It is the great political conundrum of our age. Why are the parties of social democracy performing so poorly in many Western democracies at a time when the free-spending policies of their creed, boosted by the pandemic, are in the ascendancy?
We have a government in Westminster that is conservative in name, after all, but look at its abandonment of restraint on financial matters and gung-ho enthusiasm for statist intervention.
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No doubt much of the frenzied political debate over the next few days will focus on Boris Johnson’s bizarre appeal to northern voters and Sir Keir Starmer’s failure to win back traditional supporters in his party’s former heartlands. The results look dreadful for Labour if the by-election humiliation in Hartlepool, a constituency it has held for half a century, is reflected around the country — and early council election results from places as different as Dudley, Harlow and Nuneaton suggest the worst for the party. No amount of spin can hide the forlorn sight of a declining party drifting pathetically in the doldrums.
There are many reasons for this latest Labour setback. The Government’s vaccine success shored up support for Brexit and sabotaged Starmer’s strategy of looking steady in contrast to the cronyism and chaotic style of the Prime Minister. Focus groups suggest Labour’s leader is seen as inauthentic and ill-defined; there’s lingering distrust of his party on the economy and immigration at a time of concern over jobs. “People in their heartlands feel they voted for Labour over many years but were forgotten, so the Tories are seen as the party of change despite being in power for 11 years,” said former Downing Street pollster James Johnson.
While Boris Johnson has seized the flag of English nationalism, few people could tell you what Labour stands for today beyond vague slogans on fairness and social justice. Its hapless leaders, hostages of their Victorian trade union heritage despite its total irrelevance to many modern voters, forlornly try to bind together a broad coalition that was brutally exposed for its internal conflicts by Jeremy Corbyn and then shattered by Brexit. Yet behind the inevitable froth today about leadership, despite the solidity of Starmer and dearth of credible alternative candidates, lies a far more profound question for the Labour Party: is it simply an outdated entity?
Labour’s plight is similar to other traditional centre-left parties on our continent. Once their leaders could rely on a powerful alliance of middle-class progressives backed by the massed ranks of working-class voters to win elections. Their parties should have been boosted by the flaws of neo-liberalism that were exposed first in the financial crisis of 2008 and now in the pandemic. Instead, as the United States veers towards social democracy under its latest president and even Johnson turns into a cheerleader for the nanny state, the brothers and sisters of socialism find themselves rebuffed, rejected and sliding into irrelevance across their European heartlands.
Look across the Channel and you can see many members of the centre-left family are struggling to balance the interests of progressive people in thriving cities and university centres with working class voters in communities that used to be their bedrock but now often feel abandoned and resentful. These are parties that were firmly-established political forces in their countries and shaped their societies. But in this age of anger, insecurity, social media and populism they find themselves assailed from all sides, soiled brands weighed down by their past and hesitant over their future. They end up looking like lumbering dinosaurs from another age as they struggle to evolve fast enough to traverse the drastically-altered political terrain.
In the first decade of this century, these centre-left parties won national elections in Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Portugal and the United Kingdom while they were the main opposition force in Denmark, France and Holland. Today their politicians lead just five governments in the European Union while these parties have collapsed in some of their important homelands, including our own. This phenomenon of decline even has a name — “Pasokification” — after the Greek party Pasok’s vote share crashed from 44% in 2000 to less than 5% the last time it stood alone in 2015, falling in three years from 160 seats in parliament to 13.
This was seen as something unique, a left-leaning party crushed by imposition of extreme austerity, yet there are other examples to instil fear in Labour strategists. In France the socialists took the presidency with Francois Hollande in 2012, only to be squeezed into fifth place in 2017 with a crushing 6% of the vote leaving them far behind the centrist winner Emmanuel Macron, the far-right Marine Le Pen and even trounced by veteran leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
The party slipped even further into sixth place two years later in voting for the European Parliament as the Greens surged into third. Meanwhile in the Netherlands the Labour Party — beset by internal divisions and challenged by insurgent greens, liberals, hard-left and populist right — lost three-quarters of their MPs in the 2017 election and then failed to regain any ground in this year’s contest two months ago.
