The politics of 2016 may have been frenetic but now an uneasy calm has descended on the Labour party. The Corbynite left has won the big internal battles but it seems to have no roadmap for winning back lost voters. The rest of the parliamentary party is barely audible: in place of the sound and fury of Jeremy Corbyn’s first 12 months, there is quietude, passivity and resignation. And on Brexit, the greatest political question for two generations, the party’s position is muffled and inconsistent. This is the calm of stalemate, of insignificance – or is it looming death?
Labour remains strong in urban pockets but is faring very badly in by-elections. If the opinion polls are any guide, it could soon cease to be a nationally competitive political force. In Scotland there is no sign of recovery. And in England and Wales the party is only matching the level it achieved at the 2010 election, even though mid-term polls normally favour Labour oppositions. Even if the party’s numbers sink no further, at the next election it is on course to win fewer than 200 seats for the first time since 1935, as a new Fabian analysis reveals today.
Labour politicians need to do more to understand the nature of the threat. MPs in the British equivalent of America’s “rust belt” talk up the risk of UKIP. But Paul Nuttall will struggle to make inroads, as Labour majorities are mainly large where UKIP is a force. And whatever MPs’ local anxieties, since 2010 UKIP has actually gained relatively few votes directly from Labour and is now losing supporters to the Conservatives. The real threat in marginal seats is that former Labour supporters will scatter in all directions, while the Tories reach out to everyone who voted Leave. Theresa May’s simple electoral strategy is to be the party of Brexit and it is paying dividends.
The Conservatives won’t mind that they are also losing some “remain” voters but for Labour there are no easy choices. The Tories and UKIP may be chasing Labour’s two million Brexit voters but the Liberal Democrats now have their sights on the party’s five million remainers and, in the recent by-elections, they have won plenty over. The Fabian Society’s analysis shows that since the 2015 election Labour has lost more votes to “remain” parties than to the right. So if Labour apes May or Nuttall it could easily do more harm than good.
This dilemma means that Labour cannot allow others to define UK politics as if it were split down the middle by a referendum vote. Scotland has proved where that leads. Labour MPs representing ex-industrial heartlands may feel that the country is severed in two when they see social conservatives at home and liberal urbanites in London. But, in truth, we are not a polarised nation of cosmopolitans and reactionaries. Most people are somewhere in between, and that’s especially the case in marginal constituencies.
To find a way back, Labour must therefore become the party of this cultural “middle”. Tony Blair once tried to own the “centre ground” of the left-right economic axis. Now the party’s goal must be to dominate the centre of the newly dominant social/cultural axis that runs between Blair’s liberal internationalism and Trump’s social authoritarianism. The party must plant its flag midway between these poles and seek to occupy as much space as possible, so that it can rebuild connections with people with all sorts of different backgrounds and worldviews, whatever they did at the referendum. In practice, that means starting with pavement politics in the suburbs and towns where Labour isn’t winning, to show that the party is “from here”, not an unfamiliar somewhere else.
For the time being Labour has no realistic chance of winning an election outright, even if it stages a recovery. To win a majority of one the party will probably need to beat the Tories by a greater margin than it achieved in 2001, such is the scale of its Scottish meltdown. That is a lead of more than three million votes. But depriving the Conservatives of a majority and working in partnership with other parties would be far more achievable. Labour will have to get used to the idea that it may need to work alongside others, in a quasi-federal, multi-party politics. The alternative is permanent Tory rule.
But the Labour party is not going to die, no matter how gloomy some of its supporters may feel. The quirks of the British electoral system create a firebreak. Even if Labour’s vote share plummets, the party will still have far more MPs than any other opposition party and a sufficient parliamentary platform to start to rebuild. That would still be true if UKIP or the Liberal Democrats matched Labour in the popular vote.
It is not a story of victory or death: Labour is too strong to be supplanted by another opposition party; and too weak to have any realistic chance of governing alone. But whether an election comes this year or in 2020, the party must fight for every vote and every marginal seat, because there is a huge difference between winning 150 and 250 MPs. The question now is whether the party can move forward, not back?
A version of this article is published in Stuck: how Labour is too weak to win, and too strong to die which is published by the Fabian Society today