The end of Twentieth Century Labour
Three huge facts about Boris Johnson’s victory dwarf all others. The first is that the new Parliament will have a big majority for taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The second is that almost two million more people voted for parties that wanted to rethink Brexit than wanted it to go ahead next month. The third is that a huge structural change in the way people vote is transforming Britain’s political geography.
Let’s start with facts one and two. Across Britain, 52 per cent voted for one of the “rethink” parties — Labour, Lib Dem, Green, DNP and Plaid Cymru. Their total comfortably defeated the 47 per cent who supported the pro-Brexit parties: Conservative, Brexit Party and Ukip. The big difference is that the Tories had a near monopoly of the pro-Brexit vote in most seats, whereas the rethink vote was divided. Time and again, Remain seats elected Conservative MPs on minority votes. Putney was one of the very few seats where tactical voting overcame divisions in the anti-Brexit vote, and delivered the only Labour gain of the night.
Ten years ago, an election that precipitated a massive change in Britain’s future place in the world on a minority vote would have prompted angry demands for electoral reform. Perhaps such demands will now be revived. However, Nick Clegg screwed up in 2010 when he insisted on a referendum on a change in the way we elect our MPs as one of his main conditions for helping David Cameron to become Prime Minister. The referendum produced a two-to-one majority for the status quo. Regardless of the merits of changing the system following this election, it is not a politically feasible objective now, and won’t be for some time to come.
More urgent is the need for the Left to come to terms with the simultaneous failure of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In my column for TheArticle on November 26, I presented startling data contrasting the swing of almost 20 per cent from Labour to Conservative among Leave voters since 2015, with the swing of almost 10 per cent to Labour among Remain voters. (That second swing had taken place by 2017 — there has been no further shift since the last election.) The signs that this contrast would defeat dozens of Labour MPs in the Midlands and North were clear. Seats that were ultra-safe in 2015 became vulnerable in 2017, and fell like ripe plums into the Tory lap this week.
However, it is wrong to put this all down to the way our national drama has unfolded since the 2016 referendum. Brexit has accelerated a massive change in voting behaviour, but not started it. Like studying a volcano, we should not be fooled by the spectacle of a sudden eruption: we must consider the way the pressure has built up over many years.
Until the mid-1980s, around 80 per cent of Labour’s support came from manual workers and their families. Just 20 per cent belonged to middle-class, white collar families. Since then, the proportion of working-class Labour voters has steadily declined, along with the transformation of Britain’s economy and the decline of the big industries, such as coal mines, shipyards, steelworks, car factories and so on.
When Tony Blair won his landslide, just 59 per cent of Labour’s support came from working class families; the middle-class component had doubled to 41 per cent. By 2010, white-collar Labour voters outnumbered blue-collar voters. When the numbers are finally crunched for this week’s election, they are likely to show a 60-40 split, with middle-class voters a clear majority.
To set out these figures is not necessarily to deplore the trend. Over the decades, Britain has become significantly more middle-class. A political strategy rooted in a twentieth century notion of class struggle is destined to fail. But when concerns of people with jobs that do not offer the security of the old, smokestack industries, are intensified by a decade of austerity, we should not be surprised when an issue comes along that brings these discontents to a head. Nor should we be surprised that the impact is greatest in precisely those parts of Britain where the economic changes and social dislocation of the past four decades have been greatest.
Labour must obviously now choose a new leader and policies to challenge the new, majority Government as it handles Brexit in the months ahead. This will not be at all easy. But the bigger, and far tougher, challenge is to construct a whole new strategy for a country and an electorate that has changed far more profoundly than the party. This week’s failure of the Lib Dems kills at birth any notion that they will be able to lead a resurgence of progressive politics in the months ahead.
Eric Hobsbawm, the historian, said that the “short twentieth century” ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A good starting point for Labour would be to acknowledge that this week’s election should mark its own moment of fundamental transition, and finally bring to an end the party’s “long twentieth century”.