The traditional socialist parties remain players in Scandinavia, Malta and the Iberian peninsular, where they govern in uncomfortable alliance with hard-left challengers. In Denmark, the “red block” led by the Social Democrats won a tight election in 2019 and now runs the country with a combination of left-wing economic policies and a horribly tough stance on immigration, sparking justified outrage by stripping even Syrian refugees of residency rights and telling them to go back to Damascus.
This won back some supporters from the far-right, but many liberals defected. Their sister party also scraped back into power through coalition in Sweden, the bastion of European social democracy, despite a steadily declining share of the vote that has fallen consistently to its lowest level for more than a century.
Labour needs to take a long, hard look at this data after its thrashing in Hartlepool. The sharp declines across Europe show their plight could grow much worse if they muddle along in vague hope of Tory collapse. Starmer will also be acutely aware of latest German polling ahead of the election in September, which sees the charismatic Greens, luring voters from across the political and social spectrums, vying with the ruling conservative CDU/CSU to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. The once-mighty Social Democrats are ten points behind this pair in distant third, narrowly ahead of the liberals and populist right.
Yes, the British electoral system is different when first past the post offers protection for big parties against disruptive forces. But Joe Biden only just beat the dreadful Donald Trump in another two-party system, even amid disastrous handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile the erosion of Labour representatives in local and regional politics reduces their visible protagonists outside Westminster, which will further accentuate the slide in their heartlands. Labour looks cautious, defensive and still searching for some kind of magical glue to stick together students, professionals, shop staff and factory workers who hold conflicting views on many key issues from the culture wars to migration.
One shadow cabinet member, fresh from the campaign trail, was perspicacious about the party’s plight when we discussed the election results. “This was the day that should be imprinted on all our eyeballs showing we have lost the white working class,” I was told: “We have to change or die. We are staring at extinction.” It is risky to predict doom given the unpredictability of politics and volatility of voters, as any Tory active during the peak years of New Labour could attest, but he could be correct. Although a moderate, this person believes the party must shift left economically with revived talk of nationalisation while breaking the union stranglehold that shored up Jeremy Corbyn despite the damaging anti-semitism furore.
The Tories have proved they can build a new coalition, bringing together working and middle class supporters under a post-Brexit banner of English nationalism, cultural conservatism and levelling up the North while jettisoning some centrists and liberals. The big question for Labour is whether there is a progressive banner that can stretch across regions and classes, binding sufficient number of voters from their metropolitan and other areas to wrest back control of the country. Their leaders say at least people are listening to them again after the 2019 catastrophe, but that is not enough. Voters need to believe, not simply listen.
Labour is a badly wounded beast. It needs to find fast a survival strategy based on reinvention rather than rebuilding. This must then be pushed with every comment, every image and every speech — as I know from my days advising David Cameron during his initial modernisation of the Conservatives when they were flying high in the polls. My preference would be for Labour to turn deep green in hope of emulating events in Germany. But it could follow the Danish model at risk of outrage on the Left — or alternatively, forget about the red wall with an updated version of Corbynism but shorn of bigotry and distaste for the flag. For all his personal flaws and manifesto absurdities, after all, Corbyn did give the Tories a fright in 2017.
These disastrous results demonstrate the scale and urgency of the task before Starmer and his dwindling band of fellow travellers in their search for a path back to power. They need to offer aspiration, inspiration and cohesive vision for the future. Attacking the Tories for sleaze, shuffling the lacklustre shadow cabinet, flying the flag, taking the knee and tinkering with a few policies is not enough to defeat the Tories — especially in a nation that has only seen two elected Labour prime ministers in my lifetime of almost six decades, both from a time before Scotland was seduced by nationalism. If Labour wants to survive, let alone thrive, the lesson from Europe is that it needs major surgery rather than simply a cosmetic makeover.