I cannot remember a time in my adult life when a political party won as slender a majority as the Conservatives in 2015 and yet their success in the next general election, five years away, was so widely assumed.
This is obviously not simply due to internal problems within Labour. The predicted effects of constituency boundary changes and the rise of the SNP in Scotland would still pose serious challenges even if Labour were in rude health. In reality, though, there are serious difficulties within Labour which, if unaddressed, will create electoral problems for the Party far beyond 2020.
A common misconception appears to be that these problems would be largely resolved through a change of leadership. Obsessing over the leadership, however, has become a form of displacement activity that distracts from more fundamental and difficult questions. Indeed the fact that a rumoured ‘coup’ against Jeremy Corbyn this summer would involve contriving to have him excluded from the leadership ballot paper, despite his apparent popularity with the majority of Party members, merely points to the Party’s deeper troubles.
A central difficulty for Labour is that its membership appears to be becoming increasingly detached from the views of the wider electorate.
One way of making sense of how this has happened is through understanding the evolving nature of the trade union movement from which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election campaign received so much support.
Trade union membership has declined significantly over the past thirty five years. By the end of the 1970s, around 13 million UK workers were union members. By 2014, despite a growing population, union membership had more than halved to 6.4 million workers with nearly 20 million workers not attached to a union. Membership is now heavily skewed towards workers in the public sector (54.3% of whom are union members) compared to the private sector (in which only 14.2% of workers are part of a union).
Whilst, historically, Labour’s symbiotic relationship with the trade union movement made it possible for it to claim to be the party of British workers, this is no longer the case. The vast majority of people working in manual, semi-skilled or service industry jobs are not union members. Instead, trade union members are now disproportionately drawn from sections of the work-force that are educated to degree level, employed in a professional occupation, earning a middle-income and aged over 50. Far from connecting the Labour Party to a broad range of the British workers, the trends in trade union membership are accelerating the process by which Labour is becoming the political wing of The Guardian.
This exemplifies a wider trend described by Jon Cruddas, following his study into the causes of the 2015 general election defeat. As Cruddas puts it, ‘Labour is now overwhelmingly a party of the socially liberal and progressively minded… The party is losing connection with two thirds of the electorate who are either pragmatic in their voting habits or who are social conservatives and who value work, family and their country… Labour stands on the brink of becoming irrelevant to the majority of working people in the country.’
Two other factors threaten to exacerbate this trend. One is the perception that Labour is tainted by members who hold extremist views, including some who currently have leading roles in the party. In recent weeks, there has been a succession of stories about statements made by individual party members that are anti-Semitic or sympathetic to terrorist organisations. This is likely to continue to be a problem given the emphasis, under Jeremy Corbyn, of accepting people into Labour who have previously been members of fringe political organisations. If UKIP has, to some extent, syphoned off people with more extreme views from the Conservatives, the more inclusive approach to membership of the Corbyn-led Labour Party means that no comparable buffer now exists on the Left. Having for many years derided the Tories as the toxic, nasty party, Labour may now have to face recurrent stories that call into question its own moral reputation.
Arguably, though, a more profound source of division between the Labour Party and a large section of the electorate will emerge out of the EU referendum. Although at present, the Remain campaign seems most likely to prevail, it also seems likely that the Brexit vote could reach 40% and possibly higher. In a discussion of the political landscape after the June 23rd vote, Matthew Goodwin has asked where the Brexit vote goes next. Whilst the post-referendum evolution of UKIP as a popular party of protest has yet to take shape, it seems hard to see those whose Euroscepticism has deepened through the referendum campaign quickly finding their way back to Labour. As Goodwin puts it, ‘after the referendum manual workers… are likely to feel even more disconnected from middle-class Labour politicians who will have spent the referendum campaign praising the exact things that make these struggling voters feel so under threat – European integration, a global market, free movement and rapid social change.’ The weakening ties between Labour and its traditional working-class base are therefore likely to be fractured even further.
There are, of course, ways in which these problems can be denied. People will come back to Labour when they realise that the Party is really standing up for their interests. People won’t be put off by criticisms of Labour that are just being whipped up by the Tory-sympathising press. Labour will bring a wave of voters on board who have been too disillusioned to vote in previous elections. As 2020 approaches, however, the cold realities of Labour’s lack of connection with the voters whose support they would need to form a Government are likely to become ever starker.
The party isn’t completely over just yet. There is still potential for Labour to think about how it can express values and a practical vision for society that can re-build its relationship with voters who have turned to the Conservatives or UKIP. The Party can still re-assert itself as a mainstream political force with no place for members with extremist views. If the Remain vote does prevail in the EU referendum, it can still develop a far more robust approach to campaigning for EU reform (including on the free movement of labour) with the threat of a further referendum if that reform does not take place within a set timetable. The Party can re-evaluate its relationship with the unions, recognising that whilst trade unions continue to play a vital social role, their privileged status within the Party may now be harming its ability to connect with a broader range of voters.
But here-in lies the catch. Such moves are likely to be anathema to the many members who are happy with the Party’s current direction. If, as opinion polls suggest, they make up a significant majority of the Party, it seems difficult to see how Labour really will be able to take the steps needed to regain wide support across the electorate. But if this doesn’t happen and the Party continues to turn inwards, reflecting comfort-zone of its increasingly middle-class, social progressive base, it will not win a Parliamentary majority again for the foreseeable future. The question then is whether we can wait that long.