Labour faces many of the same challenges as Europe’s centre left – and some that are all of its own

The party is peculiarly contaminated by the legacy of abandoning its Leave voters and by a leader many voters considered morally beyond the pale. 

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 An electorally viable Labour Party has first to understand its defeats over the past decade. This is a far from straightforward exercise because it shares predicaments with other European centre-left parties, while other problems are sui generis. 

There often appears one overriding electoral problem for most old, social European parties. The political bonds once shared between the industrial working class and middle-class public-sector professionals and the intelligentsia have snapped, and where new coalitions have emerged, they are rarely large enough to win elections. Labour’s electoral difficulty is much less dramatic than that of some of its sister parties, not least the French Socialists. But over two decades Labour has lost many working-class voters to the Conservatives and to insurgent parties on the right, and it has perhaps terminally collapsed in Scotland. 

Of course, Labour is still protected by Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. In competing for metropolitan voters in England, it has only a battered rival in the Liberal Democrats. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD), by contrast, is up against the Greens, and Dutch Labour faces both a green party and the socially liberal and pro-environmental D66. And Labour would still profit directly from a Conservative Party crisis, while the German SPD would not necessarily benefit in the same way if the Christian Democrats came apart. 

Labour has other relative strengths. It does better with ethnic minority voters than the SPD, which has been losing Turkish Germans, or the Dutch Labour Party, from which two Dutch Muslim MPs formed a breakaway party in 2015. Unlike the SPD, which is largely dependent on older voters, Labour wins easily among the young. An attempt to split the Labour Party – as Emmanuel Macron did the French Socialists and Matteo Renzi the Italian Democrats – has already failed.

Beyond demographics, Labour’s political experiences of recent decades have differed from those elsewhere. After French president François Mitterrand’s economic U-turn in 1983, European centre-left parties, including Labour, came to accept that the foreign exchange markets imposed sharp constraints on macroeconomic policy choices. For a while, the more economically disciplined they became, the more politically successful they were. 

But after monetary union began in 1999, those inside the eurozone faced harder economic choices than Labour, and earlier voter discontent. The SPD presided over the labour market and welfare reforms deemed necessary to restore German export competitiveness, and is still being punished for it. The French Socialist candidate for president failed to make the final round in 2002. In Italy the Olive Tree coalition lost in 2001 to a rejuvenated Silvio Berlusconi, who effectively promised to ignore the EU Stability and Growth Pact’s fiscal rules. 

Equipped with greater macroeconomic flexibility, New Labour survived in office longer. But, paradoxically, that very economic discretion landed Labour with a problem other centre-left parties lacked: a reputation for fiscal fecklessness. 

This is in part why Labour’s post-2010 electoral performance has been a more straightforward failure, especially in the first half of the decade, when the French and Italian centre left both won national elections. Once bond-market pressures abated from 2014, the freedom to again promise higher public expenditure offered Labour a way to reinvent itself for the 2017 election. A centre-left politics that could use extraordinarily easy credit conditions to promise rewards to a coalition of students, public sector workers, welfare state recipients and parents pressurised by childcare costs, as well as to finance green investment, seemed to have a formula to compete seriously in elections. 

But for all the envy Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party attracted in 2017, economic radicalism enabled by euro non-membership has proven a dead end. The belief that a free-spending politics was possible created the conditions for Corbyn becoming leader, without too much regard for the liabilities that came with it. Then, after the 2017 election, a faith that fiscal munificence would retain Labour Leave voters despite their support for Brexit was crucial to the assumption that it could afford to become a party of Remain. 

Instead of a singular recovery, Labour is peculiarly contaminated by the legacy of abandoning its Leave voters and by a leader many voters considered morally beyond the pale. At least one of Corbyn and Brexit – and probably both – did severe damage to what had been Labour’s best long-term prospect: its appeal to younger voters. (Between the 2017 and 2019 elections, the crossover age when voters became likelier to vote Conservative fell from 47 to 39.)

If Labour’s most useful long-term strength has been diluted, its long-standing weakness over immigration has been amplified by Brexit. Immigration policy towards the EU will now be contested in electoral politics. EU centre-left parties struggle with the politics of non-EU migration. Labour, by contrast, will have to decide whether to support ongoing freedom of movement into Britain for EU citizens and thus demarcate the EU as different from the rest of the world. With difficult choices to make, Labour won’t just struggle to win back old voters. On an issue that has already done much damage to the old social democratic coalitions, it will have to navigate much more complex immigration dilemmas than other European centre-left parties. It alone has both a fracturing support base and the problems born from Britain’s singular journey through EU membership.

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose

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