Image: Liz Truss announcing her resignation. Via Prime Minister’s Office, Wikimedia Commons.

On October 23, Liz Truss announced her resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, her tenure in that post becoming the shortest ever. Her replacement, Rishi Sunak, is the fifth Conservative PM in six years. Truss’s resignation became inevitable as the Conservative Party descended into a state of unruliness, back-stabbing and mutual recrimination, a veritable shambles, unprecedented for a party that could once credibly claim to be the most successful in the Western world. Less than three years had elapsed since the Tories under Boris Johnson swept the country with a crushing 80-seat majority, with Labour suffering its worst election defeat in terms of seats won since 1935.

Since the 2019 election, two major events had intervened: the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine war. Johnson probably benefited from the firm line he took on the war, but his rather poor handling of the pandemic surprisingly did not dent his political standing. Among many in all parties, there was a strong sense that a fifth consecutive Tory electoral triumph in 2024 was inevitable.

Then the tectonic plates shifted as Truss increased spending and cut taxes for the rich. The polls registered a massive Labour lead of more than 30 percentage points over the Tories.

What had happened?

The proximate cause: The minibudget

The proximate cause was the Truss government’s “fiscal event” or minibudget in September. To understand this we have to sketch the circumstances in which Truss became Prime Minister that month.

In July 2022, Boris Johnson, the architect of the Tories’ 2019 electoral triumph, was forced out of office, having lost the confidence of Conservative MPs. His flagrant violation of the rules (set by himself) to combat the COVID pandemic, multiple scandals, misdemeanours and poor decisions were too numerous even for the Tory caucus. The outcome of the battle to succeed him was heavily influenced by the rules governing Tory leadership selection. Any Tory MP with 20 nominations can enter the contest. Then successive votes among MPs reduce the number of candidates until two remain. The final choice is left to the 170,000 Conservative members.

The final two were Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose resignation precipitated Johnson’s downfall, and the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. Sunak is suave, articulate, immensely rich and an accomplished TV performer, and he led the balloting among Tory MPs. Truss is dull, lacklustre, almost robotic in manner and a singularly unimpressive communicator. Nonetheless, she won by a significant margin. Before considering why, let us turn to the minibudget unveiled as the first major act of her premiership.

Truss packed her cabinet with loyalists, the most notable being her longtime friend and close political ally Kwasi Kwarteng, whom she appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both Truss and Kwarteng are libertarian free-marketeers wanting low taxes and a smaller public sector. The policies contained in the minibudget had long been incubated in right-wing think tanks, in both the United States and the U.K.

Truss and Kwarteng were convinced that revitalizing the stagnant British economy and accelerating economic growth required a major scaling back of taxation on the rich and big business, the shredding of regulations and cutbacks in welfare spending – all of which would unleash the country’s entrepreneurial energies. The top rate of income tax was abolished, planned increases in the very low level of corporate tax were reversed, and myriad other ways were found to relieve the weight of taxation on rich investors. The tax cuts were unfunded, but “trickle-down theory” anticipated that through higher economic growth they would pay for themselves. Significantly – and very unusually – neither the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) nor the Bank of England was consulted.

The combination of the tax cuts and the failure to elicit the views of the OBR and the Bank of England generated a catastrophic financial market crisis. The Bank of England was forced to intervene in an emergency bond-purchasing program to limit the increase in public debt interest and stop the pound’s fall in international currency markets. Confidence in the capacity of the government to manage the British economy collapsed.

To save her faltering premiership, Truss sacked her Chancellor, replacing him with Jeremy Hunt (the fourth chancellor in a year), an experienced cabinet minister from the more moderate wing of the party. He was no friend of the PM. In a dramatic policy U-turn, Hunt dumped virtually all the proposals in the Kwarteng minibudget. Truss was humiliated; cohesion, morale and discipline in Tory ranks disintegrated; and the party’s standing in the polls slumped to unheard-of levels. At its trough, in the YouGov poll of October 20–21, support for the Tories fell to 19 per cent, while Labour support surged to 56 per cent.

As PM, Liz Truss inherited public finances in straitened circumstances as the result of a stagnant economy (a consequence of austerity during David Cameron’s premiership in the early 2010s) and the huge cost of containing the social consequences of the COVID pandemic. She made U.K. public finances immeasurably worse. “Never,” the Observer newspaper declared, “has failure been so self-inflicted, so absolute and so richly deserved.”¹

Truss’s demise was inevitable and preparations were soon underway for yet another Tory leadership contest. In a bizarre twist in an extraordinary tale, the recently ejected Boris Johnson contemplated a comeback. This was averted by a hurried rule change which stated that a leadership contender required nomination by a minimum of 100 MPs, compared to the previous 20. Only Rishi Sunak, in his second stab at the leadership, surpassed this threshold. With one candidate only, the Tories avoided another potentially disastrous vote among party members. Sunak was quickly elected.

The Tories breathed a sigh of relief, but Sunak was left with Truss’s grim legacy. In in a few short weeks, she had trashed the Tories’ reputation as the party best able to manage the economy and uniquely capable of running the country. Sunak inherited a party that, as the political analyst Matt Goodwin observed, was “not only tanking in the polls but lacks a unifying message, ideology and dominant faction.”²

How then can we account for the disastrous selection of Liz Truss, a politician who was so plainly ill-suited to the role of prime minister? Here we need to dip into history.

The long shadow of Brexit

Over the years there have been many reasons for the Tories’ political ascendancy, but three are of particular salience: adroit party management, a reputation for economic competence and a public perception that they were more skilled in providing effective government than their main rival, Labour.³

Adept party management was, in the past, greatly facilitated by three key aspects of Conservative internal culture: the rarity of disagreements over matters of high principle, the low incidence of factional strife, and respect for – even deference toward – leaders.⁴

Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly the most formidable Tory politician in the post–World War II years, yet the seeds of future party disarray were planted during her leadership. Over many years the party had prided itself on eschewing overt conflict over ideology, preferring to concentrate on its reputation for “sound administration” and practical problem-solving. Thatcher introduced a new brand of conviction politics, in which ideas and theories (Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, etc.) featured much more prominently than in the past. The result was to inject into the internal life of the Conservative Party a greater propensity to think and debate in ideological terms, sharpening differences rather than muting them as in the past.

Also during the Thatcher years, the U.K.’s relations with the European Union began to obsess the party, and were increasingly framed in terms of high principles. This lent itself to a degree of rigidity previously rare in the party. As the former Tory cabinet minister Rory Stewart commented, it “released a deep ideological fanaticism into the Tory party.”⁵ The political significance of this was rendered far more pressing by the rise of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which threatened to outbid the Tories on their right. In due course, the split between those who favoured British membership in the EU (the “Remainers”) and those who did not (the “Leavers” or “Brexiteers”) became the most divisive and disruptive cleavage in Conservative politics.

This cleavage, in turn, was manifested in a new, more factionalized politics: older loose clusters of MPs sharing common interests and views were increasingly displaced by more tightly organized, disciplined and cohesive groups. The impact of factionalism was compounded by a greater assertiveness among Tory backbenchers and a loss of deference toward leaders. Not by chance, the most effective of the new factions was the “European Reform Group” of hardened Brexiteers, which played a role in the departure of successive PMs.⁶

To placate the Brexiteers and ward off the threat from UKIP, David Cameron (PM following defeat of Labour in 2010) made the disastrous decision to hold an in-out referendum on the EU. The wholly unexpected 2016 referendum result to quit the EU (52 per cent leave, 48 per cent remain) left Cameron with no option but to resign. He thus became Brexit’s first prime ministerial casualty. Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron, was left with the responsibility of negotiating the terms of the U.K.’s departure from the EU, a step that pro-Brexit leaders had assured voters in the referendum could easily be accomplished, It was not to be.

The Tories were not the only party to experience virulent ideological debates. Following its unexpectedly heavy electoral defeat in the 2015 election, Labour elected as its new leader a little-known figure from the party’s left-wing fringe, Jeremy Corbyn. Most Labour MPs were appalled and years of fratricidal conflict ensued, leading to dire poll ratings for the party. With a substantial poll lead in 2017, May could not resist the temptation to call fresh elections and thereby convert a small Tory majority into a decisive one. To widespread astonishment, Labour staged an impressive recovery from its 2015 results, though not quite enough to displace the Tories, who remained in office without an outright parliamentary majority. In the two years that followed, May struggled to persuade her ever more fractious, rebellious and rowdy backbenchers to agree to withdrawal terms acceptable to the EU. After repeated attempts, she failed and was forced from office – Brexit’s second prime ministerial casualty.

By this time, in total disarray over Brexit and confronting a formidable challenge from UKIP, the Tories were looking for a saviour – and one was at hand. Boris Johnson was already the enfant terrible of British politics. The former Mayor of London had dithered over the EU before deciding that his career would best be served by heading the Leave campaign, which he did with conspicuous panache. “Boris,” as he was universally known, was a celebrity politician, witty, personable and with a strong rapport with voters. Those who knew him – including most Tory MPs – considered him unreliable, dishonest, lazy and untrustworthy. But the times were desperate. Enough Tory MPs swallowed their doubts to ensure that Boris was one of the two candidates between whom the Tory rank-and-file were invited to choose. The result was never in doubt: he overwhelmed his opponent, Jeremy Hunt (now Chancellor of the Exchequer).

After a few months of highly controversial leadership in 2019, Johnson called fresh elections (the third in four years), claiming that he would “get Brexit done.” Facing a bitterly divided Labour opposition led by the very unpopular Jeremy Corbyn, the Tories won a crushing victory with a majority of 80 seats, their best performance in more than 30 years.⁷

In opting for Johnson as their standard-bearer, the Tories selected a leader who, according to Rory Stewart, a senior MP who ran for leadership in opposition to Johnson, was “manifestly unsuited to be Prime Minister”; indeed, he was “the most accomplished liar in public life.”⁸ In prophetic words, Johnson’s Eton house master many years before had written of the young Boris, “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” Dogged by numerous scandals in his short premiership, Johnson was effectively brought down by the “partygate” affair, his brazen breaking of the restrictions on social contacts he himself had enacted to stem the spread of COVID. Without Brexit and the crises it had caused, the self-immolating Johnson would never have been chosen leader. Johnson’s forced resignation made him the third prime ministerial casualty of Brexit.

Having already elected one person “manifestly unsuited to be Prime Minister,” the Tory membership then proceeded to elect another. A Remainer in the 2016 EU referendum, Liz Truss rapidly metamorphosed into a fervent Leaver, and as Foreign Secretary cultivated an image as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator with the Europeans. In her contest with Rishi Sunak, she combined her intransigent stance on Europe with a promise of sweeping tax cuts, the two messages the very right-wing Tory membership most wanted to hear. Feeling vindicated by her election, Truss was emboldened to embark on her disastrous minibudget. In part, Truss owed her accession to the leadership to Brexit. She is the fourth Brexit-related prime ministerial casualty in six years.

Can the Tories recover?

The big question is whether the damage inflicted on the Tory party will prove fatal. The party has two years to retrieve its fortunes. Determined to fill the very large black hole in British finances bequeathed by Truss, the new government has already indicated that it intends to slash spending on key public services, resource-starved by a decade of Tory austerity. Cuts on this scale will almost certainly precipitate a large strike wave while driving the economy into recession. By the spring of 2023, voters will be facing a perfect storm: high inflation eroding living standards, high interest rates and therefore rocketing mortgages, and soaring fuel bills.

With the arrival of a more capable and astute Conservative Prime Minister, the odds can be expected to shorten. Much will depend on voter reaction to the economic storms ahead, as well as Sunak’s ability to tame the disputatious splits in the Tory party. Under the cautious leadership of Keir Starmer, Labour has recovered from the turbulence of the Corbyn era but has yet to establish clarity about what a Labour government would stand for. The party’s tactics under Starmer have, so far, emphasized negatives, avoided any hostages to fortune, and maintained tight party discipline in the hope that revulsion against the Tories will return it to power. Labour would be ill-advised to take too much for granted. The Tory survival instinct should never be underestimated. A party which, essentially, hopes to win by default is taking a risk.

Continue reading “Brexit, the Fall of Liz Truss and the Tories in Disarray”

Pictured: Keir Starmer, who replaced Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in April 2020. Photo by Chris Boland. Edited by Inroads Journal.

The December 2019 election in the UK delivered a seismic shock to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. It won only 32 per cent of the vote and a mere 202 of Parliament’s 650 seats, the smallest number since 1935. Digging below the aggregate statistics provides even bleaker reading. Labour seats tumbled in the party’s former bastions of the industrial north and west Midlands – an area that had been dubbed the “Red Wall.” The party did best among the young and the better educated, but nowhere near well enough to cancel the Tory lead in other groups. For the first time for almost a century, the Tories gained a higher proportion of working-class votes than Labour (48 to 33 per cent). Even more remarkable, no fewer than 45 per cent of low-income voters supported the Tories compared to 31 per cent for Labour.

Spirits in the party revived – except for those on the Corbyn left – when Keir Starmer replaced Corbyn as Labour leader in April 2020. Starmer, formerly an eminent QC, was first elected to Parliament in 2015. In 2016 Corbyn appointed him shadow Brexit Secretary. Thanks to this high-profile role, he achieved prominence during the protracted negotiations over the terms of departure from the European Union. With his fluency, diligence and capacity to master a complex brief, he impressed many of his peers and kept free from factional entanglements. Few were surprised when he swept to victory in the leadership election.

His first priority was gaining a firm grip on the party, which he soon accomplished by evicting members of the hard left from positions of influence. His arrival in the leadership coincided with the pandemic, and this timing impeded his efforts to make an impression on the public. Starmer calculated, rightly, that most voters favoured national unity and would resent strident partisan attacks on Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis. Hence, he pursued a stance of “constructive opposition.” For some within the party this was lame and lacklustre, and while Labour’s standing in the polls improved, it did so only modestly. Worryingly, in 2021 Labour’s standing deteriorated.

The first major test of Starmer’s leadership was the May 2021 local elections and devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales. Held at the same time was a byelection in the Labour-held riding of Hartlepool, in the northern “Red Wall.” The normal pattern of electoral behaviour in local authority elections and byelections is that voters exploit the opportunity to register disapproval with the government. The consensus among professionals that Johnson’s Tory government had seriously mishandled the COVID crisis rendered the government more vulnerable.

Far from suffering the customary hammering experienced by incumbents, the Tories performed impressively, even snatching the Hartlepool seat from Labour by a wide margin. Partly this was because of the “vaccine bounce.” The program to vaccinate the British public was proceeding smoothly and efficiently, and the public gave credit not to the National Health Service, which had organized the program, but to the government. There was much talk of the “incumbency effect” where governments in all four nations of the UK benefited electorally from the vaccine bounce. Thus, in Scotland the Scottish National Party, led by the extremely popular Nicola Sturgeon, came within one seat of an overall majority, a remarkable achievement in a proportional electoral system (see Box 1). The same was true in Wales, where the Welsh Labour Party under the highly regarded Mark Drayford won precisely half the seats in the Senedd. But above all, it was in England that the COVID crisis gave Johnson massive, prolonged and often very favourable political exposure as he squeezed out the opposition parties through frequent televised press conferences.

