Until last week in the U.K., it was possible for Labour Party optimists to attribute their recent failings to two quirks of recent political history: Brexit had put traditional party loyalties on hold, helping to deliver Boris Johnson a parliamentary majority in late 2019; and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an ineffectual creature of the far Left, had proved to be electoral kryptonite. With Britain out of the EU and Corbyn out of the picture, Labour could start its long march back to power. That argument is no longer tenable. A slew of elections last Thursday suggests that Labour’s problems are not circumstantial but structural—even existential.
By-elections have generally been a chance for British voters to punish governing parties. Not so with Johnson’s Conservatives. Hartlepool, a traditionally Labour seat in the northeast of England, flipped from red (Labour) to blue (Conservative). Four years ago, Labour enjoyed a comfortable 7,650-vote majority in this constituency. In 2019, that gap was halved. Last week, it was wiped out altogether, with a mammoth 23-point swing to the Conservatives. Labour underperformed expectations elsewhere, failing to make the sort of gains in local council elections that they would have hoped as the Conservatives pass 11 years in office. In London, it was assumed that the Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, would cruise to victory; he won reelection, but the race was far closer than expected.
The results confirm Britain’s ongoing political realignment. Tories are trading away affluent voters in the South’s home counties and London’s leafy exurbs, while knocking bricks out of the “Red Wall” of traditionally Labour seats that once stretched across the North. (Sometimes, the collapsing Red Wall has become a caricature: a landscape of post-industrial misery and angry “left behind” voters latching onto Brexit and the party that delivered it. Conservative support in these areas is less hardscrabble than the stereotype would suggest: as a recent Economist article argued, part of the Tories’ success in these low-wage, low-productivity parts of the country owes to newly built suburban housing.) This is not a trade that seems likely to win Labour a parliamentary majority. The Conservative coalition is expanding; Labour’s is shrinking. And Labour leader Keir Starmer—a former chief prosecutor who has taken a moderate, center-left approach in his first year in the job—doesn’t know what to do about it.
While Brexit certainly turbocharged the realignment, another engine has been the simple passage of time. Yes, Johnson leaned into the shift with a big-spending agenda designed to “rebalance” the U.K. economy away from London. But many of the Red Wall seats that he won in 2019 are located in places hit hard by the deindustrialization of the 1980s. Conservatives received blame for the hardship that followed, so the party underperformed in those seats compared with demographically similar constituencies in other parts of the country. Now, memories of Margaret Thatcher’s bitter battles with organized labor are fading, old wounds are healing—and the Tories are benefiting.
Meantime, Labour languishes. Party optimists could try and cheer themselves up by again focusing on the circumstantial: Johnson’s mysterious but undeniable electoral potency, for example, or the strikingly successful vaccine rollout. But such excuse-making would ignore the challenges that the Conservatives overcame: a series of sleaze-and-corruption stories and the government’s bungling of the early phase of the pandemic. In any case, Starmer faces criticism from all sides. Radicals gloat that Corbyn and his far-left agenda actually were not the problem two years ago. Moderates accuse Labour of insufficient patriotism and excessive wokeness—taking a knee while the Conservatives unapologetically hug the flag. Both sides agree that the leader has failed to establish himself and what he stands for in the minds of voters.
Labour’s problems mirror the plight of social-democratic parties across Europe. In Greece, the center-left Pasok slid into irrelevance after the sovereign debt crisis. In France, the Socialist Party has been eclipsed by alumnus Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche and polls behind the far-left La France Insoumise. In Germany, the Greens appear poised to outshine the SPD in upcoming elections. Across Europe, the continued survival of established left-wing parties that were born out of industrial-era labor movements is far from inevitable.
The Conservative Party’s electoral acumen adds to these political-economy headwinds. Only one Labour leader not named Tony Blair has won an election in the last 50 years: Harold Wilson, in 1974. The Tories are one of the most successful political parties in the world because they rarely lose sight of the basic fact that you can’t get anything done in opposition. They hoover up popular ideas with unsentimental efficiency and reap the rewards at the ballot box. Boris Johnson’s winning formula has been to tack to the left economically and to the right culturally. As the Conservatives have reinvented themselves in power, Labour is struggling to do so in opposition.
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