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The U.K. Labour party recently released a report that analyses their defeat in the 2019 election. The results should alarm anyone interested in the future of social democracy.
The report concludes that the crushing failure of the 2019 Corbyn campaign had been years in the making. Shifting electoral demographics, organizational dysfunction, and confused political thinking all contributed to a defeat that leaves the Labour party in uncharted waters.
The “New Labour” era of centrism under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ended in 2010 when the Conservative and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Since then, the United Kingdom has seen a series of extraordinary general elections, with four in only nine years. During that time, Labour lost every single election. Last year’s rout at the hands of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives leaves Labour in worse shape than any opposition party in modern British history.
The causes of Labour’s troubles are manifold, as the post-mortem indicates. But one problem sticks out: The premise of social democracy — that when the economy does better, everyone does better — seems increasingly implausible in an era of steadily rising economic inequality. Even worse, traditionally social democratic voters rejected the premise years ago, while party strategists are only now starting to grapple seriously with the implications of their apostasy. For all Corbyn’s energy in promoting left-wing policies, he never succeeded in recalibrating Labour’s internal politics away from the social democratic outlook. In the end, December’s election showed that voters in seats most blighted by social issues Corbyn had relentlessly focused on did not trust his party to fix them.
Labour’s report presents a grim smorgasbord of calamities, including confused policies, dwindling heartland support unnoticed over years, perceived incompetence, a historically unpopular leader, and a campaign organization hampered by incompetence and infighting.
At the same time, Labour was up against a charismatic opponent whose single-issue focus resonated with most of the electorate.
It was a recipe for disaster in December, and perhaps the Labour party is a singular example of all of the above happening simultaneously. But social democrats elsewhere might recognize some disturbing similarities with their own recent experiences.
Emmanuel Macron’s route to the Élysée Palace began with leaving the Socialist Party and forming his own En Marche!, ditching the center-left for a pro-market agenda; it involved assembling a new coalition of voters from the Right and the Left, with the promise of radical political and economic reforms. In the end, his victory overshadowed a historically awful showing for the social democratic party he had abandoned.
In the United States, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns brought demands for social democratic policies among many Democratic voters to the fore but ultimately failed to break through to the final stages of a national election. In the wake of Sanders’s defeat, the party now finds itself having to consider how to assimilate the views he championed if it is to hold on to a significant number of younger voters. This is similar to Labour’s need for rapprochement with the tranche of its members attracted to Jeremy Corbyn. In both cases, the parties’ concerns are internal and thus at the mercy of leaderships which have historically been unreceptive to the concerns of a defeated faction.
While Germany’s CDU-CSU coalition has always been more centrist than left, the social democratic impulses of Angela Merkel’s coalition are frequently analyzed as a liability responsible for her party’s continuing struggle to maintain itself in power. In the wings, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party waits to capitalize on any signs of centrist hesitation, which it can readily sell to a disenfranchised electorate as proof that “establishment politics” is indifferent or actively hostile to them.
So what lessons might social democrats take from the Labour report?
The American president Lyndon Johnson once pointed out that for politicians to be successful, they have to be able to count. The voting trends for Labour make uncomfortable reading — as trade union membership has declined, and migration into cities has risen in recent decades, their traditional voter base has steadily eroded. Whatever electorate remains in the former Labour heartlands isn’t voting Labour anymore; they’re abstaining or voting to the right.
Voters are less loyal to parties and influenced by a wider range of personal factors than was true when Labour last won. This is hardly news — high school students have been accustomed to observing broader social markers than just class for at least a decade — but it seems now that this observation might be permeating even the bunkers of political consultancy. Labour has, for decades, assumed that its heartlands will blithely support them out of loyalty, regardless of changing circumstances. Nothing about this story should reassure Biden HQ after their candidate said that Black people who considered voting for Trump weren’t really Black.
Labour’s report is clear that the party cannot expect any cyclical trends to saving it in the future. But it also skirts the issue of its traditional working-class base being pushed away by the party’s own policies in the Blair and Brown years. Working-class voters almost never benefited from the market-friendly Labour policies that led to increased privatization of state services.
Instead, such policies often caused unmistakable harm to party members in the deindustrialized heartland, who were becoming part of a permanent underclass, susceptible to right-wing political appeals based largely on economic policies.
Labour’s report doesn’t say it explicitly, but social democrats of all hues should be asking themselves how they might address the generational damage done to formerly left-wing working-class communities.
Hubris is another problem to emerge from the report. Labour’s surprisingly strong 2017 election result was in fact an anomaly, but the perception within the party’s leadership was that it vindicated the leadership’s left-wing political agenda and Corbyn’s centralization of power within the party.
The narrowness of Labour’s defeat in 2017 emboldened the party to continue its focus on broad political change and reform, but this saw it take support for granted in the disenfranchised areas it held until December, despite a decade of evidence that support was falling. In effect, Corbyn’s approach, which included taking no definitive stance on Brexit — a massive economic concern in many seats it lost — showed little more recognition of disenchanted voters’ concerns than his predecessors had.
U.K. general elections typically concentrate voters’ minds around a sole issue — often related to the economy — as is common in other countries too. Labour’s decision two years later to contend the election with a wide slate of sweeping policy changes was a hopelessly optimistic political gamble.
