This article first appeared in the Financial Times.
Soul-searching about the electoral prospects of the Labour party has been a British political pastime for decades. After Labour’s defeat at the 1959 general election, Anthony Crosland, the party’s pre-eminent revisionist intellectual, published a Fabian pamphlet entitled “Can Labour Win?” His argument was that economic growth had shrunk the industrial working class and swelled the ranks of an affluent middle class, transforming the electoral battleground on which Labour had to fight.
Pamphlets and polemics have been published with variations on that theme ever since, always after Labour has lost elections. With the exception of a bout of civil war in the early 1980s, Labour has responded to each defeat by seeking to broaden its appeal and modernise its policies. In each era, it has succeeded in getting re-elected.
The results of Thursday’s by-elections paint a bleaker picture, however. It is not simply that Labour’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is unpopular, or that his brand of reheated Bennism holds little appeal for most voters. The chances of his leading Labour into the next general election must now be considered minimal. It is that in the heyday of postwar social democracy, Labour won handsomely, whatever the national result, in seats like Copeland (which it lost on Thursday) and Stoke-on-Trent Central (which it held with a reduced majority).
Since then, three things have happened in these constituencies and others like them: turnout has fallen dramatically, the number of parties contesting the seats has multiplied and the Labour majority has been slashed. The party’s grip on power in its historic strongholds is now more tenuous than at any time since the 1930s, when it was split and faced a popular National government.
Until relatively recently, Labour could rely on its working-class supporters, even as the industrial society that shaped their allegiances steadily disappeared. Today, age and social class inequalities in voting patterns work decisively against the party. Older, middle-class voters turn out in much greater numbers than working-class and younger voters, which disproportionately benefits the Conservatives. Theresa May has been adept at consolidating this older voting bloc behind her government.
The prime minister has used the Brexit vote to offer a new configuration of Conservative politics that is both Eurosceptic and post-Thatcherite, detaching the interventionist, One Nation economic and social traditions of the party (at least in rhetoric, if not yet in practice) from its enfeebled pro-European wing. It is an electorally potent combination, which has had the effect, not just of boxing Labour into liberal, metropolitan Britain, but of holding down the UK Independence party’s vote.
Breathless post-Brexit talk of Ukip eating away the core Labour vote in the north of England has now given way to a more sophisticated appreciation of the flows of voters between the parties — flows from which the Conservatives, and to a lesser degree the Liberal Democrats, appear to be the winners.
Britain’s new electoral geography has also undermined Labour. Once, the party could bring battalions of MPs to Westminster from Scotland, Wales and northern England, where it was indisputably dominant. Now it fights on different fronts against multiple parties across the UK, a national party in a fracturing union. In Scotland, its support has been cannibalised by the Scottish National party, while the Conservatives have picked up the unionist vote there.
In Wales, party allegiances have split in different directions, while in England, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats at the last general election handed a swath of seats to the Conservatives. The EU referendum added another layer of complexity, splitting coastal, rural and post-industrial areas from cities and university towns, and leaving Labour facing in different directions, trying to hold together a coalition of voters with divergent views.
Any Labour leader would struggle in these circumstances — renewing the party’s fortunes at a time of national division is a monumental task. But it is now clear that the surge of support for Mr Corbyn in 2015 was less a new social movement giving energy and purpose to the Labour party, than a planetary nebula collecting around a dying star.
Labour’s weaknesses leave pro-Europeans bereft of political leadership at a critical time. In the absence of an effective opposition that can marshal blocking votes in parliament, the government is able to conduct the politics of Brexit internally. Countervailing forces are restricted to alternative centres of power, such as Scotland or London, and civil society campaigns that are only just starting to form. Big business is curiously mute and the trade unions have other priorities. On the most important question facing Britain, political power is dangerously lopsided.
Yet there are still grounds for optimism on the left, however small. Britain’s radical political traditions — liberal, as well as social democratic — are resilient and resourceful ones, particularly when they combine forces. The defeats inflicted on progressive parties in recent elections around the world have been narrow not decisive, suggesting that talk of a nationalist turn in the tide of history is overblown. While British Conservatism may be remarkably adaptive, Brexit will be a severe test of it.
Five years after Crosland posed the question of whether Labour could win, Harold Wilson became prime minister in a blaze of the “white heat” of technology. It will not be Mr Corbyn, and it will take a lot longer this time, but Wilson may yet have a successor who can do the same.