Most media attention was focused on the Hartlepool result. The Starmer leadership had anticipated the defeat. Labour had held the seat in 2019 only because a large Brexit Party vote had split the anti-Labour vote. Labour leaders assumed that most of this vote would switch to the Tories, but they were stunned that the Labour vote fell even further than in the poor 2019 result. Furthermore, in local elections in the west Midlands and the north, more towns in the Red Wall slipped from Labour hands.

Not all was gloomy. Labour did very well in mayoral elections in the still solid fortress of Merseyside (including Liverpool), in Greater Manchester where Andy Burnham (beaten by Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election) took another big step in his political rehabilitation by scoring a huge triumph in his reelection as mayor, and in London where Sadiq Khan was reelected as mayor, though with a lower percentage of the vote than anticipated.

Why Labour’s expected revival under Starmer has not materialized is a complicated question. Explanations include misjudgements and miscalculation, contingencies (the pandemic) and the shadow cast by the Corbyn leadership, and long-term social, political and economic trends throughout the Western world. Here I shall concentrate on two particularly relevant factors: one short-term and a matter of agency, the other long-term and a matter of structure.

Alongside Brexit, strategists saw Corbyn’s dire ratings in the polls as a crucial factor in Labour’s crushing 2019 defeat. Photo by UK Parliament via Flickr.
The politics of competence

Personalities matter in politics. This is hardly a contentious proposition given the amount of time given to rival party leaders, but it is also underpinned by a highly influential theory of electoral behaviour. This is the so-called “valence” model, according to which voter decisions are driven less by values or policy preferences than by estimations of which party and party leader are best able to deliver what most want, such as economic well-being and security.1 Where valence issues are uppermost in the public mind, voters are invited to judge between parties, and especially leaders, on the basis of their ability or trustworthiness. Indeed, for most voters, evaluations of the quality of party leaders is a useful shortcut in deciding how to vote. The essence of the partisan battle becomes the contest between rival party leaders.

Such thinking appeared to influence Labour strategists. Alongside Brexit, strategists saw Corbyn’s dire ratings in the polls as a crucial factor in Labour’s crushing 2019 defeat. It was plain to all but his cultlike followers that Jeremy Corbyn was held in very low esteem not only because of his association with a range of very unpopular policy stances, such as alleged sympathy for terrorists and hostility to the police, the military and the monarchy, but also because he was seen, fairly or not, as bungling, indecisive, extreme, ineffectual and hence wholly unsuited to high office. Starmer’s first priority, then, was to persuade voters that Labour was “under new management.” In contrast to his predecessor, Starmer was presented as calm, reasonable, thoughtful and wholly trustworthy.

Competence emerged as the leitmotif of Starmer’s political strategy. This appeared to suit Starmer, with his well-attested record as a highly effective former Director of Public Prosecutions (for which he received his knighthood). The comparison was not only with Corbyn but also, increasingly, with Johnson. Few people who knew the PM and were capable of dispassionate judgement regarded him as either competent or trustworthy. Even before he became Prime Minister, Sir Max Hastings, former editor of the ideologically conservative Daily Telegraph and a highly regarded historian, noted that Johnson (whom he had employed as a journalist on the Telegraph) had “a contempt for the truth,” only really cared for his “own fame and gratification” and was “unfit for national office.”2 Johnson’s inept and complacent handling of the COVID crisis seemed to bear this out.

Labour soon became convinced that incompetence was the government’s Achilles heel. Starmer and other frontbenchers constantly hammered away at Johnson’s bungling performance, his shortsightedness and his disregard for the public good. No press release was complete without reference to his incompetent management of COVID.3

The PM was indeed seen by most informed observers as shallow, highly opportunistic and thoroughly unreliable. So it seemed to make sense for Labour to structure its appeal around the attested virtues of Starmer: his honesty, integrity, ability and sense of public duty. But the electorate has not so far been receptive to Labour’s message. Opinion research shows that while most voters regard politicians as self-seeking, greedy and dishonourable, “Boris” – as he is affectionately called – was exempt from these strictures. He is seen as flawed, with many human weaknesses, but as sincere, authentic, with the common touch and “on our side.” In general, he is rated more highly than Starmer.

How can we explain this? The key lies in understanding how most voters think about politics. As political scientist Gerry Stoker observed, most people are “regularly inattentive to politics, careless in their reasoning about it, and casual in the use of evidence about issues” – and, indeed, often quite myopic.4 News items that obsess the political class barely register. No less important, modern electioneering techniques foster conditions that discourage informed deliberation. The essence of the partisan contest, Jay Blumler points out, is the “competitive struggle to influence and control popular perceptions of key political events and issues.” What matters here is not seeking to persuade voters through rational discourse but “getting the appearance of things right” (emphasis in original) through such techniques as spin, sound bites, media management and photo opportunities.5

Johnson and his advisers thoroughly understand this. They have been adept in crafting an image of “Boris” as engaging, witty, convivial, even charismatic – in short, a celebrity politician. In contrast Starmer is widely portrayed as competent and worthy but dull, wooden and uninspiring. Experts have crafted sustained criticisms of the government’s COVID record, but the details of these are technical, complex and not easy to decipher; therefore they make little impression on voters, especially the less educated. In summary, the Conservatives have grasped better than their opponents that facts only make an impression when woven into a narrative; Johnson has proved a far more gifted storyteller than Starmer.

Questions of personality appraisals and competency judgments are short-term and contingent. We now need to step back and explore some underlying trends and processes that have operated to Labour’s disadvantage.

New cleavage patterns

The era in which deep-seated cleavages and entrenched social identities delivered large blocs of support to parties has ended in the UK as elsewhere. The traditional social, cultural and economic underpinning of Labour’s working-class base, such as heavy industry, assembly-line production, vibrant trade unionism and occupational communities, are all decaying. As a result, normative patterns of class identity and class solidarity, which have for several generations sustained Labour voting, are dissolving. In the two elections of 2017 and 2019, the differences in the class composition of Labour and Tory voters almost vanished.

 Photo by Filtran via Flickr.

However, class attachments and tensions have not disappeared; rather, they have been redefined and reimagined. Many of the less affluent and underprivileged still see themselves as part of a subordinate class – denied voice, denied respect, often disregarded and “left behind” – and they still adhere to a social imagery that distinguishes between “them” and “us.” But these categories, and especially them, are construed in very different ways than in the past. They are no longer employers, financial interests, the owners and controllers of property and assets, but “the liberal metropolitan elite,” ethnic minorities and even “social security scroungers.” For many voters, Labour has lost touch with and no longer represents us, the ordinary “White working class.” Instead, it is a party of the liberal establishment, immigrants and the work-shy.6 So we have a paradox. Large numbers of the “left behinds,” the victims of the UK’s flexible labour market, typically consigned to poorly paid, precarious and often dead-end jobs, now repose more trust in the capacity of the Conservatives, the party of capital, to protect their interests and ways of life than in that of the Labour Party.

The clue to understanding this is that social and economic discontents are increasingly filtered through ethnic and cultural frames. Immigration has operated as the flashpoint of anger against “the elites.” Labour was held responsible for opening the borders not only to EU migrants but also to asylum seekers. For many voters, especially working-class ones, the issue of immigration acted as a “political catalyst” of a widening cultural rift dividing social liberals from social conservatives.7 What is seen as uncontrolled immigration, coupled with pronounced favouritism to ethnic minorities (“multiculturalism”), is perceived as posing a serious threat to traditional communities, customs, habits and ways of life. For this Labour has been held responsible.

A sense of political exclusion, social neglect and liberal scorn is associated with a growing English national assertiveness. This came to be umbilically bound with hostility to the EU, and operated as a cluster point for a whole range of socially conservative stances on issues of migration flows, multiculturalism, law and order and access to social benefits.8 The Brexit debate here accelerated and intensified long-running social and political processes.9 In the eyes of many Leavers, Labour’s natural affinity for the Remain cause (not, as it happens, shared by Corbyn and his closest aides), its wobbling over the issue between 2017 and 2019 and its perceived efforts to derail Brexit through a second referendum constituted open defiance of the popular will.

Photo by Filtran via Flickr.

Many of the developments tracked above have their counterparts throughout the Western world. In place of the traditional class-based left-right divide, Europe is now witnessing “a new transnational cleavage pitting libertarian, universalistic values against the defence of nationalism and particularism.”10 Repeated election results in many European countries indicate a major slump in the vote share of social democratic parties – the French Socialist Party and the German Social Democratic Party are both now in crisis. The influx of migrants and refugees, swelling anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of Islamic terrorism, have dismantled class allegiances and squeezed the left’s working-class base.11

Labour waves the flag

Labour leaders are aware of these trends, and some attention is being given to reconnecting with the norms, values and ways of thinking of erstwhile working-class voters. However, rather than engaging in a searching analysis of the implications of new cleavage patterns, the party has chosen to focus on the single issue of patriotism.

In a way this is understandable. Focus groups showed the perception of Corbyn as unpatriotic (his unwillingness to sing the national anthem was long remembered) had alienated many. The Tories have long capitalized on wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and presenting themselves as the true party of Britain. The debate over Brexit enlarged the gap between internationally minded, outward-looking Remainers and more nationalistically inclined Leavers, of whom many were from traditionally Labour-voting homes. In one of the first strategic decisions of his leadership, Starmer called for the party to emphasize its patriotism. In February 2021 an internal strategy presentation called for Labour to make “use of the flag” to help it win back the trust of disillusioned voters.12

To critics on the left, this “obsession” with patriotism demonstrated that the politics of class was being sacrificed to the politics of the nation. “Patriotism in practice,” wrote a commentator on the hard-left media platform Jacobin, “implies a range of attitudes that more or less map perfectly onto a small-c conservative vision of British society.”13 It was further evidence that Starmer was shredding the socialist policies he had inherited from Corbyn and wrenching Labour to the right.

This attack from the hard left was predictable, but more thoughtful figures on the soft left also expressed major reservations. For example, the left-wing MP Clive Lewis (a former Army officer who had served in Afghanistan) berated the crude version of patriotism the party seemed to be espousing. Why “distil the complexity of national identity and patriotism into a flag-waving brand of patriotism?” he added.14

There are indeed other traditions of patriotism, more compatible with socialist values, on which Labour could draw.15 Radical patriotism had over the centuries combined love of country with trenchant schemes of political and economic emancipation. Its most eloquent exponent was George Orwell, who distinguished between official patriotism (which he called nationalism) and (radical) patriotism. While nationalism insisted on the absolute moral value of the nation and the obligation of all citizens to regard service to it as an overriding duty, his form of patriotism meant “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”16 This was “the patriotism of the common people.”17 This radical patriotism was defiant, egalitarian and oppositional in character. The heroes it extolled were not kings and generals but the champions of the downtrodden and neglected: the Levellers and Diggers, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and, more recently, Labour politicians such as Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan.

So far Starmer’s advisers seem to be unaware of or indifferent to radical patriotism, and keen to appropriate the traditional symbols of the established order. This form of patriotism threatens to alienate liberal, middle-class Remainers who had recoiled from the narrow nationalism of the Leave campaign. Queasiness about flag-waving patriotism extends well beyond the hard left. Nor is the strategy likely to work. It lacks resonance and plausibility. There is an all too evident gap between official patriotism and Labour’s instincts and values. Not least, it was inevitable that the tabloid press would dismiss Labour’s affirmations of patriotism as fraudulent¸ disingenuous and a sham.

Finally, it might be added, focusing on the narrow issue of patriotism deflects Labour from its central strategic dilemma: how to forge an appeal to both of the increasingly diverse elements in the party’s constituency: the liberal-minded, educated professional middle classes on the one hand and the often socially conservative and more insular working class on the other. Evidence encouragingly suggests no great differences of principle between the two groups over such economic and social matters as redistribution and expanding the role of the state, though it does indicate pronounced disagreement over questions of culture and identity.18 Starmer will have to walk a tightrope, adopting stances that can regain the allegiance of traditional working-class voters while not alienating the liberal middle class. This will be difficult and early signs suggest little progress so far.

Class mobilization or progressive alliance?

In April 2020 the Guardian commented that “the incipient Starmer project” lacked a “resonant phrase, or signature policy.” This still applies.19 Early in 2021, the party’s head of research revealed research findings indicating that voters were confused about “what we stand for, and what our purpose is, but also who we represent.”20 This remains a besetting weakness. Two alternative strategies have been floated, one from the hard left, the other from the soft left.

To the hard left, the party has faded in its former heartlands because it has abandoned the politics of class. Many workers have deserted Labour because of its drift to the right (which the Corbyn interregnum proved unable to arrest), a drift which Starmer is now accelerating. A clear class mobilization committed to sweeping economic and social reforms will – so the argument runs – quickly resonate with the working class since the experience of class exploitation remains embedded in their practical experience of life and work. Class identity and class solidarity, it follows, can be reactivated.

The second strategy emanates mainly from the soft left. This grouping of Labour supporters maintains that the left is weakened because it is fragmented between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. As a result, seats now won by the Tories could be won if the centre-left combined. Centre-left parties have much in common and are squandering their energy by pointless competition. A “progressive alliance” strategy could overcome these divisions and raise the morale and enthusiasm of all progressive forces.

The problem with the first strategy is that it is grounded in an obsolete model of class-based politics. It ignores profound economic, social and cultural changes. The discourse of class struggle and class combativity that hard-left politicians habitually employ no longer resonates, if it ever did. The problem with the “progressive alliance” strategy is that, though the three parties may share policies and values, they lack sufficient incentives to transcend partisan loyalties. The first-past-the-post electoral system does not lend itself to cross-party alliances, and by habit, custom and tradition parties are extremely reluctant to withdraw candidates in favour of their rivals. Added to this, the very sharp contraction in support for the Lib Dems weakens the case for partnership with them.

In short, neither of these alternatives is compelling. Much hard thinking remains to be done. For example, Starmer has to find means to reformulate the current terms of debate that posit the patronizing “liberal elites” against the “ordinary people.” He has to revive Labour’s tradition as the party of “the common people” without sliding into the outmoded rhetoric of the class struggle. Acquiring a stronger sense of identity, direction and purpose will not be easy. It involves not only extensive opinion research and the use of effective techniques of persuasion (as favoured by the leadership), but also a searching reappraisal of what the party really stands for, whom it represents and what it wants to do.

Scotland on its own trajectory

Labour’s future in Scotland, a nation that at one time regularly furnished it with a solid bloc of MPs, seems fallow: it managed to win only a single seat in December 2019. The results of both the general election of 2019 and the recent elections for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood underline the fact that Scotland is now on a very different trajectory than is England. In the 2019 Westminster elections, the Scottish National Party captured 48 of 59 seats, the Tories only six. In the May 2021 elections to the Holyrood Parliament – using a proportional system – the SNP won 64 out of 129 seats, its fourth election victory in a row. It has been in power since 2007. Labour, which had once dominated Scottish politics, came third with only 22 seats. The pivotal question now is whether the SNP can use its total ascendancy in Scotland to lever its fundamental goal, Scottish independence.

