Mike Phipps examines a new report on why Labour lost and how it can win again
A whole raft of inquests into Labour’s election defeat continues to make headlines. Labour’s own internal enquiry put the blame on Brexit and an unprecedentedly hostile media. A Labour Together review is still taking submissions. An ESRC-funded project, which interviewed over 1,350 Party members, also put Brexit and the media at the top of the reasons why Labour lost so badly.
A less-publicised report by academics at Europe for the Many, entitled The devastating defeat: Why Labour lost and how it can win again goes deeper and explores the demographic changes in the UK that make electing a Labour government more challenging.
The researchers redraw the electoral map into four main categories. First, multi-ethnic working class heartlands: seats that Labour has consistently held, with high levels of inequality, deprivation and ethnic diversity. Second, young cosmopolitan centres of the new capitalism: seats that Labour won for the first time in 2017. They are diverse, have large numbers of private renters and graduates and high house prices. Third, the Brexit-voting towns of left-behind Britain, which the Tories won for the first time in 2017/2019. They are areas with low house prices, low wages, low ethnic diversity and high numbers of older people. Crucially, they also have higher rates of home ownership and economic security than younger working class voters. Lastly, the affluent Conservative shires: seats that the Tories have consistently held, well-off, with low ethnic diversity and a large older population. The majority of these seats also voted to Leave.
This re-composition, argue the authors, is a feature of our post-industrial society. It has been going on for decades, but only emerged clearly after the Brexit vote in 2016.
The Tories’ ability to unite its traditional affluent shire base with a section of Labour’s traditional electoral coalition underlines not just the Brexit divide. It potentially opens a new division between largely Leave-voting social conservatives and largely Remain-voting social liberals.
“The Tories now have a huge challenge,” argue the authors.” They have to keep control of seats desperate for investment, which look completely different to their consistently held seats, while also keeping their commitment not to raise any taxes over the next five years. We predict that they will combine very socially conservative policies on issues like crime and immigration with pork-barrel politics, targeting these areas for investment by cynically cutting funding to other areas, such as very deprived safe Labour seats.”
It is inaccurate to conclude that Labour lost its working class base. Of the 20 constituencies with the highest level of child poverty in the UK, 19 of them are held by Labour. Evidence suggests there is also broad support for Labour’s economic policy amongst most votes. The problem for Labour is winning back the key demographic, the Brexit-voting towns of left-behind Britain, who are not just Leave voters – Brexit is unlikely to dominate the next general election – but socially conservative as well.
How should Labour respond to this challenge? Whoever becomes leader, we can expect a big push to dump the commitments to international human rights and adopt a more authoritarian approach to immigration, crime and other social issues.
This, conclude the authors, would be wrong in principle. Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” pitch was not just outrageous: it bought into Tory messaging about the roots of the economic crisis. It was ineffective in any case: most Labour members are socially liberal and such conservative soundbites are unconvincing to the broader electorate, who know this. And in playing catch-up with the socially authoritarian agenda of the Tories, Labour would inevitably lose the policy initiative and find, come election day, that on this terrain, most voters prefer the authentic Tory mantra to its pale imitation.
Instead, urges the report, “The party should concentrate on offering believable, progressive outcomes and move the focus of attention away from debates over social values and identity.” It should avoid shallow appeals around patriotism and identity- terrain Labour cannot easily win on – and focus on concrete solutions to real needs – regional investment, publicly owned utilities, revitalising democracy.
So far, so good. And of course, Ken Livingstone was able to twice win the London mayoralty – once running as an independent against Labour – by being both socially liberal, for example on issues of gender and sexuality, and by responding to traditional concerns, for example by promising more police on the beat.
But the UK isn’t London. And although Brexit won’t dominate the next election, the Tories are unlikely to abandon the nationalist themes that have hitherto served them so well. So one crunch issue Labour will have to decide on will be its attitude to Trident renewal and the future of Britain’s nuclear defences.
Paul Mason argues that Labour “needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’.” Yet the case against Trident is not just moral – it’s economic and practical. The reports’ authors are silent on this critical issue, but given the weaponisation of the Labour leader’s patriotism in 2019, it remains hugely potent. The challenge for activists is to win back the lost voters while retaining principled positions on a whole range of policies, including international.