparations to make amends for its imperial past and even condemned Britain for global warming — presumably, by initiating the industrial revolution.
The young activists also espoused controversial views on family and gender. Prior to the 2019 election, an ad hoc group, the Labour Committee for Trans Rights, called for the expulsion from the party of two longstanding feminist organizations that restricted membership in their rape shelters to biological women. During the vote for party leader after the 2019 debacle, a majority of the candidates, including Momentum’s candidate, backed the demands of the ad hoc group. This intraparty fracas was widely reported.
In the 2019 election, Corbyn and his chief advisor John McDonnell hoped that Labour’s social democratic economics would win back the party’s estranged working class base. Labour’s support for nationalization of transport and energy and its promise of increased support for the NHS were popular. During the week that Labour’s manifesto was released, one of Boris Johnson’s campaign staff later told The Financial Times, Labour pulled within four percentage points of the Tories. But Labour’s equivocal stand on Brexit and its identification with the cultural views of young, urban, college-educated activists overrode any appeal that its economic platform might have had.
In a post-election study, Paula Surridge, Matthew Goodwin, Oliver Heath, and David Cutts found the that support for Brexit was “strongly associated with cultural values.” These values “cut across the traditional left-right divide” and undermined Labour’s historic identification with the economic left. One of the few groups to dissent to Labour’s cultural leftism and its embrace of Remain was Blue Labour, which was formed in 2009. After the election, trade unionist Paul Embery, a member of the group, wrote in his book Despised, “Labour today has virtually nothing to say to the small town and post-industrial Britain, the kind of places out there in the provinces which were once its mainstay. It is no longer the ‘people’s party’, but the party for the woke, the Toytown revolutionary and Twitter.”
The other factor in Labour’s defeat in 2019 and on Thursday was Boris Johnson’s ability to get a deal on Brexit and his move leftward on economic policy. In the 2017 election, Corbyn had almost defeated Tory Prime Minister Theresa May. May had been unable to get parliament to agree to a Brexit deal; and Corbyn had promised to stand by the 2016 referendum. In addition, the Tory platform had threatened cuts in senior’s healthcare coverage. Johnson, who replaced May in July 2019, made none of those mistakes. He got parliament to endorse the outlines of a Brexit deal, and he pledged to increase funding for the NHS and to initiate an industrial policy to “level up” Britain’s deindustrialized regions. Johnson’s politics hit the sweet spot in the British electorate: social democratic on economics, but conservative (although not in the American sense of the religious right) on social and cultural policy. That’s the magic formula that allowed the Tories to lay siege to Labour’s Red Wall.
After the election, Johnson initially stumbled in his handling of Covid, but after he almost died himself, and after the United Kingdom became the world’s leader in infection, he imposed a lockdown and accelerated the development and the authorization of a vaccine. Johnson and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak also followed through on Johnson’s promise of boosting social spending and initiating an industrial policy. “The impression left,” The Guardian wrote of their policies, “is that we are all Keynesians now.” Johnson’s success with the vaccine and his budget boosted his popularity and laid the basis for the Tories’ success in Thursday’s election.
Sir Keir Starmer, who was elected in April 2020 to succeed Corbyn, seemed an unlikely choice to rebuild Labour’s Red Wall. An Oxford graduate and knighted barrister, Starmer had been a chief promoter of the People’s Vote. But Starmer tried to distance Labour from Momentum, Corbyn, and the cultural left. He declared that he was “proud to be patriotic” and advised Labour officials to display the Union Jack at their appearances. He opposed the demand to expel the feminist groups and called on the party to “put family first.” But as Thursday’s results showed, the damage was already done. Barring a major misstep by Johnson and the Tories, Labour could be out of power for the rest of the decade.
After Thursday’s election, Prospect editor Tom Clark was among those who advised Labour to try to emulate Biden’s success in 2020. Labour, Clark wrote, should “look to the US, where Biden won nationwide last year while being crushed more than two-to-one in that traditionally safe Democratic state of West Virginia.” But the Democrats’ success in 2020 could prove fleeting. In 2020, they were blessed with a candidate who was able to stem, and in a few instances slightly reverse, the flight of working class voters in middle America from the Democratic Party. That was critical to Biden’s success in a state like Pennsylvania.
But Biden is a 78-year-old relic who in his person and in his emphasis on economics reflects an older labor-oriented Democratic party that is being replaced by a party preoccupied with culture and identity. Many of the young Democrats elevate racial issues above those of class — framing what could be universal appeals to national betterment in racial terms; they want to increase immigration and grant citizenship to unauthorized immigrants, but appear indifferent to securing America’s borders; they justifiably champion the rights of transgender women — biological men who identify as women — to be free from discrimination in employment or housing, but dismiss concerns that a blanket identification of sex with declared gender could threaten rights specific to biological women; and as homicides rise, and as justifiable protests against police brutality turned into mayhem and looting, they have advocated defunding rather than reforming the police. Democrats’ identification with these kind of views played a role in Democratic losses in Congressional races in 2020.
Democrats in 2020 were also blessed with a perfect opponent in Donald Trump. Trump’s bigotry and corruption turned off far more voters than it attracted. It contributed, among other things, to Democrats’ surge in upscale suburbs that might have otherwise backed a respectable Republican who espoused some of Trump’s policies. (Note that Boris Johnson is no Trump. While sometimes criticized for clownishness, he is a seasoned politician, a two-term mayor of London, who has displayed a keen eye for the center of the British electorate.) If Trump continues to be the poster-boy for the Republican Party, Democrats will benefit in 2022 and 2024, but if he recedes, and his most ardent followers fade into the background, the Democrats could suffer defeat in Congressional elections and in the presidential election of 2024. The Democrats’ response to what has happened to Labour shouldn’t be, “They should look to us,” but instead, “It can happen here.”