Under the devolved constitutional arrangement, authority for calling a referendum lies with the Westminster government, and Boris Johnson has insisted that none will be permitted. Although the SNP government is just shy of a majority, it has the support of the eight members of the Scottish Parliament from the pro-independence Green Party (the Greens’ best result so far). Hence there will be no problem navigating a referendum bill through Holyrood. Nicola Sturgeon claims, further, that victory in the polls has given her a mandate to hold a referendum – when the COVID crisis is over.

She will proceed cautiously. Polls have been indicating a growing majority for independence, but this has recently gone into reverse and the balance of opinion is now tight. The SNP is fully aware of what happened in Quebec: a second, albeit very narrow, defeat that effectively took the issue out of politics for the foreseeable future. The Scottish First Minister will assuredly wait until the polls predict a comfortable lead before taking any initiative.

If the SNP gains a comfortable lead in the polls on independence, we enter the realm of the unpredictable. Will Johnson stand firm and flatly refuse a request for a second referendum? Though he has displayed no interest in the politics of devolution, he will not want to be remembered as the PM who presided over the breakup of the UK. He will also be on solid constitutional grounds in blocking a referendum. If he does block it, there will be a constitutional impasse. Sturgeon has promised to go to the courts to force the Tory government to agree to a referendum; it is unclear what the results of this will be.

The problem for the Tory government is that intransigence might incite massive protests, which will fuel support for independence. Then all bets will be off.

Continue reading “Keir Starmer’s Labour Seeks a Way Ahead”

In 2015 an earthquake occurred within the British Labour Party when, against all expectations, its members elected Jeremy Corbyn, a representative of its previously marginal radical left, as its leader.1 And in doing so, they provided him with a handsome majority over his opponents.

Many within the party’s rank and file were delighted and exhilarated, but most of its MPs were aghast. Indeed, after a failed bid in 2016 to eject him, the parliamentary Labour Party was only grudgingly reconciled to Corbyn as leader. The following year, in 2017, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, sensing an opportunity to crush a Labour Party lagging well behind her in the opinion polls, called an election. To widespread amazement, Labour polled well, gaining more than 30 seats and depriving the Conservatives of their overall majority. Corbyn’s control of the party was, at last, consolidated.

But not for long. Two years later, in December 2019, yet another election was called, this time by the new and popular Tory leader Boris Johnson. The Tories won with a massive 80-seat majority, with Labour reduced to fewer seats than at any time since 1935. Corbyn had no option but to resign.

In the subsequent leadership contest, three candidates secured the requisite number of nominations to enable them to stand. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, was the “continuity candidate” from the Corbyn camp. The other two candidates, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy MP, were from Labour’s “soft left.”2 Interestingly, there were no candidates from the centre-right. The election, which took place in early April, resulted in a very decisive endorsement for Keir Starmer (table 1).

Starmer’s percentage of the poll was roughly equal to that obtained by Corbyn in 2015. Long-Bailey, in contrast, secured only half the vote won by Corbyn less than five years previously. Starmer won primarily because he was seen by dispirited and demoralized party members as a much more credible, competent and electorally appealing leader than the somewhat lacklustre Long-Bailey.

So who is Keir Starmer? In his accent, demeanour and manner he seems very much a scion of the British professional middle class. In fact, his staunchly Labour father was a skilled factory worker and his mother a nurse, and he was the first member of his family to go to university (Leeds). Elected to Parliament only in 2015, he has had relatively little political experience, but prior to 2015 had established a formidable reputation outside Parliament. A barrister in high repute, he was made a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in 2002, and became joint head of Doughty Street Chambers (where celebrated human rights barrister Amal Clooney was a colleague) specializing in human rights cases. In 2008, he was appointed to one of the most senior judicial positions in the country, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), remaining in that post until 2013. In 2014 he received a knighthood for services to law and criminal justice. Those who worked with him attest to his integrity, meticulous attention to detail, stamina and keen forensic skills.3

In 2016, a year after his election to Parliament, Starmer joined the shadow cabinet in the crucial post of shadow Brexit secretary. He played a key role in the process of hammering out a policy on Brexit, the issue that completely dominated British politics from 2016 until the 2019 general election. Securing an agreed position on Brexit proved tortuous and protracted because Labour was hopelessly divided three ways: between the Eurosceptic inner Corbyn circle, dominated by longstanding opponents of European integration who deemed the European Union a “capitalist club”; ardent Remainers drawing support from across Labour’s left-right spectrum, including the radical left; and Leavers, mainly on Labour’s right, who feared – rightly as it transpired – the loss of many pro-Leave working class seats if Labour was seen to prevaricate on Brexit.

Starmer, a firm Remainer, helped steer the party to a compromise position, which unfortunately satisfied few either in the party or among the voters. Notwithstanding, Starmer had enhanced his standing within the party with his capacity to master complex briefs, as well as his diligence, his fluency and, not least, his ability to think on his feet – unlike his predecessor. Admittedly, he lacked oratorical flair and inspirational qualities but, exuding soundness and solid good sense, he had a reputation as a “safe pair of hands”: a relief after the volatility of Corbyn’s leadership. Though associated with the soft left, he appealed also to the right and to prominent members of the radical left as well.4

The implications of Starmer’s triumph for Labour’s future programmatic direction are, as yet, unclear. Surprisingly little is known about his political beliefs. For virtually all his life as an MP he served on the front bench, which meant he was bound by the conventions of collective responsibility and thus discouraged from articulating his views outside his own brief. So, while from his career as a human rights lawyer we know much about his views on matters of civil liberty and criminal justice, we have few insights into his thinking on social and economic policy. During the leadership election contest, Starmer endorsed the party’s radical left wing’s 2019 election manifesto, but this may have been for tactical reasons. Under Starmer, we can expect a gradual disengagement from some of its controversial planks, such as its ambitious nationalization program.

There will also be shifts in foreign policy. Corbyn had a long record as an unsparing, vehement and highly vocal critic of “American imperialism” and the Atlantic alliance, and was an enthusiastic advocate of “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” movements in Latin America and the Middle East (notably Palestinian organizations). Most controversially, he rejected the longstanding principle that the axiomatic basis of British foreign policy should be a close relationship with the United States. While Starmer will have little time for Donald Trump, it is highly likely that he will adopt a more pragmatic, considered and nuanced approach to international matters. He will avoid the persistent and truculent anti-Americanism and often uncritical zeal for “liberation movements” of his predecessor.

Lisa Nandy’s unexpected appointment as shadow foreign secretary, a reward for her impressive performance as leadership candidate, is worth noting here. Her positions on foreign policy issues are likely to be closely aligned with Starmer’s.5 She has firmly disassociated Labour from Corbyn’s rather indulgent attitude toward Vladimir Putin, commenting acerbically that under his leadership “we stood with the Russian government, and not with the people it oppresses.” She is a longstanding advocate for Palestinian rights, and has condemned arms sales to Israel, the Gaza blockade and the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. However, she also firmly defends Israel’s right to exist and was a tough critic of Corbyn’s failure to come to grips with anti-Semitism. It is an encouraging indication of her diplomatic skills that, while serving as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, she received the nomination for the Labour leadership of the very pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement.

Her only point of difference with the new leader is over Europe, where she opposed a second referendum and called for acceptance of Brexit – which might prove useful in Labour’s efforts to regain Leave voters. As noted, Starmer is pro-European and will certainly be keener to work with social democratic parties in the EU than Corbyn. However, on the issue of Brexit, his inclination will be to accept the fait accompli of the 2019 election, won by the Tories on a cast-iron commitment to quit the European Union. Transitional arrangements for the U.K.’s final departure from the EU are due to be concluded at the end of this year. Few regard this as plausible given the pandemic, but the government has reiterated its determination to meet the deadline. Starmer will urge agreement to an extension but will not campaign for a reappraisal of Britain’s exit from the EU.

On one issue Stammer was quick to make a clean break with his predecessor: the highly controversial, divisive – indeed toxic – question of anti-Semitism in the party. Many on the radical left insisted that the incidence of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks had been grossly exaggerated as a device to smear Corbyn. Whatever the truth, this plainly is not the view Starmer takes. One of his first pronouncements as leader was to denounce “the disgrace of anti-Semitism in our party” and to acknowledge that under Corbyn “we have failed the Jewish community.” He has pledged to “tear out this poison by its roots,” a declaration very well received in the Jewish community.6

A successful leader must be an effective and astute party manager. As party managers, leaders have two major priorities: to bolster their power base and to promote party unity. Given the intense polarization, rancorous atmosphere and hyperfactionalism bequeathed by the Corbyn era, neither task will be easy. The new leader inherited a party in which the key centre of institutional power, Labour’s powerful National Executive Committee (NEC), was under the mastery of the radical left. This mattered because the NEC has responsibilities for party policy formulation, organization, rule application, finance and personnel – including the appointment of senior party officials.

A combination of byelections and the use of the leader’s powers of appointment has already changed the political complexion of the NEC in Starmer’s favour, and radical left representation is likely to dwindle further. Starmer also enjoys solid support in other major party institutions: the affiliated trade unions, the constituency parties and (overwhelmingly) the caucus. We can expect substantial personnel changes in Labour’s Head Office as the pro-Corbyn apparatus is dismantled. An early indicator of the marginalization of the radical left is its meagre representation of three members (out of a total of 27) in Starmer’s reshuffled shadow cabinet.

Corbyn was not by nature a consensual leader and was disinclined to put much effort into conciliating those opposed to him. Starmer’s managerial style will be different. As his role in negotiating Brexit policy illustrated, he prefers to organize consent through bargaining, accommodation, dialogue and inclusivity. A clue to Starmer’s preferred style can be found in his response when asked which Labour leader over the last half-century he most admired. He cited the wily and adroit Harold Wilson (who was Prime Minister at the time of the divisive 1975 referendum on membership in what was then the European Economic Community), explaining that he respected Wilson for the way he “actually managed to hold bits of the party together … he was spinning plates left, right and centre, but he actually steered through it pretty well.”7

“Spinning plates left, right and centre” is not easy: Wilson complained how he used to have to “wade in shit” to construct compromises over contentious issues. Equally, it is unclear how much the radical left will reciprocate. There were always tensions within its ranks between the hardliners and the more pragmatically inclined, and these have recently been inflamed. Pragmatists include the defeated leadership candidate and now shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey. But the more intransigent elements are probably the majority.

Despite the coronavirus crisis, there has already been a drumbeat of discontent and denunciations from radical left websites berating the new leader for a range of failings: his role in pushing for a second referendum on the EU (and hence, it is claimed, for “losing the election”), his supposedly antiliberal record as Director of Public Prosecutions and his willingness to accept donations for his leadership campaign from the “Israel lobby.”8 These more unyielding radical leftists see their priority as developing extraparliamentary networks of power to mobilize resistance to Starmer.9 But such a strategy is likely to be counterproductive given the deep desire for party unity: the resumption of factionalism and tirades against the new leader will be deeply resented.

Starmer’s sweeping leadership triumph has conferred a strong mandate upon him and considerable discretion in how to resuscitate the party. But he faces a Herculean task given the serious shrinkage in Labour’s vote last December. Some on the soft left (such as the pressure group Compass) have suggested that the way forward is for Labour to form a “progressive majority” with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, and to campaign for a more proportional electoral system. But Starmer is unlikely to follow this advice as he will be aware that neither a “progressive majority” nor electoral reform appeal much beyond the liberal middle class.

The fact is that Labour’s vote has been most seriously depleted with the hemorrhaging of white working-class support, especially in its former heartlands in the north and Midlands of England (not to mention mass desertions to the Scottish National Party in Scotland). Here Labour has been the casualty of two interlinked deep-seated sociocultural trends by no means confined to the U.K. The first is the increasing political salience of a value-based liberal/authoritarian cleavage, which has cut across traditional left/right and class-based divisions. Correlating closely with the Remain/Leave split, its starkest political manifestation is the flight of many Leave-supporting working-class voters from Labour to the Tories in the recent election.

The second trend is the ideological reconstitution of notions of the “elite” to refer not to the holders of wealth, power and privilege but to possessors of cultural capital – the so-called “liberal metropolitan elite,” of which Starmer appears a quintessential member. This mode of discourse has enabled the immensely wealthy global media corporations (such as the Murdoch empire), which control most of the U.K. press, to pose as the champions of “ordinary people” struggling against Labour’s “liberal elite.” For Starmer, a priority must be to reframe the terms of this debate, contesting the Tory argument that the most effective way the so-called “left behinds” can assert themselves is by voting for the party of the rich and privileged. Starmer’s task is to revive Labour’s tradition as the party of “the common people” without sliding into the outmoded rhetoric of the class struggle.

At the time of writing (April 2020) everything political is eclipsed by the coronavirus. As Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, recently wrote, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the unfortunate effect of depriving Starmer of the opportunity he would otherwise have had to “establish himself firmly in the national conversation.” But equally, Campbell added, the crisis plays to his strengths as a “forensic, consensus-seeking has a strong grasp of detail.”10 Which effect will be the weightier is, at present, impossible to judge.

Continue reading “British Labour’s Safe Pair of Hands”

British politics are in a state of upheaval as aftershocks of the U.K.’s explosive decision to leave the European Union continue to register. Negotiations seem to be in impasse and public opinion, particularly among the Brexiteers, is increasingly strident and resentful. Why don’t we just leave? Why the prevarication? Why can’t we simply “take back control”?

The very fact that such questions are asked – and they are asked frequently and noisily – is testimony to then–Prime Minister David Cameron’s huge miscalculation in calling the 2016 Brexit referendum. The decision to hold a referendum on a matter of such bewildering complexity and with most voters so poorly informed doubtless will be regarded as one of the most debilitating political mistakes in modern British history. The key issues now being discussed are the U.K.’s relationship to the EU’s customs union and its single market, and the problem of the Northern Ireland border. None of these were discussed during the referendum campaign.

There is a major underlying political problem which threatens to scupper any chance of a sensible and acceptable deal. For over half a century the issue of U.K. membership in the European Union (formerly the European Economic Community, or EEC) has disrupted the British party system. The principle of membership has time and again fractured both the Conservative and Labour parties. In fact, the reason why the constitutionally highly anomalous (in the British context) device of the referendum was first introduced, in 1975, was to manage internal party differences.

In 1973, it was only through the support of 60-odd Labour MPs that the Conservative government of Edward Heath obtained a Commons majority in the decisive vote to join the EEC. Many in the Labour Party were furious and insisted on a pledge for Britain to leave the EEC. Others, equally firmly, wanted to stay. With the party evenly divided, its leader, the astute and wily Harold Wilson, seized on the stratagem of a referendum (first floated by current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s mentor, Tony Benn) as a way of keeping the party together. He promised to renegotiate the terms of entry and then hold a referendum, a course he followed when Labour returned to power in 1974. The “renegotiation” was mainly fictional, but Wilson recommended acceptance, and although Labour was split down the middle the country voted by a two-thirds majority in favour of staying in the EEC.