Tony Blair had won big in 1997 because people wanted change after 18 years of Tory rule. Two elections passed with Labour in firm control of U.K. politics before the decade of unparalleled turbulence began. Still, the elections in this period were won by the party that connected to a single issue — 2010 was about change after 13 years of Labour rule, 2015 saw the Tories win a mandate to govern as a majority, 2017 was an outlier but still showed faith in the Tories as custodians of Brexit, and 2019 was unmistakably about the desire to conclude the early phases of the Brexit process.
Throughout this period, the grandees of the Labour party seemed blind to these shifting allegiances. Economic concerns from disenfranchised communities were painted internally as passing flirtations with right-wing thinking, which could be assuaged with vague promises of stricter immigration policy.
This has been something of a trope elsewhere too, but Labour’s report concludes that such an approach missed the point: Labour’s former voters aren’t demanding right-wing policies, so much as they don’t trust Labour to do much of anything. Above all, they no longer believed Labour had the competence to reverse the economic decline and rising inequality that afflicted so many of its former strongholds.
The 2019 collapse in Labour’s support was heralded by the collapse of Scottish Labour as far back as 2011, the defeat of the U.S. Democratic Party’s presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the fate of the French Socialist Party in 2017. In each case, there were instances of substantial, abrupt drops in support, suggesting an inability on the part of leadership to reconnect with, or even acknowledge, the suffering of laid-off workers in the deindustrialized areas of these countries.
As Tom McTague pointed out in his account of the 2017 election, Betting the House, Labour lost, but behaved as if it had won it, while the Tories won, and immediately set about understanding how to do much better next time. The belief among Labour leadership in righteous policies was entirely unjustified and offered no plausible basis to campaign on. It also shut down the central apparatus from hearing criticism.
Any general election campaign in the United Kingdom is in effect hundreds of campaigns run simultaneously, and the organization of Labour’s campaign in 2019 was atrocious. Infrastructure wasn’t in place or didn’t work, priorities weren’t clear or hadn’t been checked for communicability outside of core demographics, and there was a culture of ignoring difficult ideological questions.
At the same time, the Tories deployed an electoral machine designed to win, staffed by the people who successfully ran the Vote Leave operation in 2016 and deployed to ruthless success three years later.
Even in defeat, many senior Labour officials failed to grasp that their nuanced messaging and program for government had been rejected so comprehensively. For almost a decade, Labour leaders refused to admit that its ideas and policies were turning off voters, blaming outside forces instead. (Observers of the Democrats’ multi-year fascination with Russian interference conspiracies will notice some similarities with development on the center-left in the United States.)
The interplay between social and economic issues is always heightened in social democratic parties, but power brings a particular focus. Labour’s report shows that voters in poorer areas have consistently placed economic concerns at or near the top of their agendas, but as these economic concerns were the result of globalization or technological advances which were favoured by the party during the New Labour era, they couldn’t be addressed directly. Instead, voters’ concerns were reframed as being social, usually related to the loss of identity, leading to social policy concessions on immigration — which did not address the voters’ real concerns.
While center-left parties in power can spin accommodation as pragmatism, in practice it sows the seeds for weakened support down the line. The Clinton administration’s “triangulation” agenda revolted many in the Democratic Party, endorsing social policies that still haunt Democratic candidates today. Once such social democratic or center-left parties move a little to the right, they tend to find there are others waiting in the wings with the promise of going even further. Ask Emmanuel Macron’s center-left part about his experience shepherding economic and political reforms through the political process amidst demands for more speed from powerful donors with widespread revulsion on the streets at those reforms’ effects. Or better yet, look at his current polling numbers, which indicate level standing with Marine Le Pen of the National Rally party (previously known as the National Front).
Voters had been disenchanted by Labour for at least a decade in most of the seats they lost, with Tory vote share creeping upwards before breaking through in 2019. Throwing dog-whistle policies or concessions to an electorate you don’t respect isn’t a way of keeping them onside anymore, the pace of globalization and widening inequality make fools of anyone claiming to be able to harness an economy for the wider good. Maybe Biden’s camp should be less concerned with who they pick for VP and more worried about tangible benefits they can put in place in disenchanted communities.
Changes in government are hardwired into the U.S. system through term limits, but political change in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany is typically slower. At the same time, it’s easier to reach out to disenchanted voters with a simple message and a charismatic leader. Boris Johnson’s personal approval ratings have long troubled even Tory grandees, but his legendary toxicity across swathes of the country was not an issue at the election because people believed he could “Get Brexit Done.”
Personal competence and political competence aren’t the same thing, but it’s an important lesson for anyone touting social democratic principles that voters will expect credibility and core messaging to align, even in the face of alternatives they might find dire.
Angela Merkel’s handover of power within the CDU has been troubled by the perception of her chosen successor as being off her game, which in turn hastened the demise of public trust in center-left policies she might have offered, at a time when the alternative came from right-wing or even far-right parties.
The same could be argued in relation to Hillary Clinton’s campaign — a complex slate of policies fronted by a candidate tied in the minds of the electorate to the establishment is doomed. It appears so far that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is predicated on the promise of not being Donald Trump. Perhaps this will be enough to win, but demands for more overtly progressive economic policies will not go away.
Beyond the report’s findings, things may have begun to change for Labour. New leader Keir Starmer’s approval ratings have soared as he has successfully navigated the earliest stages of his leadership amidst the Covid-19 crisis. But the structural issues inside and outside the party remain.
For social democrats elsewhere, the question now will be whether their political outlook is a relic of a bygone age, or open to reinvention by new leaders with a new vision of how a more equal and more just society might be achieved.
Simon Jones is reporter based in Glasgow for Politico, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, and others.