The Problem with the Labour Party

by Benjamin Studebaker

On the 12th, the British Labour Party suffered a devastating electoral defeat at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. There have been lots of pieces about why Labour lost. Having taken the better part of a week to think about it, I’ve come to a view about where the trouble lies. Let me share it with you.

As I see it, the Labour Party contains three core elements:

  1. The 70s Labour Party, which mainly consists of working class people and trade unionists. These people mainly voted to leave the EU, and they are concentrated in Northern England.
  2. The 90s Labour Party, which mainly consists of older professional class people who remain loyal to New Labour. These people supported Tony Blair, the Milibands, and Owen Smith. They voted mainly to remain in the EU, and they are widely distributed throughout Southern England. Many of them live in places the Labour Party typically doesn’t win. Most are boomers or members of Generation X.
  3. The 20s Labour Party, which mainly consists of younger professional class people who are hostile to New Labour but also deeply committed to remaining part of the EU. These people live mainly in London and in and around Britain’s universities. They are largely Millennials and Zoomers, and they are very woke.

Each of these three parts of the Labour Party hates the other two parts:

No Labour leader can enjoy the support of all three parts. To lead the Labour Party, you need to get two of them to gang up on the third. Jeremy Corbyn attempted to secure the support of 70s Labour and 20s Labour at the same time, trying to pit both of these groups against 90s Labour. For Corbyn, 90s Labour aided and abetted the Conservative Party in moving Britain to the right. He attempted to position himself as the antidote to this, promising to defend both the workers in the North who have been left behind for decades and young professionals who increasingly feel denied the same opportunities their parents were afforded.

The trouble is that there are big differences between 70s Labour and 20s Labour. 70s Labour consists of less educated people from working class backgrounds. It’s older, and it has been in a position of increasing economic precarity for a long time. This long exile has made 70s Labour deeply mistrustful of establishment institutions, and those include the institutions of the European Union. 70s Labour remains nostalgic for a time when Britain’s economic policy could not be so easily shaped by foreign technocrats and transnational corporations. It knows that these institutions don’t care about workers, and it is anxious to be rid of them.

20s Labour consists of highly educated people from professional class backgrounds. It’s younger, and it is only just now being subjected to the economic malaise that has long afflicted the workers in the North. 20s Labour is more cosmopolitan and metropolitan. It recognises some problems with European institutions, but largely wants to reshape those institutions rather than abandon them.

For 70s Labour, 20s Labour’s faith in the ability of European institutions to be revitalised is misplaced. For 20s Labour, 70s Labour’s hostility to European institutions is indicative of nationalism, racism, and other deplorable sentiments. 70s Labour’s confidence in institutions is utterly shattered. 20s Labour grew up with professional class parents who loved Tony Blair. Its resentment is only just beginning to develop, and it is still far more comfortable with the establishment and its associated institutions.

Corbyn really struggled to keep 70s Labour and 20s Labour together. If he drew too close to 20s Labour–making the party too remainer and too woke–he risked losing the backing of 70s Labour. This would cost Labour seats in the North. If he drew too close to 70s Labour–making the party too Lexit and too nationalist–he risked losing the backing of 20s Labour. This would cost Labour seats in the South.

If either segment defected, Corbyn risked not just defeat in a general election, but loss of the Labour leadership. If Corbyn lost the leadership, it remained possible that someone from 90s Labour would take it from him, and Corbyn considered 90s Labour to be completely unacceptable. So he tried to split the difference, sailing the Labour ship between Scylla and Charybdis.

Image result for scylla and charybdis

This didn’t work, and now the supporters of both 70s Labour and 20s Labour claim that everything would have worked out great if Corbyn has stuck with them and ditched the other guys. In neither case is this true. If Labour had been more straightforwardly for remain earlier in the election, it would have reduced the Liberal Democrats’ vote share, but at the cost of losing many more seats in the North. If Labour had been more straightforwardly for leave earlier in the election, it would have reduced its Northern losses, but the Liberal Democrats would have won a very competitive share of the vote in the South, depriving Labour of many of this seats in London and in university towns. What’s more, it probably would have cost Corbyn the leadership–two of the three groups are for remain, and Corbyn likely would have lost control of the party to a remainer like Keir Starmer or David Lammy.

This was a lose-lose situation. The new Labour leader will have to make hard choices about how to reconstruct a coalition within the Labour Party. There are six theoretically possible outcomes:

  1. 20s Labour could attempt to ditch 70s Labour outright. But this would shrink Labour’s base, depriving it of its Northern seats and rendering it impotent. 20s Labour isn’t big enough to do this, at least at this stage.
  2. 70s Labour could attempt to ditch 20s Labour outright. But it simply doesn’t have the numbers to do this–most of the Labour Party is too professional class and too remainer for a return to a straightforwardly Bennite Party.
  3. 90s Labour could attempt to exploit the disunity between 70s Labour and 20s Labour to retake the party. But it would have a hard time generating much enthusiasm on the ground.
  4. Now that Brexit is decided, 70s Labour and 20s Labour could attempt to reconstitute their alliance and try once more to work together. This is what Rebecca Long-Bailey appears to be attempting to do.
  5. There could be an attempt to go back to the pre-Corbyn Labour Party, forming an alliance between 70s Labour and 90s Labour. But these forces are ageing, and a Labour Party which excludes 20s Labour would struggle to inspire young people to do the hard work of campaigning.
  6. Alternatively, 90s Labour and 20s Labour could enter into a new alliance, in which the centrist economic policies of 90s Labour are given a woke veneer. This would reunite the parents with the children. In the process, it would sever the party’s ties to the working class completely.

This last option looks most plausible to me, politically. The differences between 90s Labour and 20s Labour are relatively small. Both consist of professional class people, albeit people of different generations. Economic policy is complicated, and the alliance against the economic centrism of 90s Labour always rested on a level of economic consciousness that is difficult to sustain outside periods of acute economic crisis. It is far easier to form alliances around highly visible cultural issues.

This kind of Labour Party will continue losing ground in the North, but it will justify that to itself on the grounds that the workers in the North are too deplorable to defend. It will gradually morph into something like the American Democratic Party–an alliance of urban professionals, students, and people of colour. Workers, who lack the education and cultural capital to speak persuasively in elite university spaces, will cease to play a meaningful role. But the party will go on maintaining that it is a workers’ party, even as this becomes blatantly false. Cast adrift, this rump labour movement will fall in behind Boris Johnson, in the same way that many American workers from the flyover states have become part of Trump’s vanguard.

The alternative–some continuation of the Corbyn alliance between the very old Labour Party and the very new Labour Party–would continue to be strained by contradictions of class, culture, and age cohort. It can only sustain itself if economic solidarity between blue collar and white collar workers triumphs over the cultural divisions that so often drive these groups apart politically. This alliance wasn’t strong enough to put Corbyn in Number 10, and I doubt it can hold for much longer. Once Labour becomes a professional class party, there will be no more political parties in the UK that are committed in any thick way to the interests of workers, and the left will once again fade away.

Is there anything else that could be tried? At one point, Labour might have pushed for a pan-European coalition of left parties to reconstruct the EU along democratic socialist lines. That kind of strategy would have kept the party oriented toward Europe while making it very clear that it recognises the legitimate grievances of 70s Labour and intends to do something serious about them. But I fear the opportunity for such things is long past. With a strong majority, Boris Johnson will take Britain out of the EU. Once out, it will be very hard to get back in, and very easy for Johnson to strike up a trade agreement with the United States. That agreement will drag Britain to the right, transforming British society in deep and fundamental ways. Once that happens, there will be no going back.

If the left has a future, it will find it elsewhere.