Why Isn't Labour Working?

Steve Paxton

June 25, 2022

Can Labour win the next General Election in the UK...and do we want them to?

The first thing to note is that while the Tory Party can win elections with 36.9% of the vote, it’s now unlikely that even 40% would be enough for Labour to make any kind of impact, which in turn means that Labour probably can’t win in its own right. Centrists in the Party like to point to Blair’s three General Election victories and suggest that a return to Blairism is all that’s required. The reality is that a lot has changed since then. Blair’s first two victories produced the largest parliamentary majorities since the war on unspectacular vote shares of 43.2% and 40.7%. His third victory, in 2005, produced a healthy working majority of 66 seats from only 35% of the vote. Compare this to Labour’s 40% of the vote under Corbyn in 2017, which left the party 68 seats short of a majority. The reasons for this dramatic change date back to before the Corbyn era – between the elections of 2010 and 2015 the Liberal Democrat vote imploded following Clegg’s betrayal[1], the Greens doubled their vote and Labour lost Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).

Labour benefitted massively from the Liberal Democrat collapse, but this was largely masked by the number of voters they were shipping to UKIP at the time. As Clegg’s legacy is eclipsed by the Brexit issue Labour will find it difficult to retain the votes they gained from the LibDems – by some distance now the most EU-friendly of the main parties and an attractive prospect for many disgruntled “remainers”. On the other hand, the “Brexiter” votes they lost, first to UKIP and then to the Conservatives, are unlikely to return to Labour under Starmer, who is – and always will be – perceived as staunchly pro-EU.

The loss of Scotland is also unlikely to be reversed and, because of the concentration of votes, is the most damaging to Labour. The SNP now hold 48 seats on less than 4% of the vote and Labour won’t be winning those seats back anytime soon. Even with Boris Johnson’s government on the ropes after a succession of scandals and a catalogue of corruption, Labour under Kier Starmer is failing to break through the 40% mark in opinion polls. A Labour victory is already looking unlikely, and if Johnson is replaced as Tory leader (and therefore as Prime Minister) before the next General Election, that prospect will become even more distant.

Labour’s answer to this situation is to try to win back the “Red Wall” – a collection of seats in the North of England formerly thought of as safe, solid Labour heartlands, but which returned Tory MPs to Parliament in 2019. (Labour strategists now refer to these as “foundation seats”). Labour’s approach to winning these seats has been to attempt to out-Tory the Tories with Starmer committing to “wrap himself in the flag” and the promotion of populist and media-friendly policies such as tougher policing and a war on drugs. The right-wing media predictably waste no time in calling this out as insincere and point to the Labour leader’s efforts to appease the centrist wing of the party by taking the knee for George Floyd or fumbling the question of what defines a woman. Labour needs to be careful not to alienate its remaining support with this pandering to a perceived demographic of “foundation” voters and their “traditional values”. Party membership has collapsed as many on the left have defected to the Greens and an assortment of new micro-parties, or just to the political wilderness. At the same time, many others in the party are staunchly in favour of the EU and will have no problem slipping over to the Liberal Democrats who are now no more centrist than the Labour Party anyway. What all this spells is another Tory victory at the next General Election.

Who is the Working-Class?

In part, Labour’s cluelessness derives from their distant view of who their “natural supporters” are - they retain an outdated, almost paternalistic idea of the people they’re trying to appeal to. Labour strategists appear to imagine a working-class composed overwhelmingly of white, male, blue-collar workers w