LABOUR dead rose

James Steel is a pseudonym. He is Head of Politics in a London school, a published novelist and teaches at Oxford University.

The Labour party faces a perfect storm of hard tactical factors and soft cultural issues that will lock it out of power in the UK for good.

Lyndon Johnson once said that the first rule of politics is that its practitioners must be able to count, and Labour’s position in terms of hard parliamentary arithmetic is poor.

The party is currently on 232 seats, ninety short of a functional majority of 323. Britain seems recently to have moved to a fragmented six party system which limits the number of seats available to the two main parties to form majorities.

Labour has permanently lost forty seats to the SNP, so this means it can never win this war and form a majority government on its own.

This weakness then leads to a second tactical problem.

In order to get a majority Labour will require SNP support, the prospect of which will always drive English voters into the arms of the Conservatives; denying Labour the hundred or so key Tory-Labour marginals that it needs to win.

This deficit in seats will be made worse after the boundary review that the Tories will push through in 2018. Estimates vary but the Conservatives will gain between twenty to forty seats as a result.

In the era of tight electoral maths, this will make a huge difference and push Labour to fewer than two hundred seats.

Apart from these issues Labour also faces a positioning problem. It has to fight three opponents: the SNP in Scotland, UKIP in the north and the Tories in southern England. It cannot be all things to all people and square this circle.

This issue was highlighted in the general election, where it was punished for not being left wing enough in Scotland but too left wing in England. Corbyn’s election as leader will not solve this either, as Scotland’s move to the SNP was about nationalism, not austerity, and the white working class voters who defected to UKIP will not be won back by his pro-immigrant stance.

Labour was in trouble even before it elected Corbyn, but now that he is in it is clearly not a credible party of government: it has a leader who aspires to lead the nation but refuses to sing its national anthem, a Shadow Chancellor who is on record as wanting to overthrow capitalism, and a Trident policy in which the party wants a nuclear arsenal but the leader refuses to use it.

In his conference speech Corbyn failed to mention the election defeat, the deficit or immigration, showing how he is more interested in being the leader of a self-indulgent protest movement rather than a government.

Apart from these shortcomings, Labour now also faces a looming civil war. Although the party managed a superficial show of unity in Brighton this is clearly a phoney war, and behind the scenes both sides are arming themselves for the inevitable outbreak of open conflict.

Len McCluskey talks of his ‘little list’ of people he would like to get rid of, and the moderate ‘resistance’ under Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna is gathering in groupings like Labour First and Common Ground.

This struggle will be worse than the Bennite battles of the early Eighties as the left now control the party, and will take years to root out. Most people don’t care to know much about politics, but they do know that they won’t vote for a party at war with itself.

Will the recent Corbyn-inspired surge in Labour membership save the party? After all, with around half a million supporters Labour now has more members than all the other political parties put together.

However this won’t help the party because the rise in Labour’s numbers is accompanied by a commensurate fall in its electability, as the new supporters are so far to the left of the British mainstream.

There are also a number of long-term economic factors that mean that Labour is no longer relevant in modern society.

Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC, pointed out in his book ‘When the Money Runs Out’ that the West has an ageing population but no longer has the high economic growth rates that previously sustained its superior standards of living.

Our halcyon days have gone, and we are going to have to get used to doing more with less. In such a situation politics merely becomes a process of managing disappointment and austerity is permanent.

Given this, one has to ask the question: if it cannot spend money then what is a social democratic party for?

Around Europe the Left has generally fared poorly since the crash in 2008, because although people want their politicians to be compassionate they prefer them to be smart economic managers. The main issue that is contended between the Tories and Labour is competence versus compassion, ie head vs heart, and the British electorate clearly favours hard-headed Tories.

In trying to win back this reputation for economic competence, New Labour came across as Tory-lite and this hollowed-out, technocratic vision understandably failed to inspire the electorate or the party membership.

Under Corbyn though the situation has worsened, as the party has retreated into its comfort zone and started thinking with its heart.

Finally there are long term cultural factors that have moved against social democratic parties across the western world.

Their basic social model is broken: the old industrial class united in solidarity has gone and been replaced by individualist consumers. In the current post-Thatcherite consensus, market individualism is the dominant force in our society. Why is this?

Apart from the collapse of heavy industry, people no longer look to the state for their salvation because it is much weaker than it was in the past. Unlike in the 1970s, the state no longer runs a quarter of the economy or sets interest rates, and most people understand that globalisation is far more powerful than national governments.

This marketisation of society is such that brands and products are much more meaningful to ordinary people than the government.

It is much more important to ask someone what their mobile phone is like, whether their supermarket is any good, or which cable provider do they prefer, than to ask them if they believe that the state can solve their problems.

By contrast to the travails of Labour, the Tories have been able to maintain a core group of supporters: only 37 per cent of the electorate, but just enough to give them a plurality of the vote which the first-past-the-post system then magnifies into a narrow parliamentary majority.

Having said all of this, the British electorate does not love the Tories and they still have plenty of time to tear themselves apart over Europe – or some other black swan event may arise to derail them.

However, this article is not written out of Tory triumphalism or any sense of tribal gloating at Labour’s problems. In the process of writing an academic summary of the current situation I came across a series of observations that, I believe, taken as a whole, make it all but impossible for Labour to ever gain power in the UK again.

The collapse will not be as dramatic as the Irish Nationalists’ elimination in 1918 or as total as the Liberal party’s strange death in the 1920s, but Labour will effectively be reduced to the status of a powerless onlooker in the House of Commons.

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