What's the point of the Labour Party?

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What's the point of the Labour Party?

Following Labour’s catastrophic general election, the time has come to return to first principles. If the party did not exist, would we need to create it? If so, why, who for and with what objectives, beyond winning elections? These are the most important questions the new leader must answer — if not during the leadership campaign, then soon after

For much of the twentieth century, the reply seemed obvious. Labour was there to transform Britain’s economic order in order to promote the rights and opportunities of Britain’s working class, through control of the economy’s commanding heights, progressive taxation and redistribution, employment rights, free schools and health care, decent homes and pensions, and so on.

Labour today faces two basic problems. Paradoxically, the first is that most of the old reactionary Tory foxes have been shot, killed and buried. The centre left has won all the big battles except for those over nationalisation. To be sure, there remain important differences over the levels of taxation, the funding of public services and the cost and structure of the benefits system; and these get magnified at election time. But it is decades since the Conservatives denounced the creation of the NHS or free schools or state pensions or the principle of workers’ rights or, now, the minimum wage.

These days the differences usually boil down to debates about modest changes in taxes as a proportion of the national economy, how they are raised and how they are spent. We should not confuse these arguments, however fiercely contested, with the great ideological battles fought by, say, Clement Attlee or Margaret Thatcher. And when Labour has attempted to revive the old ideological divides, as in 1983 and in last month’s election, it has seen the grim results.

This leads to Labour’s second problem. Britain’s demographics have changed beyond recognition. Today’s “working class” bears little relation to that of most of the twentieth century.

One way to view these changes is to contrast last month’s election with Thatcher’s third victory in 1987. The overall figures are similar. Thirty-three years ago, the Conservatives secured a majority of 102, with a 12-point lead over Labour in the national vote share (44-32 per cent). Last month, the Conservative majority was 80, with, again a 12-point lead in the vote share (45-33 per cent).

However, Britain changed hugely between those two apparently similar elections.

In 1987, 62 per cent of Britain’s electorate was working class (defined as people whose head of household has — or when they last worked, had — a manual job, whether skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled). That figure has fallen to 43 per cent.

In 1987, Labour’s support consisted of 7.8 million working class, 2.2 million middle class. Last month’s figures were: 4.1 million working class, 6.2 million middle class. As a proportion of Labour’s total vote, its working class support almost halved from 78 to 40 per cent.

Only part of that decline is explained by changes in Britain’s employment structure. In 1987, Labour enjoyed a four-point lead among working class voters (Lab 41 per cent, Con 37 per cent). Last month, the Tories enjoyed a 15-point lead (48-33 per cent).

Meanwhile, Labour has made big advances among middle-class voters: a 36 point deficit in 1987 (54-18 per cent) has fallen to just ten points (43-33 per cent).

The upshot of all this is not just that the class profile of the electorate has changed, but that class has ceased to be a predictor of party support. The same holds if we split the electorate into four class groups (managerial/professional; clerical; skilled manual; semi- or unskilled manual) Labour’s support is pretty much the same in each of them. These days, the best way to predict a voter’s loyalty is to know their age and education. A graduate under 30 is very likely to be a Labour Remainer; someone over 60 who left school at 15 is probably a pro-Brexit Conservative.

All this helps to explain why the big cities voted Remain and have, Scotland excepted, seen big long-term advances for Labour, while the Conservatives and the Leave campaign have triumphed in towns that used to return Labour MPs with large majorities. The big cities with major universities (and, for that matter, smaller towns with big universities, such as Cambridge and Canterbury), have enjoyed an influx of young graduates and high-tech investment, while towns that have struggled with big industrial changes tend to have fewer graduates and more pensioners.

Because of the long-term trends, we should, though, avoid the temptation to view the town/city divide (which I discussed in more detail in a recent analysisfor TheArticle) simply through the prism of the Brexit referendum and last month’s election. Any attempt to revive Labour’s fortunes in struggling, left-behind towns must start with a recognition of the decades of economic and political turbulence, and their connection to the wider changes in Britain’s industrial and social landscape.

Back, then, to the basic questions: why should Labour now exist, who for and with what objectives? We now know, if we did not know before, that it can no longer be a class-based ideological project. At the risk of alienating those readers who have stayed with this argument so far, I think Tony Blair’s proposition from 20 years ago is spot on. He said that Labour should be “the political arm of the British people” — that is, to advance the interests of the electorate as a whole, rather than one segment of it, and fight all those who seek to defend sectional interests and amass undeserved power and/or riches at the expense of workers, citizens and consumers as a whole.

In a way that’s the logical transformation of a party which started out promoting of the interests of the 90 per cent who, more than a century ago, lacked power, rights, social protection and for millions, the vote. Labour should still be for the 90 per cent — but recognise that the make-up of that 90 per cent is utterly different: the lives they lead, the victories they have won and the challenges they now face.

Labour’s leadership election is unlikely to see these issues tackled head-on. Candidates who tackled them with brutal clarity would deserve admiration for their courage, but lose many of the votes they need. The real question is not what they say in the next weeks, but what the winner does with his or her mandate. The coronation of Labour new leader will be the start, not the end, of the real debate about the party’s future.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 77%
  • Interesting points: 86%
  • Agree with arguments: 73%
40 ratings - view all

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