Labour’s “antimarketeers” were mainly left-wingers, and when Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 drove Labour into opposition the party swung sharply to the left. Its 1983 election manifesto contained a promise to withdraw from the EEC. Labour was crushed in the election and the left was marginalized. What then occurred was a strange case of political role reversal. Thatcher adopted an increasingly belligerent and nationalistic posture. This helped precipitate her ejection from office, and it had the longer-term effect of giving a major impetus to anti-EU sentiment among Conservatives. This, combined with the challenge of the rapidly-growing anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), persuaded Cameron – in a repetition of Harold Wilson’s stratagem 40 years earlier – to promise a referendum prior to the 2015 election, in order to maintain Conservative unity.

UKIP has sunk into irrelevance, but hostility toward the EU – now channelled into a clamour for a “hard Brexit,” even a “no-deal Brexit” – is stronger than ever in the Conservative Party. This was made plain by the tumultuous reception accorded to the hard-Brexit cheerleaders, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the rather bizarre darling of the Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, often described as the MP for the 18th century.

At present, the Conservatives are divided between support for the so-called “Chequers deal” and the so-called free trade “Canada plus” approach – named after the laboriously negotiated free trade deal between Canada and the EU. Complicating the issue is the struggle for the Tory succession. Prime Minister Theresa May is stubborn and diligent but rigid and robotic in style and manner. She forfeited the support of much of her party with its unexpectedly poor performance at the 2017 election, in which the Tories preserved a narrow majority in Parliament only by forming an alliance with a small party representing Northern Ireland Protestants. Rivals sense she cannot long survive, and Johnson, Rees-Mogg and several senior minsters are snapping at her heels.

What of Labour? After 1983, its anti-EU stance was ditched and party policy moved toward a position of constructive (although never entirely full-hearted) engagement with Europe. This remains the majority position. But the party has so far failed to formulate a coherent, realistic and convincing stance on Brexit. This is not surprising since the new leadership has had to balance and accommodate a range of pressures and preferences – political, ideological and electoral.

The first point to make is that divisions over the EU no longer coincide with Labour’s left-right cleavage. Both left and right within Labour are divided between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. The majority of the party’s right and centre are Europhiles; many are Remainers favouring a second referendum. But there are also a significant number of right-wingers who object to a second referendum, either because they are Eurosceptic (four of the five Labour MPs who recently voted with the government on the issue are from the right) or – the larger number – because they fear that any shilly-shallying over Brexit will tarnish Labour’s appeal to working-class Brexit voters in their constituencies.

The left, which now controls the leadership, is also split. Corbyn and some others – such as his key lieutenant, shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonell, and his highly influential adviser Seamus Milne – have long labelled the EU a “capitalist club.” Their views are essentially unchanged from the 1970s: they see the EU as embedded in free-market principles, institutionally averse to state intervention and public ownership, and solidly attached to a restrictive fiscal orthodoxy. All this will, it is argued, constrain Labour’s ability to pursue more radical policies.

Many of the younger rank-and-file Corbynistas dispute the above analysis as overstated and accuse Corbyn of ignoring the wider economic consequences of Brexit. This is a view also taken by most affiliated trade unions. For the unions, the issue is not simply one of economics; culture and values matter.

Here we must acknowledge the elephant in the room. Most Brexit voters knew little and cared less about the intricacies of trading relations, the EU’s consumer and environmental regulations or its regional policies. They cared very deeply and often viscerally about immigration. This was partly misgiving about alleged pressure on jobs, wage levels, housing location, health care and so forth. It was also about culture and identity, the threat to British (or English) customs, values and ways of living posed by mass immigration. It should be noted that most Brexit voters make no distinction between EU migrants, refugees and members of ethnic minorities arriving from Africa or South Asia.

Conversely, for many in Labour’s ranks, EU membership has become a touchstone of a wider social ethos defined by equality, tolerance, internationalism and openness, and of their repudiation of the narrow, particularistic ethnonationalism and anti-immigration sentiment voiced by many Brexiteers.

These political and ideological matters intersect with Labour’s electoral interests. Labour’s 2017 electorate divided two thirds / one third between Remainers and Leavers. Its major gains were among young, well-educated professionals living in the south, all categories that exhibited high support for staying in the EU. Conversely, there was a below-average swing to Labour, or none at all, among older, less-well-educated voters, the working class and voters living in the north and Midlands, all of whom favour Brexit. To further complicate Labour’s problems, although most Labour voters were Remainers, the majority of Labour MPs represent majority Leave constituencies.

The Labour leadership is well aware that to conciliate both Remainers and Leavers is a tricky balancing act. The leadership believes undue policy clarity will render conciliation even more difficult. Hence, it opts for a stance of “studied ambiguity.” This is an accurate description; it is not a policy. At Labour’s September policymaking conference, very large numbers of constituency parties submitted resolutions demanding a second referendum. Some clarification was required.

Responsibility for hammering out a compromise was assigned to Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, the exceedingly able Keir Starmer. The resolution eventually formulated and overwhelmingly endorsed at the conference was vague but an improvement on “studied ambiguity.” The resolution stated that the party’s preferred way of tackling Brexit is a new general election to elect a Labour government; if an election is blocked, then a referendum would be “on the table.”

But a referendum on what? Earlier, senior Corbynistas had insisted that it must be confined to a vote on whatever deal the government agreed with the EU, and not be a rerun of the 2016 referendum. In his conference speech, however, Starmer stated in an unscripted comment that a second referendum could include a Remain option. The response of the conference audience, packed with left-wing delegates, was instructive: loud and prolonged cheering culminating in a standing ovation. There is no doubt where Labour’s heart lies. In stark contrast, in his leader’s speech Corbyn’s only reference to a second referendum was a scarcely audible mumble; it was as if a tooth had been unwillingly extracted.

So where does this leave Britain? In a word, in a mess, buffeted by the storm winds of an ever more volatile political climate. Neither a general election nor a referendum seems likely. The rules governing the calling of an election have changed. There will be a full five-year term unless two thirds of the Commons decides otherwise. A second referendum would need an act of Parliament – that is, approval by a majority of the Commons. The government has said it is adamantly opposed.

To break the logjam, May now appears to be putting out feelers to pro-EU (and anti-Corbyn) Labour MPs to help navigate through the Commons a package palatable both to her government and to the EU. With pressure already mounting among Labour activists to deselect anti-Corbyn MPs, this would be a hazardous step for centrist Labour MPs.

Not since the 1970s has the U.K. party system seemed so unstable. Both major parties are bitterly divided and rife with rumours about leadership challenges and the formation of a new centrist party. Aftershocks of the volcanic 2016 referendum eruption are still being felt.

Corbyn faces the voters

In the wake of Labour’s severe defeat in the 2015 general election, elections were held for a new leader. To everyone’s amazement, the winner was Jeremy Corbyn, the seasoned rebel on the “hard” left of the party. His hold on the throne was precarious and in 2016 he was forced into a second leadership election, which he also won handsomely. But his popularity among the party’s rapidly expanding membership was not paralleled in the country; his poll ratings were dire.

So the mood in Labour circles was gloomy and apprehensive when Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election to be held on June 8, 2017. Labour had just suffered major reverses in local elections and parliamentary byelections and was riven by deep fractures. Corbyn was widely seen as a huge liability. Early in the campaign, polls were showing a Conservative lead of around 20 percentage points and a massive Tory majority was anticipated.1

The results were stunning. Far from being crushed, Labour won an additional 30 seats and 3.5 million votes, boosting its poll share by 9.5 percentage points to 40 per cent. This was the biggest swing to the party since the celebrated election of 1945. Theresa May was humiliated and forced into an embarrassing deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists to maintain her majority. Her authority has been severely impaired.

Ironically, the Tories also performed well, increasing their share of the vote by 5.4 points to 42.3 per cent of the vote, their highest since the 1983 landslide. The biggest loser was the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose vote collapsed, but other minor parties – the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – all suffered significant losses. Indeed, a striking outcome was the return of two-party politics, with the two main parties commanding an 82.4 per cent share of the vote, their highest combined share since 1970.

Many on the party’s right and centre blamed Labour’s 2015 rout on then-leader Ed Miliband’s tilt to the left and clamoured for a return to middle-of-the-road politics. The Corbyn leadership instead pushed further to the left, drafting the most radical manifesto (For the Many, Not the Few) in decades. Denounced by the right-wing press for its alleged extravagance, extremism and irresponsibility, it did indeed mark a rupture from the New Labour paradigm – though its radicalism was exaggerated.

The manifesto contained some notably radical planks, such as pledges to renationalize the railways and the Royal Mail and extend public ownership into water and energy supply – promises that proved quite popular. But generally, the policies it offered lay within traditional social democratic parameters.2 Its fiscal stance was mildly redistributive. Taxes would be raised but only for the wealthiest 5 per cent of taxpayers, those earning over £80,000 each year.3 A new tax band of 50 per cent would be introduced for those earning over £123,000 while those earning over £80,000 would pay at a 45 per cent rate. In addition, recent and planned reductions in corporation tax would be revoked, and an Excessive Pay Levy would be introduced on firms paying salaries of more than £330,000. Emphasis was placed on much tougher curbs to combat Britain’s rampant, out-of-control tax avoidance industry.

But in an attempt to reassure critics, the manifesto included a Fiscal Credibility Rule that promised to balance current spending against revenues, asserting that all spending pledges were fully costed. Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz commended Labour’s economic proposals as “carefully thought-out … based on taxing those at the top and ensuring that corporations pay what they should.”4

On the social side, there would be a significant increase in National Health Service (NHS) spending and a reversal of privatization and outsourcing. Redistributory measures included a minimum wage raised to £10 per hour by 2020, extended free childcare, new trade union statutory rights and much greater legislative protection to those in insecure and precarious employment. Finally, the manifesto pledged to abolish university tuition fees, which tripled under the Conservative–Liberal Democratic coalition, loading many young people with heavy debts.5

The party leadership ascribed Labour’s unexpected surge to the popularity of its manifesto. There is at present insufficient evidence to corroborate this claim – and it should be borne in mind that most voters have only the sketchiest familiarity with the content of manifestos. But contrary to the expectations of the party right, Labour’s move to the left certainly did not lose votes. While voters may not have paid much attention to Labour’s manifesto, there is evidence that many voters were apprehensive about the Tory promise to make cuts in health and other social spending.6

Voices on the party’s right have also suggested that Labour’s (relative) triumph was due more to the haplessness of the Tories’ campaign than its own merits. It is true that May ran a singularly inept, poorly thought through campaign. She came across as wooden, distant and robotic, lacking any rapport with the voters, whereas Corbyn played to his strengths as a hugely experienced, energetic and surprisingly appealing campaigner. By the polling date, May’s initial poll lead over her rival had dissipated.

Who voted Labour?

If it is hard to explain precisely why so many opted for Labour, we can identity who these Labour voters were. The results are surprising.

The New Labour strategy of bland, centrist and cautious policies, Corbynista electoral strategists argued, had produced mass alienation, frustration and disaffection among the party’s “natural” supporters, many of whom simply defected from the electoral process. They – especially the working class and the young – could be effectively mobilized only by a complete repudiation of austerity, a total rejection of New Labour centrism and the espousal of radical policies.

As we shall see, the party succeeded with the young but not with the working class. It made substantial gains across the board, but the largest were among routine white-collar workers (identified in figure 1 as C1) and the least among unskilled and semiskilled workers (DE). In fact, the class differential in voting fell to its lowest-ever level: in the 2017 election there was emphatically no revival in class-based voting.

Labour overtook the Tories among routine C1 white-collar workers (from a Tory lead of 3 points to a Labour lead of 3). But Labour’s advantage among working-class voters actually narrowed. The Conservatives slightly widened their lead among skilled C2 workers and cut Labour’s lead among the unskilled and semiskilled from 8 to 3 points. Among the professional and managerial category (AB), Labour’s percentage rose from 28 per cent in 2015 to 38 per cent in 2017, cutting the Tory lead from 16 to an astonishingly low 8 percentage points. The class profiles of the two parties are now remarkably similar. Overall, the Tories were ahead of Labour among the middle class as a whole (ABC1) by 44 to 40 per cent, and within the working class (C2DE) by 44 to 42 per cent.

Labour actually lost several seats in largely working-class areas in the northeast and Midlands to the Tories; its main advances were in the more affluent south. The Conservatives did better among those who are suffering shrinking incomes than among those whose incomes have risen. In short, Labour attracted what Oliver Heath and Matthew Goodwin describe as “a broad coalition of support, and one that was not especially socially distinctive.”7 Never has class been less correlated with the vote!

However, demographic factors remain very important, with age and education replacing class as the key variables (figures 2 and 3). No less than 66 per cent of the youngest voters backed Labour, compared to 19 per cent for the Tories. Voting among the oldest cohort was essentially a mirror image of that among the youngest: 69 per cent Tory, 19 per cent Labour.

As can be seen from figure 2, the gradient by age is very steady. While Labour garnered more votes from all age groups the increase was very modest among the oldest – 3 points among the over 65s and 6 within the 55–64 group – but much larger among the young: 32 points in the 18–24 and 22 in the 25–34 cohort. The Conservatives also raised their vote among all cohorts, but in the exact reverse way (UKIP and the other minor parties were the big losers). No less than 58 per cent of the 60–69 cohort voted Tory, even though they are the group most reliant on the NHS and social care services, at present undergoing a severe squeeze.8

These figures tell us the proportion of each cohort which voted for the main parties, not the actual number of votes cast. Traditionally, Tory-leaning older cohorts have much higher turnout rates than the Labour-voting young, and many were sceptical whether sympathy for Labour among the young would translate into actual votes. To a large and surprising extent, it did.

Though turnout among the young still lagged behind that of older voters, it rose appreciably, boosted by the registration of an additional 453,000 people under 35 years of age.9 Higher turnout in general was correlated with constituencies with a larger than average proportion of young people, graduates and people from ethnic minorities – as well as the size of the Remain vote in the EU referendum. These were also the ridings where Labour notched its biggest gains.10 Conversely, the higher the percentage of working-class voters, the lower the turnout.

Associated with age is the rising significance of education as a predictor of the vote. In the past, higher educational attainment has been correlated with a Tory vote, largely reflecting a difference in class backgrounds. The reverse is now the case. As can be seen from figure 3, there is now a strong association between educational attainment and a Labour vote: 49 per cent of graduates voted Labour as compared to only 33 per cent of those with minimal educational qualifications. In those seats with a below average number of graduates there was actually a small swing to the Tories.

