The dozen reasons for Labour’s decline

Published by The ipaper (8th May, 2017)

On Friday morning I received a text from a Syrian friend who just moved to London and takes strong interest in politics. ’Baffled,’ he wrote, as results came in from election counts. ‘Please school me in local politics. What is the Conservative argument so compelling as to have the majority of the country vote in their favour? There seem so many things that are important to so many people in the Labour argument.’

It is a good question, especially as Tories look set for landslide general election triumph after their blue tide washed across Britain from Wales to the West Midlands last week. Yet it is only two decades since Tony Blair swept to power, even winning a strong majority in 2005 after the Iraq War calamity. So here are a dozen reasons why the Labour Party is dissolving before our eyes.

Jeremy Corbyn is the worst leader of a mainstream party in my lifetime: shallow and selfish, impressive only for his skill at fusing his unloved form of hard-left Socialism with breathtaking incompetence. But for all his many faults, it is too easy just to blame him.

His team seems to be loyally striving to make their leader look good. The shadow cabinet has felt in permanent revolution with endless resignations. The two characters most seen by voters are shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a reptilian figure loathed even on his own side, and shadow home secretary Diana Abbott, who just proved again she is not fit to run a parish council let alone oversee national security.

The moderates are little better. They have engaged in low-level civil war yet some were foolish enough to help Corbyn win the leadership. Never forget he was nominated as a silly stunt by the likes of Margaret Beckett, Jon Cruddas, Frank Field and Sadiq Khan. Now moderates moan endlessly but fail to offer real alternatives or develop coherent arguments beyond occasional muttering about migration.

The party appears to the public to be only interested in internal struggles. It took the Tories three failed leaders during the days of New Labour dominance before they realised floating votes were found in the centre, not their comfort zone. Labour drifts ever left, oblivious to the polls and a plight far more profound than that faced by the Tories.

The policies are largely non-existent beyond bashing the rich and spending more money, often several times over from fictitious revenues. This takes voters for mugs. Even popular policies such as rail nationalisation simply highlight stifling conservatism and pessimism. The party is losing its lead even on running the health service. Besides, does anyone really know what Labour stands for today beyond spend, spend, spend?

The Scottish referendum showed Labour took core voters for granted, then they looked irrelevant as politics was realigned by nationalism. Now it is outflanked by a pair of fleet-footed rival leaders, one pushing independence at every step and the other defending unionism with a smile. Labour muddled through a middle course and ended in a morass. So its former fiefdom is controlled by the SNP with Tories resurgent even in deprived parts of Glasgow and Paisley.

The Brexit referendum was another huge nail in Labour’s coffin. Blame David Cameron for calling the vote but Corbyn for the calamity of losing. He offered minimalist resistance to divisive nationalism, raising doubts about his own beliefs and integrity. Since the vote Labour has been bereft of anything to say on the key issue of our age, betraying voters and leaving Liberal Democrats as effective voice of opposition.

The rise and fall of Ukip is disastrous for Labour. YouGov found more than one-third of voters who went from Labour in 2010 to Ukip in 2015 switching to the Tories – and less than one in ten returning to the red flag. Wales shows how use of Ukip as a ‘gateway drug’ for voters turning blue is especially problematical in some parts.

Political disruption challenges established parties across the West. Tribal loyalties are dissolving, deference declining, trust falling in institutions and social media creating new networks. We have moved from an era of class and capitalism to one of openness versus isolationism. Labour proves those failing to adapt to fickle electorates shrivel as new forces compete for votes. There is no iron law dictating survival, regardless of a party’s history.

The Tories are ruthless when it comes to survival. First they shifted left under Cameron to woo liberal cosmopolitans, now they move rapidly right to destroy Ukip. They work on weak spots – currently wooing ethnic minority and ‘just about managing’ voters – and thus ended up dominant despite a stumbling economy and creaking public services.

The big divide facing Labour is existential: should it appeal to young and middle-class supporters in metropolitan areas who are comfortable with modernity or those uncertain about globalisation in traditional industrial heartlands? The party has sought to appease both fronts since the re-eruption of nationalism but failed to satisfy either while looking dated and confused.

The left’s meltdown is evident across Europe. Some thought the 2008 financial crisis would boost social democracy. But it has done the opposite, for many complex reasons from technological change through to decline of heavy industry, surge in populism and rise of identity politics. The left’s share of the vote has crashed across the continent, in some place to lows not seen for decades, as it struggles to forge new appeal in turbulent times. Labour’s plunge in the polls is just one glaring example of a wider issue haunting the left.

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