Britain's Labour Party Is Shattered by the Three Cs

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Peter Mandelson, spirit guide to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, blamed the two “C”s for the Labour Party’s shattering defeat in a parliamentary by-election last week: “Covid and Corbyn.”

The opposition party put up a poor showing in important local contests across the country, but the loss of Hartlepool to Boris Johnson’s Tories cut deep. On the doorsteps of the northern English constituency he used to represent, Mandelson claimed that he heard voters praise the Conservative government for its vaccine rollout. They also singled out Labour’s previous hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn — who often appeared to have more affinity with Havana than Hartlepool — as a reason for the party’s lingering unpopularity with working class voters. 

Since 1945 a governing U.K. party has won an opposition seat in mid-term only four times before. Hartlepool, a former steel and shipbuilding town, has only been captured once by a Tory in modern history. It took a war hero to do it: Commander John Kerans, whose ship escaped Mao’s China in 1949 under fire on the Yangtze river. Labour’s choice this time of a pro-European candidate in a constituency that voted 70% for Brexit in 2016 was bizarre.

And yet, we should add a third “C” to Mandelson’s list: cultural conservatism, which is becoming more important than class solidarity in determining party allegiance in Britain.

Labour is being squeezed in a pincer movement by pro-Brexit Tories and leftist nationalist parties from the Celtic nations. This poses an existential threat to the party, whose ideas on identity tend more toward gender and race than sovereignty. While the U.K. is unique, center-left parties face similar problems across Europe, which has seen the cord cut between internationalist, social democratic parties — led by middle class activists — and a hitherto loyal working class bloc vote.

U.S. President Joe Biden avoided this trap. He learned the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s defeat by largely avoiding the cultural politics that would have alienated blue collar voters. Doing this let him unify a broad class coalition.

The West’s old working class has fragmented. The decline of manufacturing employment in Europe (and with it trade union membership in the private sector) has eroded its solidarity. In Britain home ownership — the Tories many years ago gave tenants the right to buy their social housing — means voters have more of a stake in capitalism.

Labour’s members of Parliament are often recruited from the ranks of progressive young graduates, public sector workers and middle class metropolitans, but the working class has stayed small “c” conservative in its cultural assumptions, while retaining a fondness for high public spending. These voters dislike “woke” agendas, support patriotism and fail to show interest in the topics that fascinate London’s elites.

My wife’s family hails from northeast England — where it was said that you could pin a Labour rosette on a donkey and it would be elected. So I know its towns and villages. Some have seen better days, but look more closely and you’ll find places where cheap property prices have created a homeowning base among working class families. Locals no longer go to a Protestant chapel or socialize in a Labour club; many would prefer to have a drink in the pub with Johnson, a clownish caricature of a “toff,” than a humorless internationalist like Corbyn or even his moderate but dour successor, Keir Starmer, an ex-human rights lawyer. 

Brexit saw millions of Labour voters in its old heartlands abandon their allegiance to the party. It was the gateway drug to trying the Tory “hard stuff.” By the time of the 2019 general election these defectors voted in their millions for Johnson’s Conservatives in an unlikely alliance with so-called “Gin and Jaguar” voters from the affluent Tory shires and suburbs.

The Conservatives, the protean party of U.K. power for more than 100 years, saw this change coming. The government has moved left on the economy, denying space to Starmer’s opposition. The Tories have spent billions on pandemic jobs support, splurged money on the National Health Service and promised a “levelling-up” for the North. Newly won Conservative seats are larded with pork-barrel projects. 

In the long run someone will have to pay for this largess, but Johnson is a man who lives for the moment as he bowls through politics at reckless speed. There has been nothing like him in Downing Street since Blair’s popular touch and studied moderation starved the Tories of political oxygen two decades ago. What can Labour stand for now?

North of the English border, the pro-independence Scottish National Party has the answer: patriotism mixed with traditional Labour-style state intervention. Cultural conservatism and identity politics take a different form in Scotland. Bumbling toffs like Johnson aren’t welcome in Glasgow or Edinburgh. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon appeals to an austere Calvinist tradition dating back to the Reformation. Many Scots share her puritanical streak.

The SNP has eviscerated Labour in Scotland, despite a mild rally by the latter in Thursday’s vote. Even in better times it was almost impossible for Labour to command a majority in the U.K. parliament based on the support of its English contingent of MPs. Scores of Scottish Labour MPs used to tip the balance. True, the party holds on grimly in Wales, another old heartland, but even there Unionist Tories and local Welsh nationalists threaten its future.

Now Starmer promises a fundamental review of both policies and personnel. But another nightmare beckons: Were the SNP to win a future referendum on Scottish independence on the back of its strong election showing, Labour would be left in a Tory England, with only the comfort of its big city strongholds to fall back on.

So the subject Labour’s embattled leader needs to embrace is securing the future of the United Kingdom by tackling an emboldened Sturgeon. That means making common cause with Johnson on an issue that channels patriotism without chauvinism. Together they could perhaps save a threatened union. It might be the only way to save Starmer, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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