The strategy of activating the abstainers had some measure of success: 60 per cent of people who did not vote in the 2015 general election opted for Labour in 2017, though the party failed to reverse the social class trend in voting. Further, the Corbyn strategy of remobilizing the working-class vote failed. This could be Labour’s Achilles heel. As one commentator noted, “Unless the working-class vote can be decisively won … the fragility of the electoral coalition cobbled together by Corbyn could be exposed.”11

So paradoxically, the most left-leaning Labour leader made his largest inroads among middle-class, not working-class, voters. How do we account for this?

Anywheres, Somewheres and Brexit

The key factor was the 2016 referendum over membership in the European Union. Those who swung most heavily to Labour – the young, the well educated, the middle class – were precisely those who voted must solidly against Brexit, and vice versa. Forty-seven per cent of Remainers backed Labour, compared with 33 per cent who voted Tory. Overall, there was a correlation between the strength of the Remain vote and the swing to Labour; the Conservatives benefited more from a Leave vote largely because of the precipitous slide in the UKIP vote, from almost 4 million in 2015 to 600,000 in 2017.12

But did the referendum split itself reflect deeper, underlying cleavages? In a recent influential study, David Goodhart suggests that it did: that it registered a new structural divide between those he calls the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres.” “Anywheres” are people with “portable ‘achieved’ identities based on educational and career success.”13 These are the beneficiaries of recent economic and technological trends, notably globalization and a labour market that rewards the highly qualified while penalizing the unqualified. “Anywheres” adhere to an ideology of “progressive individualism” which places a high value on “autonomy, mobility and novelty” but tends to neglect “group identity, tradition … flag, faith and family.”14 Progressive individualism is manifested politically in support for the EU, immigration, multiculturalism and diversity – and in support for Labour.

The “somewheres” tend to be older and less well educated, more working-class, more rooted in place and tradition and much less likely to have benefited from recent social and economic changes. They feel very ill at ease with the rapid influx of immigrants, particularly those with radically different customs, norms and values.15 Unsympathetic to liberal stances on race, multiculturalism, gender and other issues, they believe their views have been mocked, disparaged and excluded from the public conversation.

This distinction between “Anywheres” and “somewheres” defined by their education, occupational status, culture and values has, according to Goodhart, created a new societal cleavage that now overshadows all others and was manifested most clearly in the collision over EU membership. Although “the professionally educated and affluent Anywheres” span the partisan divide, Goodhart mostly focuses on (and rails against) the “liberal cosmopolitan” elite. This elite, he contends, hold the main levers of power and has been the driving force pushing the “Anywhere” agenda. In promoting this agenda it has exhibited a stark disregard for (mainly working-class) “somewhere” anxieties about the dislocating social and cultural effects of mass immigration, especially from Islamic societies.16

There is more than a grain of truth in Goodhart’s analysis. It does highlight the internal tensions within Labour’s natural constituency between the pro-European young and well educated who flocked to the party in such large numbers during the election and the socially more conservative and parochial working class in many parts of the north and Midlands. Many of the latter deserted the party for the Tories (and previously for UKIP). Further, the increasing significance of diverging value constellations may well help account for the notably weakening association between class and partisan preference.

However, the division between “anywheres” and “somewheres” is of limited analytical value because it squeezes a far more complex reality into simplistic boxes. It conflates “anywheres” with the “cosmopolitan” or “metropolitan” elite who, in a highly questionable proposition, are alleged to constitute Labour’s ruling stratum. No empirical evidence is provided to substantiate this. Most bewildering of all is the disappearance from view of those interests – the financial sector, multinational business and mass media controllers – who, rather more convincingly, can be portrayed as the most powerful arbiters of the country’s destiny.

Nonetheless, Goodhart does grasp the major impact that the debate over the EU has had on British politics, and it is to this that we now turn.

Europhiles and Eurosceptics, left and centre

The election was supposed to be all about Brexit, a matter of the most profound significance for the country’s future. In fact, internal divisions within both major parties resulted in the issue being sidetracked; neither party’s leadership wanted to debate it. But with the election over, Brexit became the overarching theme of U.K. politics.

The broad consensus was that the decision of the referendum could not be reversed: the matter in dispute was the precise form Brexit would take. Would it entail a radical rupture – a “hard Brexit” with the U.K.’s departure from the customs union and the single market, a cessation of the free movement of labour and an end to the jurisdiction of EU law? Or would it be a “soft Brexit” with Britain retaining full access to EU markets, a compromise over the remit of EU law and only a minor modification to free migration? All were agreed that a transition period would be required after the U.K.’s exit from the EU, but what form would this take?

Labour’s initial position on these immensely complicated issues was hazy and uncertain. This stance, called “calculated ambiguity,” served its purpose for the election but was not sustainable. In the late summer, there was some significant clarification of Labour policy on one major question, the shape of the transition period between departure from the EU (end of March 2019) and the reaching of a final Brexit agreement. Keir Starmer, the highly capable shadow Brexit secretary, announced that Labour now favoured the continuation of the status quo, notably membership in the single market and the customs union and acceptance of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (which arbitrates and enforces EU law).

But what of the shape of a final agreement? Does Labour propose retaining membership in the customs union and the single market with all its complex rules and regulations, including guaranteed free movement of labour?

The obvious forum to determine policy was the party’s annual conference, held every September. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the conference had been relegated to the status of showcase and talking shop, but Corbyn insisted that its status as the supreme decision-making body of the party be restored. But if its decisions were binding, this raised the risk that the conference would pass resolutions unpalatable to the leadership. There was a real danger of this occurring on the EU since there is a strong head of steam among Labour members (and MPs) demanding that the party commit itself to continued post-Brexit membership in the single market, a proxy for the softest of soft Brexits.

Resorting to the traditional toolbox of party management, the Corbyn leadership averted the possibility of the conference reaching an embarrassing decision which would constrain its room for manoeuvre by ensuring that only the most anodyne resolutions were placed before delegates. There was a lively and heated debate but no clarification of policy.

Chuka Umunna, a leading right-wing Labour MP, protested that we should “not be ducking this debate, we should be leading it,” but in truth there were solid reasons for Labour’s continued equivocation.17 The party is experiencing multiple fractures over the single market and the free movement of labour – criss-crossing fractures that complicate normal left-right alignments. One can distinguish among at least three groups, although to do so ignores overlap.

First, left-wing Eurosceptics regard the EU as an institution that enshrines pro-market, economically liberal principles. The rules of the single market, in particular, are seen as a serious impediment to the pursuit of socialist industrial and economic policies, This is a view that Corbyn historically supported and is suspected of still supporting in private. He recently expressed anxiety that, with its restrictions on state aid and public ownership, membership in the EU single market could inhibit Labour’s domestic program.18 Some who hold this view combine it with advocacy of free movement of labour on the grounds that immigrants are being exploited and scapegoated for the country’s economic woes.

The second group consists of the Europhiles who favour continued membership in the single market or, failing this, the closest possible relationship with it. The group spans all sections of the party: the right, the soft left and the Corbynista radical left.19 Some members of this group also call for a second referendum over the terms of the final negotiated settlement. Europhiles are convinced by the economic case for a soft Brexit (most pro-Labour economists fall into this category); they also bear some resemblance to Goodhart’s “anywheres,” at least to the degree that they associate a pro-Europe stance with openness, enlightened values and tolerance. Most Europhile MPs of both parties represent constituencies (especially in London) which voted Remain in the referendum.

Senior Corbynistas, whatever their Eurosceptical affinities, are aware that their two major power centres contain many Europhiles. The trade union leaders, who still play a major role in the party, have become increasingly vocal on the damaging economic and employment consequences of quitting the single market and the customs union. Similarly, the much increased membership (nearing 600,000, the largest of any political party in Europe), while strongly Corbynista, is fervently Europhile.

The third group is the centrist Eurosceptics. Mainly on the right and centre of the party, they represent constituencies (mainly in the north and Midlands) which voted Leave. They are primarily actuated not by policy matters (which they tend to disregard) but by electoral ones, principally the fear that too weak a stance on immigration controls will precipitate further working-class defections to the Tories. For instance, pointing to “bubbling tensions in this country” arising from fears of immigration, one former frontbencher, Rachel Reeves, warned that these could “explode” unless addressed.20 The corollary is that accepting the single market obligation to maintain free movement of labour is electorally far too risky.

The leadership has a difficult job building consensus among these very disparate groups. It recognizes that formulating a clear, coherent and credible policy on Brexit will inevitably alienate some, which is why it sought to avoid a binding conference decision.

While the balance of opinion certainly favours a post-Brexit participation in the single market, it is not clear how this can be reconciled with what Starmer has called “more effective management of migration.” The failure of the party to move toward tighter immigration controls risks a backlash from working-class voters in the north and Midlands, which could scupper Labour’s prospects in the next election. On the other hand, only limited access to the single market would certainly imperil the country’s economic prospects, with signs already multiplying of stagnating investment and minimal economic growth.

At Labour’s party conference Corbyn promised delegates that the party would guarantee unimpeded access to the single market without spelling out what this actually meant.21 Labour is still able to capitalize on the government’s acrimonious divisions, but its own plausibility will drain away unless it can clarify its own position. Accomplishing this – while avoiding damaging internal splits and reconciling Labour’s Remain and Leave voters – will be the major test of Corbyn’s capacity to manage the party.

Continue reading “British Labour: From Election Success to Brexit Conundrum”

The issue of immigration (and related matters of race and ethnicity)1 has been a contentious and highly emotive one in British politics for half a century. For the Labour Party, it has always been an Achilles heel. Labour has lagged well behind in voter ratings of its ability to tackle immigration, with research showing that its liberal approach was a major factor in its loss of working-class voters.

In recent years, the accelerating pace of immigration, combined with waves of asylum-seekers seeking succour in the West, has propelled the issue to the forefront of political debate. Sensing an opportunity to exploit Labour’s weakness, the Conservatives pledged in their 2010 election manifesto to make drastic cuts in immigration levels – with some effect. Lack of confidence in Labour’s capacity to tackle what was now seen as the major “problem of immigration” was a significant factor explaining defections from the party.2

The target the Tories (and the Conservative–Liberal Democratic Coalition that governed from 2010 to 2015) set themselves was spectacularly missed. By the close of 2014, migration was three times the target and 63,000 higher than when the Coalition was formed. Indeed, it was higher than at any time since 2005 – all this despite a slew of restrictive policies toward non-EU incomers. The Conservatives’ inability to fulfil their pledge poured oil onto the flames of public outrage, further fed by often vitriolic coverage in the tabloid press. Polls registered deepening indignation over immigration levels, now catapulted to the status of top public concern after the economy.3 According to one extensive survey, the majority of people were convinced that immigrants took jobs away from British workers, claimed too many benefits, lowered wages and placed an unfair burden on hospitals and schools.4

The major consequence was the rapid rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), largely led by dissident right-wing Tories but one of the new breed of European radical right parties. Though UKIP’s founding aim was British separation from the European Union, its campaigning between 2005 and 2010 was increasingly spearheaded by attacks on immigration. It reaped major electoral rewards, starting with impressive performances at byelections and culminating in a sweeping triumph at the 2014 European elections when, garnering 28 per cent of the vote, it came top of the poll.

Immigration and UKIP: Labour’s strategic response

Initially, Labour Party strategists somewhat complacently expected that expanding support for UKIP would helpfully split the right-wing vote. It soon became evident that this was not the case: UKIP was in fact rallying support disproportionately from lower-income groups, apprehensive about immigration levels, that might otherwise be expected to swing to Labour.5 How was the party to respond?

Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues have identified three possible strategic responses by social democratic parties to the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment and radical right parties, which they label hold, defuse and adopt.

The hold stance advises a strategy of cleaving firmly to traditional liberal values while seeking to convert voters through “preference-shaping” campaigning, based on reasoned argument and evidence, to a more tolerant and open-minded stance. The defuse option more pessimistically assumes that shifting opinion is not feasible and the best that can be achieved is to diminish the salience of the issue by avoiding discussion and highlighting other issues. The adopt position contends that the only realistic approach is “preference accommodation”: aligning policy more closely with the anti-immigrant stance.6 Of course these are ideal types, and any real-life strategy may draw on more than one of these options.

Hammering out the best strategic response was, for Labour, always going to be difficult. Bale and his colleagues found in their survey of four social democratic parties that none of the options adumbrated above had been effective, which was hardly encouraging.7 All had costs and risks attached. Reaffirming liberal values and contesting popular perceptions would be risky since views on immigration are emotive, entrenched and not easily dislodged. Trying to keep the issue off the political agenda is unlikely to work since the agenda was heavily influenced by immigration-obsessed mass-circulation right-wing tabloids. Adopting a more anti-immigrant posture ran the risk of sowing dissension within the party, legitimating anti-immigration claims and boosting the profile of an issue which could never benefit the left. It would, in any case, probably lack credibility.8
Not surprisingly, under Ed Miliband, leader between 2010 and 2015, Labour oscillated among the various approaches. His initial response was to acknowledge that Labour had failed in government to grasp the scale of voter anxieties about rising migration. Labour’s “embrace of openness,” he said, “made some people feel we didn’t understand the pressures immigration put on them … they were right.”9

Miliband framed the problem primarily in economic terms: employers had been allowed to exploit the flexible labour market to recruit cheap labour abroad, creating jobs at levels of pay and with conditions which British workers were unwilling to accept and thereby depressing wage levels for the lower-skilled. The party’s remedy was a package of labour market reforms, including strengthening labour protection, tightening regulations governing working conditions, blocking employers from undercutting wages through imported labour, cracking down on people who trafficked migrants and introducing enhanced training schemes to upgrade the quality of jobs on offer.10

But defining the issue more or less exclusively in economic terms and deploying rational economic argument to sway opinion made little impression. In part this was because Labour ignored the cultural dimension, the widespread feeling that mass immigration was unsettling traditional ways of life, values and customs and transforming local communities in disturbing ways. In part it was because views on the issue were rooted more in emotion than reason. As a result, as the election neared, Labour shifted closer to an “adopt” strategy, in terms of both rhetoric and policy. This culminated in a series of tough-sounding manifesto pledges including a cap on non-EU workers, banning EU migrants from claiming benefits for at least two years, ending child benefits payments to dependents outside the UK and taking stiffer action to stop illegal immigration.11

But Labour remained uncomfortable with this more rigorous approach, and perhaps Miliband’s heart was not in it. It probably did not carry conviction and certainly had negligible effect. The fact was that voters simply did not trust the party: one sample indicated that only 19 per cent of voters thought that a Labour government would handle immigration well. So there was always a temptation to retreat to “defuse” as the default option. One leaked 2014 document advising campaigners on how to respond to the issue of immigration on the doorstep, especially with potential UKIP voters, suggested avoiding the topic altogether and discussing other issues.12 Certainly it hardly registered in the party’s campaign messages. The problem with this was that Labour could be portrayed as ducking the issue and, in any case, there was no realistic way public attention could be diverted.

The fact was that Labour faced a series of strategic predicaments which made the task of designing a coherent and electorally successful policy on immigration extraordinarily difficult. Constructing a rhetoric which was, at the same time, rational, grounded in party values and yet appealing to the public seemed out of its grasp.

