At the conference of February 1900, where the leaders of Britain’s labour movements decided to form a parliamentary party, the main goal was explicitly to provide representation for the country’s working class. Their commitment to creating a party of the working class was so strong that there was fierce debate as to whether non-working men could be permitted to join the party in the first place.
We at the Social Democratic Party, which I have led since 2018, believe that Labour’s founders would be bitterly disappointed at the state of their party today. In our view, Labour has neglected the economic and cultural interests of the people it was supposed to represent for too long, and it is our party’s goal to ensure that those Labour has chosen to ignore are properly heard – especially as the Labour Party heads towards electoral oblivion.
The fact that Labour’s future is collapsing is best shown by how the country’s working class decided to vote in 2019, which saw the Conservatives become more popular with low-income voters than those with high incomes, while Labour found itself becoming just as popular with the wealthy as with the poor.
We don’t need to go far to understand the drivers of this change, as mid-June saw the release of an extensive 2019 election review by Labour Together, the new network of activists from across Labour’s ideological spectrum.
The review casts light on a party suffering a profound crisis of direction and identity. It traces a 60-year story of fading party loyalties, the devastation wrought to Labour heartlands by deindustrialisation, diminishing working class political engagement, and the return of cultural values to the top of the electoral agenda. When combined with the cultural flashpoint of Brexit and the divisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, these long-running factors led to Labour’s devastating rout in its heartlands.
Labour Together’s report candidly admits that for the Labour Party to maintain electoral relevance it has to form a coalition between two camps: a cosmopolitan camp of students, graduates, and liberal-leaning voters in large cities, and a peripheral camp of “traditional Labour voters” in Britain’s former industrial heartlands. With the loss of Scotland to the SNP there’s no flexibility in this strategy, and the review acknowledges that building and maintaining such a diverse voter coalition is the most realistic way forward for the party.
The problem with this strategy is that while the members of Labour’s ideal coalition broadly agree on economics, they are irreconcilable on social and cultural issues. The recent “Mind the Values Gap” report from King’s College London highlights that Labour’s members and MPs, which tend to be drawn from the cosmopolitan camp, are far more socially liberal than even the average Labour voter – never mind the traditional Labour voter.
All of this means that if Labour attempts to appeal to its traditional base through toughening its stances on divisive social issues like crime and immigration, it likely will come at the expense of its cosmopolitan base, who will either not turn out or defect to more socially liberal parties. On the other hand, if Labour stays the course it has followed for the past several decades, its traditional base will only atrophy further along with the remnants of the Red Wall.
In short, Labour is damned if it continues to neglect the concerns of socially conservative working-class voters. However, Labour is also damned if it pivots away from its liberal and metropolitan base. Both futures are ones of tremendous electoral decline. What used to be called Labour’s “Hampstead and Hartlepool” coalition is now culturally irreconcilable. It is no longer a coherent voting alliance and can’t be held together.
The more probable course for Labour, given the make up of the parliamentary party and its membership base, is that it will remain aligned with its metropolitan camp. If the traditional Labour vote is dead then where will it go? On the face of it, Boris Johnson’s neo-Disraelian electoral coalition between traditional conservative voters and the newly-won Red Wall voters seems to be the answer.
However, the Conservatives have a problem. A key pillar of the Conservative Party is its economically right-leaning, “pro-market” platform. The research from King’s College shows that the average Conservative voter lies substantially further to the economic left than the average Conservative party member or MP, suggesting that while the pro-market orthodoxy is not a popular one among the public, it has a great influence on motivating the institutional party.
Normally, an alliance between pro-market and Red Wall voters – who gravitate towards protectionism, interventionism, and strengthening the welfare state – would be untenable. However, the decline of Labour and the particular phenomenon of Brexit allowed for a temporary pact between these two camps to be formed: pro-market Leavers saw Brexit as a means to deregulate the British economy further and promote free trade, while Red Wall Leavers saw Brexit as a means for meaningful social and cultural change, including an opportunity to control immigration.
Brexit provided a novel – but temporary – opportunity to bring together these camps, despite their normally divergent interests. Given this divergence, however, it’s likely that the Conservative alliance will be racked by instability, especially as the Johnson ministry’s hefty spending commitments continue to grow, forcing the near-inevitable need to raise taxes. Without a long-run plan to reconcile the pro-market and Red Wall bases, it’s likely that this Conservative voting coalition will break apart.
Perhaps an even bigger problem with this coalition is also the sheer dearth of senior Conservatives who genuinely hold pro-interventionist viewpoints. The standard philosophical position of senior Tories is market liberalism, which is a poor fit with the party’s new voters in the Midlands and the North. The present political marriage is one of convenience rather than conviction.
If neither Labour nor the Conservatives manage permanently to (re)capture the traditional Labour voter, then who will they vote for? Our establishment parties – whether intentionally or not – are leaving a significant gap in British electoral politics for a party that is socially traditionalist and economically left-leaning. The resurgent Social Democratic Party aims to fill just that gap.
William Clouston is the Leader of the Social Democratic Party.