Progressive Futures

The task ahead for social democrats

4 January 2020

Following Labour's crushing defeat, social democrats must reconcile the interests and outlook of those who fear economic change and openness with those who embrace global economic integration.

Patrick Diamond

In December 2019, the British Labour party went down to its fourth consecutive election defeat. Fifteen years have passed since the party last won a major national election. It is a salutary fact that in the last forty years, only one leader of the party ever won a general election in Britain – Tony Blair (in fact, he won three). In the 2019 election, Labour finished 12 points behind the Conservatives, securing 33 per cent of the vote and 203 seats in the House of Commons. It was the worst result since 1935. Seats were lost in Northern industrial England that had been in Labour hands since the First World War. The swing to the Conservatives was the largest achieved by an incumbent government since 1945.

The scale of the defeat is almost unimaginable. In truth, Labour was facing a deeply unpopular Conservative opponent. The Tories had been in power for a decade. Their post-2010 austerity policies marked by seismic cuts in the welfare state inflicted hardship on low income households, while undermining public services, notably the National Health Service. The recovery from the 2008 financial crisis was slow and laborious, a consequence of premature austerity. After a decade of stagnation, there was little improvement in real wages, while average living standards outside the top income earners were stalling. The Brexit process was a mess: confusion and disarray in the leadership of the Conservative party, following three long years of protracted negotiation with no clear resolution in sight. Boris Johnson was a leader who many voters instinctively distrusted. And still, the Conservatives won their largest parliamentary majority since 1987, the heyday of Margaret Thatcher.

Some of the reasons for defeat are, of course, particular to British politics and the UK Labour party. It is a brutal fact that in Jeremy Corbyn, Labour was saddled with the most unpopular leader of a major political party since opinion poll records began. Corbyn was, to say the least, an unusual Labour figurehead. He had no substantive experience of leadership prior to 2015, having spent his entire career as a backbench MP. Corbyn’s political background was forged through 40 years of participation in protest movements, including the campaign for nuclear disarmament, the struggle for a united Ireland, opposition to American imperialism, and the anti-Iraq war movement. He was subsequently portrayed in the media as anti-patriotic, anti-British, and as a terrorist sympathiser. Years of negative headlines inevitably took their toll. To his supporters within the labour movement, Corbyn was a saintly figure. But it is a harsh truth that outside of a few liberal metropolitan enclaves in the big cities, Corbyn was despised by the electorate.

The leadership made inept political choices that exacerbated the party’s disconnection from voters. Most importantly, Labour was unable to define a clear stance on Brexit three years after the referendum. By the summer of 2019 after months of ambiguity and internal confusion, the party committed to holding a second referendum. Yet Labour’s policy lacked political and intellectual credibility. Voters would be offered the choice in the referendum between remaining in the EU, or leaving with a deal that had been negotiated between the incoming Labour government and Brussels. Corbyn then pledged to remain neutral in the subsequent referendum campaign. The party’s stance risked alienating pro-‘Remain’ voters who wanted the UK to remain an EU member-state; and pro-‘Leave’ voters who sought no further delay in Britain’s departure. It proved impossible to square the circle. Corbyn looked indecisive and unprincipled. In the 2019 election, Labour lost ground to the Conservatives in ‘leave’ seats, and to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and nationalists in ‘remain’ constituencies. The UK’s First Past the Post electoral system effectively divided the pro-European centre-left vote. Having struggled to appeal to both sides in the Brexit debate, Labour’s political base was now under attack from all directions.

At the same time, Labour was defeated in 2019 because the party was afflicted by political forces that have weakened social democracy across Europe. More than ten years since the financial crash, many social democratic parties are still struggling to put forward a persuasive economy policy. When the financial collapse erupted, many on the Left believed that the crisis of western capitalism would usher in a historic social democratic moment. Yet aside from a few countries in Southern Europe, notably Portugal, there has been no decisive shift to the Left. Economic crises historically tend to favour the Right. The period since 2008 has been no exception.

The Labour party’s programme in the recent election was not without merit. Its manifesto was contained forward-thinking ideas on the imperative for a green new deal, regulation of long working hours, and giving universal access to broadband to stimulate an innovation economy. Yet by and large, the party was not trusted to manage the economy. Voters feared that a Labour government would spend and borrow too much, leading to higher taxes and escalating public debt that damaged their personal prosperity and living standards. The proposal to nationalise large swathes of the utilities sector from the water industry to the railways gave the impression that Labour desired a major extension of government’s role in the economy which alienated traditional voters.

However, the more fundamental reason for defeat was the long-term rupture within the social democratic constituency created by mass migration and divisions over European integration. Economic questions always raised difficulties for the centre-left, not least because managing the capitalist economy proved to be a tortuous process of compromise. Since the early twentieth century, social democrats sought to radically reform markets, but at the same time relied on the tax revenues generated by capitalist enterprise to fund the welfare state. Yet despite the difficulties, the Left generally felt more comfortable debating economic issues, the legacy of its Marxist inheritance. Culture, diversity, and identity were less familiar themes that discombobulated social democracy. In recent decades, centre-left parties naturally cleaved towards a more social liberal outlook. In so doing, they risked alienating their working-class electoral support.

In the UK as elsewhere, the political base of social democracy is badly divided. The fault-line within the electorate strikes at the heart of the European social democratic project. Centre-left parties advanced towards power and entered government in the twentieth century by building electoral coalitions that united the industrial working-class with the professional, property-owning middle-classes. In Britain, Labour won decisive majorities in 1945, 1964-66, and 1997 by building that dynamic alliance of classes across society. Since that time, questions of identity and culture emanating in particular from mass migration have severely undermined the progressive coalition. It has proved extremely difficult to find a political style and governing agenda that reassures working-class communitarian voters while appealing to the cosmopolitan, pro-European sentiments of the middle-classes.

That failure goes to the heart of the decline of support for centre-left parties over the last twenty years. Some commentators believed the shift to the Left on economic issues that occurred under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership might offer socialists in Europe a new formula for electoral success. Working-class voters would embrace Labour’s commitment to the traditional welfare state. Young middle-class voters leading precarious working lives welcomed the critique of capitalism and the commitment to post-materialist concerns, particularly the environment. Yet the 2019 election does not indicate Labour is able to translate that nascent Leftist programme into a viable parliamentary majority.

Not only in Britain but across western Europe, centre-left parties are operating in a political climate where the politics of identity increasingly trump the politics of class. Party leaders are searching for political strategies enabling them to reconcile the ‘materialist’ anxieties of working class voters; the aspirant middle’s focus on personal prosperity and living standards; alongside the ‘post-materialist’ discontents of the educated middle class concerned with the environment, quality of life, civil liberties. To build that coalition, the political scientist Anne Wren posits that centre-left parties should embrace relatively high income working women and parents who favour government intervention and regulation to make the economy better suited to the needs of working families.

The task ahead for social democrats is to devise a conception of politics that reconciles the interests and outlook of those who fear economic change and openness with those who embrace global economic integration, thus tapping into the potential for new alliances across class and locality. Yet to mobilise such a coalition, centre-left parties cannot focus on economic issues alone. They have to be capable of speaking to voters’ concerns about identity and belonging in an era where global liberal cosmopolitanism has appeared impervious to new insecurities. Social democrats should not abandon the liberal tradition of democracy, freedom and individual rights which is integral to centre-left politics. But they need to reimagine the liberal tradition so it can connect with those most hostile to economic and cultural change, while more effectively confronting the populist forces threatening to sweep the western world.