First, there were tensions within the party, which did not correlate with the standard left-right division. Some of those who opposed a tough line on immigration were Blairites – strong upholders of a globalized world economy and especially an open labour market, generally liberal-minded and strongly pro-EU. Others (including the present leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his chief ally, shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell) were traditional socialists, longstanding champions of minority rights who believed that immigrants were being scapegoated in an attempt to distract the working class from its real enemies.

Advocates of a firmer, more robust line on immigration were also composed of two elements. There were left-oriented communitarians who worried about the dislocating impact of mass immigration on social cohesion, traditional communal attachments and established values. The other group, larger in number and much larger in influence, were those primarily animated by pragmatic electoral considerations. Anxious that the party was wildly out of touch with popular (particularly working-class) sentiment on the issue, they felt it vital that it narrow the gap even if this meant adopting a more illiberal posture.

Second, Labour’s own electorate was sharply divided. According to British Social Attitudes data, 40 per cent of Labour supporters believed that immigration damaged the economy while 36 per cent disagreed.13 At the same time, in certain parts of the country, such as the North and London, the party was becoming quite dependent on the ethnic minority vote which formed a growing proportion of its political base. As a result, a strategy which pleased one group of Labour supporters was likely to alienate the other.

Third, mass perceptions on the issue of immigration were synchronized rather poorly with empirical reality. For example, many people were utterly convinced that immigrants were “benefit tourists” though research showed that respondents exaggerated the proportion of immigrants on any sort of benefit by a factor of over 7.14 Two leading experts on labour economics noted that “immigrants arriving since the early 2000s have made substantial net contributions to its public finances, a reality that contrasts starkly with the view often maintained in public debate.” In short, as another analyst wrote, perceptions of the impact of immigration bore “little relationship to objective assessments,” with people in general having “a very poor understanding of the scale and nature of immigration.”15

The problem for Labour was that votes are driven by perceptions, not facts. What the polling organization YouGov called the “gulf between perception and reality” meant that much public debate on immigration was ill-informed, with the parties reluctant to contest “widespread popular misconceptions.”16 Within the Labour Party this circumstance posed moral problems for preference-accommodators on the right who urged (in effect) endorsing these “misconceptions” and grounding policy on fallacy and exaggeration rather than on reason and evidence. It presented political problems for preference-shapers on the left: given the strength and intensity of attitudes on immigration, how could people be induced to take a more liberal view? Nor was it reassuring for the “defusers” who believed that the less said about the problem the better – it was patently clear that the issue would not disappear simply because Labour chose not to address it.

The 2015 general election

Taking account of all three strategic predicaments, there were no easy answers to Labour’s immigration dilemma. But did this matter? How important was immigration as an issue at what was for Labour the deeply disappointing 2015 general election? While the two weightiest factors deterring voters from backing Labour were lack of confidence in its ability to manage the economy and distaste for Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister, immigration also played a major part. Campaigning mainly on this issue, UKIP collected almost four million votes (12.6 per cent of the total) making it (in terms of votes) the third strongest party in the UK – although because of the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system it won only one seat.

Detailed data have yet to be released, but early research indicates that while UKIP drew support from all parties, the main loser was Labour. Although the Labour vote rose in most parts of England (though not in Scotland), its gains were smaller in those constituencies where UKIP advances were more substantial. Where UKIP polled well, Labour failed to take a single seat from the Tories. This delivered a fatal blow to its prospects. But no less worrying for Labour was that this setback was one further phase in the long-term contraction of its working-class base. From 2001, working-class voters, affronted by Labour’s liberal stance on immigration, have been steadily abandoning the party, some to the Tories and now some to UKIP. The Labour leadership (including the current one) has proved consistently unable to reverse this trend.17

Why immigration is so harmful for Labour

A central premise of electoral studies has long been that parties of the left form the natural political home for the working class. Yet accumulating findings across Western Europe have demonstrated that working-class voters are disproportionately moving to the radical right – primarily over the issue of immigration.18 In other words, what has happened in the UK is part of a broader pattern. The literature has suggested a range of possible explanations, the two most important of which are economic competition and cultural conflict.

Economic competition explanations contend that people suffering from unemployment and deteriorating material conditions as a result of globalization and technological innovation are estranged from the political system and mainsteam parties of the centre-left which, they feel, have abandoned them. In the struggle for scarce resources (jobs, pay levels, housing, social benefits and so forth) in which they are heavily engaged, they regard their main competitors as immigrants, perceived as illegitimate and undeserving, rather than business or the wealthy and privileged.

Cultural conflict explanations focus on issues of community and identity. Workers are attracted to radical right ideas not primarily because of material concerns, though these may play a part, but because they feel under threat by a large-scale inflow of immigrants whose values, styles of life, customs and practices are deemed incompatible with the national culture.19

These two explanatory frameworks are not mutually exclusive; what matters is the relative weighting. Seminal research by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, the UK’s leading students of UKIP, has shown that recruits to UKIP are disproportionately drawn from the economically marginal, the socially vulnerable and the insecure, “older, blue-collar voters citizens with few qualifications” – those “left behind.” Opinion surveys have provided further support for the proposition that perceived unfair competition from immigrants over resources (jobs, housing, benefits etc.) is nourishing an anti-immigrant mood and sympathy for the radical right.20

But Ford and Goodwin concluded that, though distributional issues certainly figured significantly in their thinking, UKIP adherents were “often motivated as much, if not more, by their distinctive set of values as by their economic position and anxieties.” These values, especially antipathy toward immigrants and general mistrust of ethnic (and sexual) minorities, were particularly widely held by the old and those with modest educational attainments, two categories positively correlated with voting UKIP. Such people find a society defined by multiculturalism, toleration of diversity and liberal and cosmopolitan values uncongenial.

Jon Cruddas, a senior communitarian-minded Labour MP, and Professor Jonathan Rutherford similarly contend that anger over high levels of immigration reflects not only worries over jobs and wages but deeper existential fears in which anxieties are refracted “into a brittle politics of loss, victimhood and grievance.”21

This may apply in particular to Muslim immigrant communities (both British citizens and more recent asylum-seekers) where cultural distinctions are more overt and pronounced. When people encounter very different moral codes, customs and religious viewpoints, the argument runs, they are more likely to experience discomfort and even a sense of threat The highly publicized conviction of gangs of predominantly Islamic background or the systematic and extensive sexual exploitation of vulnerable young white girls in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere has served to further inflame such fears and contributed to a spread of anti-Islamic attitudes, fertile territory for UKIP.

To further complicate matters for Labour, there is some evidence that greater ethnic and cultural diversity corrodes social cohesion, social solidarity and a general sense of collective responsibility for all society’s members. Thus Oxford economics professor Paul Collier reports that the post-1997 surge in immigration has been accompanied by a major decline in voter willingness to pay higher taxes to fund extended social programs, especially when immigrants are seen as possible beneficiaries.22

Anger, frustration and resentment

There appears little doubt about the capacity of the issue of immigration (linked to race and ethnicity) to restructure political alignments throughout the Western world, largely to the detriment of parties of the left. The increasing prominence of ethnicity as a source of social identity (as in the concept of the “white working class”), affording opportunities for expansion by the radical right, has been fed by a range of sources, including the perceived adverse impact of immigration on jobs, wage levels and welfare availability but also by a sense of endangered identities, customary ways of life and traditions. As Rutherford suggests, the upsurge of antipathy toward immigrants and ethnic minorities may not only be a response to resource competition but, more generally, represent a projection onto out-groups of the anger, frustration and resentment at the increasing precariousness and instability of life among the most economically marginal.23

Winning back voters who quit Labour for UKIP or the Tories over the issue of immigration will not be easy.24 As has been noted, there are no obvious strategic options to overcome the problem. Ed Miliband anticipated that having an informed, candid and rational debate on immigration would be an “incredibly hard thing to achieve.”25 Events have proved him right. Continue reading “British Labour’s immigration problem”

The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below.
— Tony Blair, The Guardian, August 13, 2015

Blairism is dead and unmourned.
— Len McCluskey, leader of Unite union, The Observer, September 13, 2015

A gigantic political earthquake has hit the British Labour Party, one that absolutely nobody anticipated. Jeremy Corbyn, impelled forward by a wave of enthusiasm (“Corbynmania”) that has dumbfounded everyone at Westminster, won the race to become leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition with a bigger landslide than even Tony Blair secured in 1994. How could a 66-year-old serial rebel, who had spent more than three decades on the backbench fringes and who could rely on the support of only a handful of MPs, win such a stunning victory – 60 per cent of the nearly half a million votes cast? This is the first big question Corbyn’s victory raises. The second is: what will now happen? Can Corbyn’s leadership endure or will he be toppled? And if he does take the party to the next election, will the outcome be, as many fear “rout, possibly annihilation”?1

Here I examine these two questions in turn. First I analyze the extent to which the result was the result of contingent factors, such as tactical and strategic errors by Corbyn’s rivals, or the product of longer-term trends. Then I consider the prospects of Corbyn’s leadership. Will he be able to survive and, if so, is he likely to be able to rebuild his party’s electoral fortunes?

Why Corbyn won

Nobody – including Corbyn himself – believed at the outset of the campaign that he had the slightest chance of winning. This was not the purpose of his candidacy. The three other candidates – shadow health secretary Andy Burnham (the initial favourite), shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and shadow health minister Liz Kendall – appeared to many to differ among themselves mainly on emphasis, nuance and style.2 All were from the centre (Burnham) or the right of the party and represented a narrow range of opinion.

Corbyn stood because the small group of radical left MPs felt it was essential that their voice should be heard. Crucially, he only achieved a place on the ballot because of the willingness of MPs who emphatically did not want him to win to nominate him in the interests of wider debate (nomination by 15 per cent of Labour MPs was a condition of entry). Most assumed he would come a poor fourth.

A brief word is needed on the election mechanism. Ed Miliband had been (very narrowly) chosen in 2010 by an electoral college split three ways between party members, Labour MPs and affiliated trade union members. The right of the party was convinced that victory had been snatched from his brother David’s hands by the union input, which had tilted the vote decisively in Ed’s favour. They were determined to curtail the unions’ role (in the event it fell to less than 20 per cent) even – extraordinarily – at a cost of abolishing the MPs’ cherished one third of the vote. Eventually it was agreed that the selectorate would comprise:

  • members, who paid the normal membership subscription;
  • “affiliated supporters,” trade unionists who had paid the “political levy”;
  • “registered supporters,” who simply had to pay £3 (as against £45 for members) to win the right to vote.

Unlike the old electoral college, this was unweighted, strictly one-member-one-vote – so a majority of the votes cast were from members (see table 1). Corbyn won on the basis of mass support from all types of voters. Two sets of factors were at work: those arising from the character and conduct of the campaign, and those arising from a more structural trend, an insurgency against mainstream politics and the “Westminster elite.”

The campaign

Future historians will no doubt explore the tactical and organizational mistakes made by Corbyn’s three rivals, but these were an expression of the ideological impasse of modern social democracy. Miliband’s leadership can be understood as an effort to ideologically reinvigorate Labour, to impart to it that sense of identity and direction that it had lost in the years of New Labour managerialism. The lesson drawn by the three mainstream candidates, Burnham, Cooper (both senior frontbenchers) and Kendall (a more junior frontbencher) from Labour’s severe and unexpected defeat at the polls was that Miliband’s version of a more egalitarian, socially “responsible capitalism” did not resonate with the public. It had failed to reassure voters who mistrusted its ability to run the economy and worried about its propensity to spend and borrow recklessly.

Kendall, as the custodian of the Blairite tradition, was most forthright: Labour lost not because it did not repudiate austerity but because it did not embrace it. The public, she averred, “did not trust the party with its money” and must convince voters of its determination to “balance the books … live within our means and get the debt down.”3 Burnham and Cooper were more cautious, but essentially communicated the same message.

For Corbyn, in total contrast, Labour was rejected because its opposition to austerity was halfhearted and hesitant, and it had offered no coherent alternative economic narrative.4 This message resonated with Labour members and supporters bitterly opposed to government cuts and angered by the unwillingness of the mainstream three to denounce them. In opting for a “kinder version of austerity,” in the words of Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall had “wimped out.”5 Another Nobel Prize–winning American economist, Paul Krugman, declared that the apparent endorsement by “Labour moderates” of the myth underpinning austerity, that overspending caused the crash, amounted to “a strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse.”6 This was the conclusion that many of Labour’s rank-and-file drew.

But what happened to the initial front-runner, Andy Burnham? He had impressed many with his stout defence of the National Health Service as shadow health secretary and drew support from the soft left and centre and from the unions. However, his campaign consisted of a series of strategic and tactical mistakes. Strategically his key error was his calculation that he could take union and soft-left support for granted and protect himself against Cooper, seen as his main challenger, by shifting to the right. In a much-quoted speech at Ernst and Young (a financial conglomerate associated with huge tax avoidance schemes), he called for an admission that Labour “got it wrong on business” and urged that Labour celebrate “the everyday heroes of our society” and “champion wealth creation.”7 This and similar manoeuvres convinced many who might have backed him that he was indistinguishable from Cooper and Kendall, just another opportunistic politician travelling light on principle.

This impression was hardened by another miscalculation. In July 2015 the shadow cabinet deliberated on how it should respond to the government’s welfare bill, which either capped or reduced benefits for the impoverished, the young and the disabled. Acting leader Harriet Harman decided that Labour MPs should abstain as a “signal” that Labour could be as “tough on welfare” as the Tories, a view shared by Kendall.8 Both Burnham and Cooper were unhappy with this decision but accepted the majority decision to abstain. In contrast, Corbyn, along with 48 other Labour MPs, voted against the measure.

Burnham’s decision to abstain put paid to his chances of winning. For many in the party the welfare bill was one more assault on those members of society who most needed protection: surely this was Labour’s mission and purpose. Burnham’s orientation to politics, many concluded, was governed by the Groucho Marx maxim: “These are my principles and if you don’t like them – well, I have others.” Corbyn emerged, in contrast, as the man of unblemished principle.

The insurgency

This brings us to the second, more deeply embedded, set of factors: the revolt against the political establishment – what was seen as a cosy, privileged and complacent Westminster elite. Numerous surveys have testified to a mounting sense of estrangement from the political system and a loss of faith in the integrity of politicians. In the 2015 election this disengagement was manifested in the dramatic upsurge of support for the newcomers to the political stage – the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Scottish National Party and the Greens who, in total, won over 20 per cent of the vote – and in the mass defection of millions of citizens from any involvement in the electoral process. It was a rebellion against the world of fabricated politics, of manufactured images, “on-message” politicians and slippery soundbites.

Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, with their guarded, anodyne and synthetic formulations, all seemed products of this world. Trained in the New Labour school of politics, with its disciplined communication, carefully honed phraseologies and bland pronouncements, they bored, exasperated and alienated many of those in Labour’s leadership electorate. They compared painfully with Corbyn’s forthright clarity, honesty and integrity. Unlike his three rivals Corbyn was not part of the Westminster establishment. He disliked Westminster-style adversarial politics, with its gladiatorial combats, petty point-scoring and rancorous tone. He was, indeed, part of a new breed, the “anti-political politician” the person who seemed to stand outside the inner political circle and to represent a more honest, candid and principled approach to politics. In this he had something in common with UKIP leader Nigel Farage, London Mayor Boris Johnson and SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. All, in fact, are politicians to their fingertips but came across, at least to the groups to whom they appealed, as more plain-speaking, honest and unalloyed.

Added to this was a mood of resentment many people felt toward the disruptive, deracinating and dislocating effects of globalization, unsettling traditional communities, eliminating jobs and exposing people to mass migration. For some this mood was channelled into the right-wing, anti-immigrant populist movement, UKIP. For others it took the form of left-wing populism, a revolt against the Tories’ remorseless squeeze on public spending and a mounting anger against a tepid and equivocal Labour opposition. This revolt had no outlet – until Corbyn. His campaign unleashed energy, excitement and enthusiasm on a scale that replicated the remarkable Scottish pro-independence campaign a year previously. As in Scotland then, so now in the UK as a whole: tens of thousands of the previously disillusioned and disconnected threw themselves into political activity.

Ironically, the way the Westminster elite, both politicians and journalists, responded to Corbyn’s rise confirmed all their critics’ preconceptions. Struggling to understand what was happening and disdaining to engage intellectually, they resorted to a form of psychological reductionism. “Corbynmania” was a “self-indulgent fantasy,” a form of “self-delusion,” an “emotional spasm,” in Tony Blair’s words “a politics of parallel reality … in which reason is an irritation, evidence a distraction, emotional impact is king and the only thing that counts is feeling good about it all.” Supporters of the left-wing London MP had sought “a refuge” from reality – politics as “fantasy.”9 Similar sentiments were articulated by a whole procession of Blairite grandees such as Lords Mandelson and Blunkett, Charles Clarke, David Miliband and so forth.

These attacks failed to grasp the extent to which many found Corbyn’s old-style, homespun leftist rhetoric attractive: indeed this well-seasoned politician exhibited a quite unexpected pied-piper appeal to many thousands of young supporters. And they proved to be totally self-defeating. The more Labour right-wingers and their friends in the media belittled Corbyn’s supporters as “immature, deluded, self-indulgent and unrealistic,” the more their resentment at the Westminster elite’s arrogance and condescension – and the groundswell for the veteran left-winger – grew.10

The quiet-spoken, modest and self-effacing left-winger found himself addressing packed and jubilant rallies all over the country and his personal popularity waxed. His rejection of Westminster’s confrontational “Punch and Judy” politics, with its ritualized abuse and petty point-scoring, resonated, while his own calm, low-key and always courteous manner impressed many. He seemed to understand instinctively the exasperation, frustration and disengagement so many felt toward conventional politics. By the time the polls opened the only question was the size of his majority.

Can Corbyn survive?: The pluses

Most MPs were aghast at the result. “My party has just hurled itself off a cliff,” one lamented.11 A deep depression and sense of despair settled on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Never before had a leader been elected on so narrow a parliamentary base. Only 10 per cent of both the PLP and the shadow cabinet had voted for him. Furthermore, he had no experience of public office, taking difficult decisions, presiding over complex policy-making processes or party management. Leadership is a specialized and highly demanding role, which requires resilience, dedication and high political skills. Has Corbyn the capacity, the power resources and the ability to discharge these tasks? Here there are both pluses and minuses.

On the plus side no one can dispute his authority as leader, with a mandate derived from the eager support of 250,000 people and 60 per cent of the total vote. Labour’s annual conference in September demonstrated his huge popularity among the rank-and-file whose numbers have grown as 160,000 new members have flocked into the party since the general election. This greatly enlarged membership, a potentially huge source of energy, drive and creativity, forms a power base which will both safeguard the leader against attempts to evict him and facilitate the pursuit of his transformative politics. More broadly, it could be used to reactivate the party, reengage it with society and rebuild its networks of social and cultural influence. The affiliated trade unions, still well represented at all levels of the party and the major source of income, add significantly to Corbyn’s power base. Though they have already indicated they will act as a restraining force on some of his more radical policies and will insist on full involvement in the shaping of any policies that bear upon their interests, they will also act as a buffer protecting him from any Blairite coup.

Added to this, Labour (unlike the Tories) has traditionally been very loyal to its leaders and loath to unseat them, and party rules are designed to hamper challenges to the leadership. Triggering a leadership contest requires that 20 per cent of MPs (around 70) nominate a challenger – and the incumbent would automatically be on the ballot. Not only does Corbyn’s thumping majority suggest that it would be very difficult to beat him, but the absence of an obvious successor who could rally all his critics makes a challenge more perilous. In short, any effort to forcibly evict him in the foreseeable future risks precipitating bitter internal strife. Such are the pluses.

Can Corbyn survive?: The minuses

The minuses are formidable. As noted, the number of Corbynite MPs is very small. A large proportion of the parliamentary party – the right wing or Blairites – have no confidence whatsoever in Corbyn’s leadership. They are implacably opposed to many of his policies and fear that he will inflict terminal electoral damage on the party. Most of them refused to join the frontbench, not wishing to be bound by collective responsibility or tainted by associating with an enterprise destined, in their view, to failure.12 Imbued by their seasoning in New Labour with, in the words of the noted historian Ross McKibbin, an entitlement to rule, they won’t “accept their dethronement lightly.”13 Not only do they believe the new leader will fail, they want him to fail and will do their very best to ensure that he does.14

Their influence extends well beyond Parliament. With many sympathizers in left-of-centre think tanks (e.g. the Institute of Public Policy Research, Demos), magazines (Prospect, the New Statesman) and ginger groups (the well-funded Progress) and among left-leaning journalists, they are well placed to set the agenda and frame the interpretation of centre-left politics. Ed Miliband’s leadership was undermined by incessant unflattering and derisive anonymous briefings by senior figures within the party eagerly seized up and broadcast by Blairite political journalists. Corbyn can expect the same, with the volume turned up.

There is another large amorphous group of MPs on the centre and soft left who, whatever their reservations (many of which are deep) and forebodings about the future (intense), are prepared to work with Corbyn. They occupy all the senior positions on the frontbench (including Andy Burnham as shadow home secretary) aside from shadow chancellor John MacDonnell. They accept that Corbyn has a very strong mandate and should be given mileage. They also calculate that it is to their advantage to display loyalty and willingness to cooperate with their eyes on a future leadership contest. But they have little ideological affinity with the new leader. Their loyalty will be time-limited and contingent on Corbyn’s ability both to manage the party in a consensual spirit and to revive its flagging electoral fortunes. If he fails, their loyalty will evaporate.

Corbyn’s biggest minuses are outside Parliament. He can expect venomously hostile press coverage, including routine misrepresentation and wilful distortion, with every single embarrassing or careless utterance he has made over the last 40 years picked up and splashed on the front pages. His every move will be harshly scrutinized, his personal life dissected, his policies ridiculed with no attempt, for the most part, at balance or objectivity. An overwhelmingly right-wing press mercilessly traduced Ed Miliband; it will waste little time in transforming his successor into a national ogre. This will have a knock-on effect on the broadcast media. Although bound by objectivity rules, the press heavily influences which issues are covered and how the political debate is framed. They used, for example, Corbyn’s failure to sing the national anthem at a memorial service to impugn his patriotism. Significantly, for many voters knowledge about the new leader was confined to this fact: he was the man who showed disrespect to the Queen.

Not least, the major constellations of economic power in the UK, major corporations and the City, will engage in a relentless campaign to discredit a Corbyn-led Labour Party. This is important. The business community is widely regarded as the adjudicator of what constitutes sound economic policies and whether a party leader has the requisite qualities to manage the economy competently, and most of the media rely on City economists and business executives as experts and impartial commentators on economic issues.

Corbyn as leader

Of course, much will depend upon how Corbyn performs as leader. Broadly speaking, he has two main options. The first is to exploit his democratic mandate and mobilize his rank-and-file base to push through the platform on which he was elected – which will inevitably deepen the fractures within the party. The second is to seek the route of conciliation, mute some of his policy positions, bargain and compromise. This will solidify his base in Parliament, but perhaps at the risk of disenchanting and alienating some of those who invested their hopes in him.

Corbyn’s style, personality and attitude toward the conduct of politics predispose him toward the second approach. He has repeatedly declared that the days of “command and control” politics are over and he has no wish to impose a leadership line. The ultimate sovereign body in deciding policy should be Conference, not the leadership stratum. On the issue of parliamentary discipline he is in a very tricky and exposed position given his long rebellion history. He could combine principle with pragmatism by allowing free votes in the Commons an matters normally whipped and permitting frontbenchers to articulate their views freely rather than being bound by a rigid collective responsibility. In fact, he has been preempted by the willingness of shadow cabinet members to adopt different stances from his own. Equally, he has shown some recognition of political realities by agreeing to accept majority frontbench and PLP positions on, for example, support for the EU and NATO membership.

On the other hand, in his more than 30 years as an MP, Corbyn has been a rebel and a campaigner. He has never held any position of responsibility or had to learn the arts of compromise. He is, above all, a conviction politician, animated throughout his long political life by an unwavering advocacy of deeply felt moral values. He has also repeatedly emphasized that his sweeping victory has given him a mandate to implement his platform.

This unresolved tension was starkly exemplified by the issue of whether the UK should invest in a new generation of nuclear weapons. Corbyn believes passionately, on moral grounds, that it should not. Many would sympathize: it involves spending a huge amount of money on a weapons system which has no strategic or military rationale. Sadly, this is not a topic that invites rational discussion and the British people are strongly and emotionally attached to the “deterrent.” That they cannot be wooed away from it is the received wisdom in the shadow cabinet and the PLP. A committee has been set up to explore Labour’s defence policy options, but by reiterating his unequivocal rejection of nuclear weapons Corbyn appears to have preempted it and alienated senior colleagues. What happens next is unclear. If he throws all his political capital behind a drive to persuade Conference to renounce nuclear weapons, he will run up against the fact that the majority of the unions, who hold 50 per cent of the Conference vote, favour a new generation of nuclear weapons. In these circumstances it is difficult to see how a major, and disastrous, split could be avoided – indeed how his leadership could survive.

The new leader’s prospects depend more than anything on his ability to energize the electorate. There is some reason for optimism. Corbyn has evoked tremendous enthusiasm, especially among the young, and there is a chance that his forthright style, clarity and communicative abilities will ignite the electorate at large. Early evidence suggests that people like his apparent mildness, self-deprecation and modesty. It is possible that millions of alienated and disengaged voters, tired of the vacuities, insincerities and shallowness of conventional politics, may find Corbyn’s straight-talking political style attractive.

But there are less encouraging signs. He has enjoyed no honeymoon – indeed his poll ratings have been the poorest for any new leader since polling began. His debut speech to the Labour Party Conference as leader seemed inward-looking, self-referential and aimed mainly at the already converted. He failed even to mention the party’s drubbing at the polls in June, and skirted issues such as the deficit, immigration and welfare which had cost Labour dearly. He seems to believe that he only has to affirm Labour’s values for the majority to rally behind the party. This ignores the degree to which individualistic and self-oriented attitudes have permeated British society over the last two generations, and the importance for Labour in engaging in a sophisticated campaign of mass persuasion.

There was little to suggest that he has grasped the predicament of contemporary social democracy in a globalized and “consumerized” world. Class solidarity continues to disintegrate, party allegiances wane and collectivist institutions like the unions and the public sector, wellsprings of Labour support, continue to shrink. Have he and his aides considered what this means for social democrats? Developing a coherent, innovative and appealing program and a winning electoral strategy will take political acumen, ingenuity and communication skills of a high order – and a large dollop of good luck. Has Corbyn the agility and flexibility to step out of his ideological comfort zone and reach out to the wider electorate? Can he convince floating sceptical voters that he has the right credentials to be prime minister? Continue reading “The Corbyn insurgency”

With an unpopular Tory government in the last year of its mandate, the opposition Labour Party should be riding high. However, there is no mood of eager expectation in Labour ranks as the May 8, 2015, election date draws closer: indeed there is some apprehension. The reasons for this subdued atmosphere explain a lot about the state of British politics today. For most of 2014, Labour has headed the polls by three to four percentage points, but this may be too little for victory.

Neither the Scottish elections in 2013, nor the European elections in the spring of 2014, nor the Scottish independence referendum in September brought Labour much comfort. In 2013 the Scottish National Party, which like the Parti Québécois projects itself as a broadly left-of-centre party, won an absolute majority in the Holyrood parliament, quite an accomplishment under a proportional electoral system. Labour, Scotland’s traditional premier party, lagged well behind. In the elections to the Strasbourg parliament , the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) triumphed, with Labour a disappointing second (the Tories came third). The upsurge in the UKIP vote to 27.5 per cent sent shock waves through the political system. Since, UKIP has managed since to hold fast at around 15 per cent in the polls – way ahead of the Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

The European elections were soon overshadowed by the battle over the Scottish independence referendum. Over the summer the margin of a No victory narrowed sharply. In the event, No won quite comfortably (55 to 45 per cent) on an extremely high turnover of 85 per cent – the highest ever recorded in U.K. electoral history. If the vote had gone otherwise, the implications for Labour would have been dire. Of the 58 Scottish seats, Labour holds 40, the Lib Dems 11, the SNP six and the Tories one. Deprived of its Scottish seats, Labour would have struggled mightily to win a majority in 2015. This cloud has now been lifted.

But for Labour there remain other worrying clouds. The race over independence tightened largely because working-class voters in traditional Labour strongholds drifted to the Yes camp. Its great bailiwick, Glasgow, voted Yes and it was estimated that around 40 per cent of those who voted Labour in the 2010 Westminster elections opted for independence. Some of its seats are expected to fall to the SNP next May.

The plain fact is that Labour has struggled since 2010. There are many reasons but here I focus on the most pressing, what I call Ed Miliband’s four predicaments: leadership, economic competence, immigration and social welfare. Then I turn to some considerations – stagnant living standards, fears over the National Health Service (NHS) and the operations of the party and electoral systems, which may ease Labour to the winning post even on a modest share of the vote.

Predicament no. 1: The question of leadership

The age of fixed and predictable party allegiances has vanished. Politics is fluid, the voters are fickle and the best-laid plans can easily be disrupted by capricious events. The act of voting is no longer the expression of preexisting loyalties, as it was once for many, but an actual choice. But how, in the ever-changing and often bewildering world of politics and policies, do voters actually choose? The theory favoured by many political commentators, that voters engage in some process of rational and deliberative decision-making, lacks evidence and plausibility. One alternative explanation of electoral behaviour is valence theory.

