What's wrong with the Labour Party?
Local elections in England last week did not go well
The Labour Party in England had another bad night last week as they lost ground in local elections that took place across much of the country.1 Like U.S. midterms, the party out of power usually gains seats in local elections and the party in power (in this case the Tories) are hoping to tread water. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Tories gained 235 council seats (out of about 4,500 up for election) while Labour lost 326 seats, with the rest going primarily to the Greens, who picked up 88 seats to more than double their representation on these councils.
Labour also lost a by-election (what we would call a special election) in Hartlepool for a seat they had last won by nine points. The Tories picked up the seat by a shocking twenty-three point margin, outpacing pre-election expectations that had already assumed that Labour would lose the seat.2
Suffice it to say, this is not where the Labour Party would want to be after 11 years out of power. The party has a lot of issues, and I’m going to break those down into short-term problems on one hand and structural issues on the other. But it does have some positives it can build on and we’ll look at those at the end.
Labour’s short-term problem: Tories beating them at politics
Labour is facing a popular incumbent party who just executed a successful vaccine rollout that will help end the year-plus pandemic. That’s tough for any opposition party to fight against. There’s a reason the Tories did well in England, Labour did well in Wales, and the Scottish National Party did well in Scotland. They’re the incumbents and they’ve collectively done really well vaccinating their populations, particularly compared to the rest of Europe. Now the good news for Labour is that voters have short memories and I doubt this will matter much by the time next year’s local elections come around, much less in 2024 when the next general election is scheduled.
But beyond this, the Labour Party is kind of a mess. It’s still divided by Corbyn supporters on the left and New Labour centrists on the right who loathe each other and look for any excuse to blame any problem on the other side. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader who replaced Corbyn, has been aggressively mediocre since taking over and hasn’t put out a clear stake as to what Labour stands for. In fairness to him, he’s never had the job outside of the pandemic, but the party’s cabinet reshuffle after last week’s losses was disastrous and didn’t inspire confidence.
All of this is fixable. A well-timed government scandal or recessions can do wonders for any opposition party’s standing. The Tories’ Brexit deal that hung Northern Ireland out to dry has become a real problem. But right now, Labour is hoping that the Tories mess up, because they don’t seem to have any answers of their own.
Labour’s structural problem: Too many parties on the left
Structural factors can impact elections just as much as parties and leaders who become more or less popular over time. The U.K. uses the first-past-the-post system like the U.S., so voters are incentivized to form two large parties on the left and right to maximize their chances of winning. During the 20th century, that resulted in the Tories on the right, Labour on the left, and the Liberal Democrats as a sort of centrist third option that never did all that well. Since then, the right has become as consolidated as it’s ever been while the left is as divided as it’s ever been.
The rise and fall of the right-wing UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) and Brexit Party were at times huge headaches for the Tories during the 2010s. They took a lot of votes from the Tories, but they also won a lot of votes of culturally conservative Labour voters. By delivering on Brexit and downplaying a lot of historic Tory economic policy, Johnson has managed to win a lot of these voters over. The Hartlepool seat is an example of a formerly Labour heartland seat in the north of England that voted heavily for UKIP then heavily for the Brexit Party, before finally consolidating those votes behind the Tories last week.
At the same time, the left is as divided as it’s ever been, even without all the intra-Labour fighting. The Greens had their best local elections in England while the SNP continue to largely lock Labour out of its traditional base in Scotland by combining center-left policy stances with a drive for independence. And the Liberal Democrats are increasingly more of a center-left party than a centrist party as politics in the U.K. turn more on a cultural axis than an economic one.3
Without even considering Scotland, it’s very difficult to imagine Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens all sustaining themselves in England without giving the Tories a massive advantage. Some sort of electoral alliance between the three where they don’t all contest all the seats would go a long way towards fixing this (the Liberal and National Parties do this in Australia, as do the CDU and the CSU in Germany), but the Labour and Lib Dem party faithful hate this idea. Labour can often squeeze the vote of the other left-of-center parties during general elections but that strategy still leaves many votes on the table.
Labour’s opportunity: The southern shift
From 1992 through 2018, Congressional Democrats were stuck in a cycle. Democrats could win an election or even a couple of elections (1992, 2006-2008, 2012) but as soon as that victory wore off, they were faced with having to defend tons of rural and southern seats that were drifting further and further from the party This resulted in massive losses for the party in 1994, 2010, and 2014. Only once they had run out of seats like this (barring a Joe Manchin) did the cycle end. Individual members in individual election years could stave off defeat, but the losses came for every white, rural or working-class Democratic seat eventually.
Labour is in the midst of the same cycle. The party’s traditional base has been London and the industrial north of England, along with Wales and Scotland. The future of the Labour Party are in the cities and suburbs across the island, just like every other center-left party for the foreseeable future. It’s not in working-class seats with few college-educated voters, no matter how many retired union members live there.
A lot of the Labour Party faithful don’t want to admit this, just like a lot of Democrats didn’t want to in the 2000s and 2010s.4 It feels like giving up, like abandoning those MPs who are still hanging on. These areas have the very people many Labour activists and elected officials got into politics to help. But no one can control the ways in which western culture and society has changed or the way it’s affected politics across the English-speaking world. The job of the Labour Party is to take power and they’re probably not going to do that through seats like Hartlepool.
Now, finally, the good news. In 2018, we saw Democrats win in suburban seats they had not seriously competed in for decades. The Republican party gradually became more white, working-class and rural and the tension was too much for well-to-do, college-educated suburbanites that no longer saw themselves in the modern GOP. The same thing is happening in England.
In 2017, Labour picked up Portsmouth South (a small city on the southern coast) and Canterbury (a university town), places that hadn’t ever had a Labour MP despite over 100 years of trying. In 2019, a truly terrible election for Labor, the party won Putney, an well-to-do inner-suburban of London, which in the past 45 years had only previously been won in the landslides of 1997 and 2001.5
Even this year, Labour saw gains in parts of the traditionally Tory south.
The traditional Labour strongholds in the cities will stay and they’ll be joined by suburban and commuter towns and other small cities that have been historically Tory. As of right now, it doesn’t seem terribly likely that it will happen in 2024, but it will happen eventually. Places like Chipping Barnet will continue to move towards Labour while many suburban swing seats won by Labour in 2017 and the Tories in 2019 will continue to swing back and forth. Labour can win again, and they will, but it won’t be the way they won in the past.
Also, it would help if the party could get its act together.
The elections were for seats that were last up in 2016 or 2017 since the 2020 local elections were cancelled due to the pandemic, so it was a larger than average local election cycle.
The absence of the Brexit Party, which contested the seat in 2019 and won 26% of the vote, was a major factor in the large margin shift but the Labour vote still went from 38% in 2019 to 29% last week.
The Liberal Democrats have also never recovered from having most of their right-leaning seats wiped out by the Tories in 2015 in the wake of the Tory/LD coalition government.,
Ironically, the Corbyn left argues that only their policy stances will save these seats while the New Labour right argues that only their policy stances will save these seats, but no one’s interested in arguing that the seats are lost regardless.
Putney was the only Labour pickup in 2019 (out of 650 seats) and they won it by 10 points.