Valence theory holds that most voters agree on the ends of political action, such as price stability, rising living standards and domestic security, and what matters is which party is judged best able to realize them. Since most people are disinclined to invest time and effort in assessing the merits of differing policies, valence theory maintains that they rely on cognitive shortcuts.

The most important of these is evaluation of party leaders. Unlike issues and policies, which are complex and often abstract, party leaders are highly visible embodiments of their parties.1 The leader who scores higher on such attributes as perceived competence, likeability and trustworthiness is assumed more likely to deliver desired policy outcomes. This is more an affective than a reasoned judgment – how people feel about leaders, whether they like or dislike them, whether or not they find them congenial and attractive. Miliband scores poorly (though not as poorly as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg). David Cameron is not particularly popular, but he comes over as competent, slick and self-assured, and Labour’s leader has consistently and by a wide margin trailed behind him. In September 2014 the polling organization YouGov reported that:

  • 15 per cent of people think that Ed Miliband has provided an effective opposition to the government, 68 per cent that he has not;
  • 20 per cent think Miliband has made it clear what he stands for, 64 per cent that he has not;
  • 18 per cent think he would be up to the job of prime minister, 63 per cent that he would not.2

Miliband is widely seen as “geeky,” inexperienced, lacking leadership skills and “uncharismatic.” Why so many voters have a negative image of him – aside from the fact that unlike Tony Blair he is no media natural – is something of a mystery. Certainly four years of negative anonymous briefings by assorted Blairites’ portraying him as “laughable” and “abysmal” have not helped.3 With so much of the press unremittingly hostile, he lacks the means to radically alter public perceptions of himself.

Predicament no. 2: Running the economy

A second shortcut to simplify voter choice is perceptions of the relative economic credibility of the various parties. A reputation for economic competence is usually seen as a key to electoral success. Here too Labour has consistently lagged behind the Tories. When invited to consider whom they most trust to run the economy, voters opt for Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne over Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls by a wide margin.

Labour was in office in 2008 when the financial crash occurred, and inevitably bore some of the blame. It compounded its problem by not seriously contesting the Tories’ relentless spin that this was “Labour’s recession.” As a result, many accepted the idea that responsibility for the global recession was to be attributed to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s mismanagement of the economy and his government’s “profligate” spending. Labour did increase spending over the last decade on public services, but many came to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that no discernible improvement took place. In a nutshell, the Tories “successfully defined Labour as the party of economic incompetence, financial profligacy and recession.”4

Since 2010 there has been no consensus within Labour’s ranks on how to regain the voters’ trust on running the economy. For the Blairite right wing, Labour must demonstrate “fiscal responsibility,” committing itself to tough fiscal targets on tax, spending and borrowing and to a balanced budget. Labour should acknowledge the constraints of the global economic order and confine itself to accommodative measures such as improving the supply side of the economy by upgrading “human capital” and infrastructure investment.5 In essence it should accept economic orthodoxy, avoiding tax-and-spend commitments that might frighten the voters. Equally, it should shy away from “corporate greed” or “predatory capitalism” rhetoric that might alienate business. For Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary and a rising star in the party, “the bottom line is this: to be pro-jobs you have to be pro the people who create them.”6

More radical voices within Miliband’s inner circle, backed by the left and the affiliated trade unions, argue that the party can only rebuild its economic credibility by advancing a plausible critique of the existing economic model. In outline, this critique runs as follows. The falling wages of both lower-income groups and the “squeezed” middle have depressed demand in the economy and generated a skewed recovery fuelled by high debt and a housing bubble. Falling wages are the outcome of a low-skill, low-wage model of competitiveness manifest in the “cost of living crisis.” The benefits of the belated economic recovery have accrued solely to “a privileged few.” “Predatory capitalism,” the reasoning continues, should be replaced by a high-skill, high-wage model of “responsible capitalism” entailing a fairer tax system, increases in the minimum wage, a freeze on energy prices, banking reform, enhanced vocational training and a major house-building program.7

Miliband has oscillated between his radical instincts, shared by the party’s policy review head Jon Cruddas and his intellectual allies, and the more fiscally conservative and pro-business preferences of shadow chancellor Ed Balls, elections coordinator Douglas Alexander and other senior figures on the party right. As top trade union leader Len McCluskie sums up, “There is an argument going on between those who want a transformative programme and those who want to ‘shrink the offer.’”8

Inevitably, what has emerged is a compromise – with the balance of advantage tending toward the right. In 2013 Miliband announced that a future Labour government would impose a cap on most welfare spending, would adhere to (very tight) coalition spending plans for its first year in office and would support the introduction of more means-testing of benefits. A year later Ed Balls, in his speech to the party’s conference, reiterated that a Labour government would give absolute priority to narrowing the deficit, exercise tight control over spending and on fiscal matters pursue a pro-business policy.9

Radical elements survive. For example, in his 2014 conference speech Miliband pledged significant increases in National Health Service spending and the minimum wage, more house building and measures to help the young unemployed. To offset these expenditures, Labour would introduce a “mansion tax” on owners of houses worth more than £2 million, higher taxes on tobacco firms and a freeze on universal child benefits. Further, the party pointed out that not only was its timescale for deficit reduction more flexible than the government’s, but it rejected outright the Tories’ package of stringent welfare spending cuts and tax cuts for the affluent.

The net result is that the shift to “fiscal discipline” seems to have had little effect, for Labour’s economic credibility remains weak. As Polly Toynbee, one of the left’s most influential columnists, observed in July 2014, “Labour is still blamed for the crash, still labelled as a reckless spender and high taxer, so even a hint of spending still saps at its credibility.”10 By not combatting the government’s diagnosis of the economic crisis and in conceding the indispensability of austerity, albeit with a human face, Labour has in effect opted to fight the next election on the Tories’ chosen ground.

Predicament no. 3: The politics of immigration and the rise of UKIP

Immigration and race relations have bedevilled Labour’s relationship with the electorate for decades. Its broadly liberal stance is not shared by many of its working-class supporters. Labour’s electoral vulnerability has intensified in the last decade as the rapid expansion of immigration (mainly from inside the European Union) has propelled the issue to the top of the political agenda. Particularly among the less educated, resentment of immigrants – a term loosely used to encompass asylum-seekers, EU migrants and, often, members of ethnic minorities born in the U.K. – has sharpened. In a survey of more than 20,000 people, Lord Ashcroft found that 60 per cent thought immigration had a negative impact on the country with only 17 per cent believing the opposite. The consistent complaints, often with little empirical support, are that immigrants have taken jobs away from British workers, are claiming too many benefits, are lowering wages and are putting an unfair burden on hospitals and schools.11

UKIP first emerged as an anti-EU party, but the EU is not a high-salience issue. In contrast, many see immigration as the biggest threat facing the U.K. and this fear – stoked up by the tabloid press – is proving by far the most effective recruiting sergeant for UKIP. Initially Labour reassured itself that UKIP, whose leading cadres are almost exclusively former Conservatives, would split the right-wing vote, and this may yet prove to be the case. But in addition to being a home for disaffected Tories, UKIP has attracted support across the social spectrum.

Any lingering complacency in Labour ranks was dispelled by a shock byelection result in October. Labour won Heywood and Middleton, formerly a stronghold in Greater Manchester, by a mere 617 votes. In a simultaneous byelection in Essex, the Tory MP who had switched to UKIP retained the seat for his new party by a handsome majority.

The main explanation for these results seems to be immigration. Resentment toward immigrants tends to be most pronounced among working-class and lower-income groups that, in general, are more likely to back Labour. There is a palpable sense among these groups that the party is not voicing their concerns. One survey, for example, found that 50 per cent of voters regard it as putting the interests of immigrants ahead of those born in Britain. For many of its former supporters, Labour is no longer a party “for people like us.”12

The rising salience of immigration appears to reflect some deep-seated changes in political culture. While the capacity of class to shape political alignments has diminished, other forms of social identity have not. Recent years have witnessed the rise throughout western Europe of a muscular new politics of social identity rooted in ethnic and national allegiances.

The increasing use in the U.K. of the term white working class is of interest. Whereas the term working class is associated with class solidarity, left political leanings, trade union membership and voting for Labour, white working class generally connotes authoritarian political values, anti-immigrant sentiment, hostility to the EU and, most notably, ethnic identity. Research tells us that social identities contribute to how people orient themselves to the political world. They function as interpretive frameworks that organize political perceptions and attitudes.13

The growing prominence of ethnicity as a source of social identity has been fed by factors extending beyond the perceived impact of immigration on jobs, wage levels and welfare availability. There is also a fear that immigrants threaten cherished values, symbols of national belonging and customary ways of life. This interpretive frame deflects anger at stagnant living standards, job insecurity and shortage of housing onto “outsiders,” those who are not “properly British.” UKIP, with its highly nationalistic posture, anti-immigrant rhetoric and, at times, xenophobia, has given vent to this widespread mood. In Heywood and Middleton, where the party knew it faced a serious challenge from UKIP, Labour pivoted its campaign almost exclusively to defence of the NHS, and depicted UKIP as neo-Thatcherites determined to dismantle public services. This plainly failed to resonate and the party is still seeking ways of meeting the UKIP challenge.

Some want Labour to exhibit a more sympathetic attitude to what underlies support for UKIP. The party has toughened its position on immigration and migration flows from the EU, but short of adopting UKIP’s draconian policies, it is unclear precisely what more Miliband can do. Under strong pressure after the byelection shock, he responded by calling for tougher benefit rules for migrants. But as a man of some integrity and the son of Jewish wartime refugees, he is clearly unwilling to make the policy concessions or use the unsavoury rhetoric needed to lure back UKIP deserters. As one influential Labour blogger commented, “Immigration is one of those issues on which it’s hard-wired into the public imagination that we are ‘soft’ on immigration. And no amount of tough-talking rhetoric … has helped our case a jot.”14 There is no easy solution to Labour’s predicament on immigration.

Predicament no. 4: The spectre of the “welfare scrounger”

Labour’s fourth vulnerability is social welfare. The party remains instinctively committed to helping those whose standard of living has been most battered by Conservative austerity measures. The problem for Labour is that Tory reductions or caps on sickness, housing, disability and unemployment benefits have been popular with voters of all social classes. Underpinning this attitude is the perception that many welfare beneficiaries do not deserve them. Research conducted in April 2014 uncovered a widespread belief in rampant “scrounging” and social security fraud – even among the poor and welfare recipients themselves. Despite a surge in inequality and poverty, belief in the state’s responsibility to care for the disadvantaged has dwindled.15 Even though Labour tightened eligibility for social benefits when it was in power, it is identified in the public eye with the socially disadvantaged and marginalized. As a result many manual and clerical workers feel that it no longer has their interests at heart, that it is the party of the “underserving” poor and has “little to offer ordinary, ‘hard-working’ families.”16

For the Blairite right, Labour must accept that it has lost touch with mainstream opinion. Blairite frontbencher Liam Byrne reported that “many people on the doorstep at the last election, felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers. We’ve got to deal with that if we want to get re-elected.”17 The Blairite recommendation is to stiffen the party’s stance on social benefits.

The problem for anyone seeking to design evidence-based welfare policies in line with the party’s values is the sharp disparity between mass attitudes and social realities. As a report commissioned by an alliance of U.K. churches disclosed, there is a very large gap between popular belief about welfare and facts on the ground.18 For example, the scale of fraudulent claims was far smaller than most people believed and the ease with which social benefits could be accessed was grossly exaggerated.

On the other hand, the unions have staunchly defended the welfare system and called for more generous social spending. To others on the left, antipathy toward welfare recipients (and immigrants) is a projection on out-groups of the resentment and anger caused by deteriorating material conditions.19

Faced with rival prescriptions, the Labour leadership has equivocated, its responses often hesitant and uncertain. However, it has drifted, unsteadily, to a sterner line on welfare. Polly Toynbee caustically noted that the party was “transfixed by dire polls showing voters see them as soft on welfare” even though the last Labour government was a regime in which the “conditions for getting benefits were among the EU’s toughest, and benefits among the meanest.”20 The problem for Labour is that it can never outbid the Tories and UKIP in the toughness stakes.

And yet Labour may still pull through

Under Ed Miliband Labour is defined by ideological ambiguity. It is no longer in thrall to the “third way” doctrine of New Labour but has yet to settle on an alternative. Miliband has been pushed hither and thither by contending forces. The Blairite right of the party is pro-business, pro-market and fiscally conservative.21 The unions, the left and some of Miliband’s closest advisers see this as electorally unproductive and economically shortsighted; they call for a new model of “responsible capitalism.”

The key motif in Miliband’s 2014 Labour Conference speech was “together,” but it sounded, dull, uninspiring and banal. Too often the party’s message seems tepid and evasive. Many within Labour’s inner circle seem fixated with the transient – catchy sound-bites to win headlines, clever invective and adept political manoeuvres. As Stuart Hall and his colleagues concluded, “Labour is not yet winning hearts and minds. It shuttles between conflicting ways forward … It makes effective tactical interventions but appears tongue-tied when invited to enunciate an alternative set of principles, to outline a strategic political approach or to sketch out a compelling alternative vision.”22

Labour’s four vulnerabilities appear to indicate that Labour cannot secure more than about 35 per cent of the vote. Paradoxically, it may still win, or at least emerge as the largest party in Parliament, in 2015. There are four reasons: living standards, the NHS, fragmentation of the electorate, and the electoral system.

The Tories have not yet benefited from a year that has seen steady economic growth, price stability and rapidly falling unemployment. A key reason may be what Labour calls “the cost of living crisis.” For a large majority of the population, living standards have been falling for years and continue to do so. The economy may be reviving, but most have yet to feel any benefits. Wage trends appear to bear out Labour’s critique of the existing low-wage, low-skill economic model. Party campaigners can be expected to hammer away remorselessly on this point.

The NHS remains an immensely popular institution – the nearest thing, one Tory MP once said, the British have to a religion. Labour will always be far more trusted on defending the NHS than the Tories. The Tory–Lib Dem coalition has squandered large sums of money on a major reorganization of the health service, which has been wasteful, damaging and much resented. “Saving the NHS” as a campaign slogan should resonate.

Britain now has a four-party system – perhaps even five-party if we count the Greens notching up to about 5 per cent. The two major imponderables are the collapse of the Lib Dem vote and the rise of UKIP. At present, the polls indicate the Lib Dem vote at a third of its 2010 score. A quarter or more Lib Dem supporters shifted almost immediately to Labour after 2010. How the rest will vote and whether the party can regain some ground in 2015 is unknown. An even bigger imponderable, however, is the UKIP vote. In a first-past-the post system the geographical distribution of votes is all-important, and it appears likely the rise of UKIP will harm the Tories more than Labour in marginal ridings.

The final point is electoral boundaries. As a result of a dispute between the coalition partners, boundary redistribution has been delayed, which means that Labour retains an in-built advantage in the relationship between votes and seats.

For these four reasons, 35 per cent may be enough. We should not forget that Labour won the 2005 election with a comfortable majority of almost 70 – on a 36 per cent share of the vote.

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