When Will the British Left Face Up to Its Flaws?

The UK has three national left-of-centre parties: Labour, the Liberal & Democrats.


Tealfeed Guest Blog

3 years ago | 6 min read

In the 2019 general election, Prime Minister Boris Johnson redrew the political map when he turned swathes of safe Labour seats — known as the Red Wall — blue. But that is only half of the story. The Conservatives’ share of the popular vote stayed largely the same — in fact, in some seats, it actually went down. It just didn’t fall as far as Labour’s share. But how can the UK’s left-wing parties rebuild when they appear unwilling to confront some uncomfortable home truths?

The UK has three national left-of-centre parties: Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. On 12th December 2019, Labour — led by the ever-embattled Jeremy Corbyn — became a party of city dwellers and young people, the Liberal Democrats became the party of the metropolitan elite — their leader Jo Swinson even lost her seat — while the Greens — jointly led by Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley — became a single-issue (climate change) party. The SNP (Scottish National Party) did surge in Scotland, but Scotland only returns fifty-nine MPs out of six-hundred and fifty. The SNP’s voice in Westminster is, at best, minor. Across England and Wales, the Conservatives swept the board. Whilst unsurprising, this is momentous.

One thing that is hard to describe to non-Britons is how the Conservatives have long been perceived in most Red Wall seats. At the height of Thatcherism, the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, removed most of the industry from these areas. Ship-building, fishing and heavy coal and steel manufacturing disappeared overnight. The jobs that were the lifeblood of these areas went with them. Many remember the miners’ strike chant of “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!” This perhaps shows why people in the Red Wall were, quite simply, allergic to the Conservatives. Labour, under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, came to represent these areas with pragmatic, social-democratic policies aimed at easing the damage inflicted by Thatcherism.

Now, due to David Cameron’s cuts, these areas have, once again, gone backwards. Food banks, poverty, a lack of good, stable jobs and long-term unemployment have again become the status quo. When the EU referendum came about, it was a chance to challenge that status quo. This is something that the parties of the Left seem to fail to understand: the status quo had failed for many people in the Red Wall long before the EU referendum. Brexit became a vehicle through which the hope for change could be channelled. The problem was that, following the Brexit vote, the status quo became abject chaos.

Under Theresa May’s leadership, even those who are politically inactive or are disinterested in politics were confronted with Brexit every single day. The entire country watched on as various factions of the Conservative Party spent more than two years knocking lumps out of one another. Then along came Boris Johnson. With one slogan — Get Brexit Done — and two soundbites — “We need to get this thing done” and “Unleash Britain’s potential” — Johnson de facto promised to stabilise the status quo once more. The Left did not promise to do that.

Jeremy Corbyn was more interested in nationalising broadband and scrapping tuition fees rather than tackling the most pressing political issue in Britain today. Jo Swinson was more interested in convincing people that she could somehow win enough seats to become PM, while the Greens committed to spending money that the UK simply doesn’t have on making the country carbon-neutral. Boris Johnson may have had few workable policies and may have gone into the 2019 election as a roundly disliked figure, but he understood that Red Wall voters wanted the status quo to be stabilised — and to put distance between their lives and politics once again. What it took for Red Wall voters to lend their votes to the Conservatives cannot be underestimated — nor understated. People whose parents and grandparents had been devastated by Thatcherite policies lent their votes to a successor of hers. Doing this could not have been an enjoyable experience for them.

Yet none of the leaders of these three left-of-centre parties appear willing to admit that they are stuck in the proverbial mire. At the time of writing, Labour is quite happily engaged in naval gazing. Of the leadership candidates, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey don’t seem to want to admit that Labour’s fundamental approach to their heartlands has gone awry — nor that, as a movement, Labour has drifted away from its core, founding social-democratic principles: those who earn more should pay a little more; everyone in the UK is entitled to a decent quality of life. Even Keir Starmer — the current frontrunner — appears uncomfortable with criticising the party’s Brexit policy. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that Starmer was instrumental in engineering it.

Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats’ interim leaders Ed Davey and Mark Pack — Jo Swinson had to resign the morning after the 2019 election as she’d lost her seat — are tightly clinging to the fact that they notably increased their share of the popular vote. Rising from 7.4% to 11.6% is quite an achievement, but, due to the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, popular vote tallies are meaningless. These new votes for the Liberal Democrats mostly piled up where the party didn’t need them. Nationally, the party’s vow to unilaterally call off Brexit without consulting the people was widely seen as being arrogant. Equally, Swinson’s continual assertion that she could be about to become PM was met with ridicule. Yet, when asked about this, Liberal Democrat spokespeople continually cling to their success in the popular vote. Similarly, the Greens almost doubled their share of the popular vote but failed to make any gains beyond their sole MP — Caroline Lucas, who represents the seat of Brighton Pavilion.

Perhaps it is the enormity of the task ahead of them that makes these parties unwilling to truly confront their problems. The Liberal Democrats lost their heartlands in South-West England to the Conservatives back in 2015. They now have no set heartland area; their eleven seats are scattered across England and Scotland. Some of their seats, like Westmorland in North-West England, no longer match their new core vote — wealthier Remain voters in urban and commuter areas.

As for the Greens, their reliable support in the cities of Bristol and London held firm, but, once again, failed to advance them. The party needs to start finding a way of getting itself over the line in seats other than Brighton Pavilion.

But the problems with Labour are the most pressing. Despite its hammering in December, Labour’s base support is still the strongest and, with two-hundred and two seats, it still has by far the best starting point. Ergo, it is the only one of the national left-of-centre parties that could win power again. But Labour no longer holds the bulk of its heartlands. It still has many of its urban seats, but cities and large towns alone aren’t enough to return them to government. Many lifelong, habitual Labour voters lent their votes to the Conservatives. Just because they’ve done this once, doesn’t mean they’ll do it again. But, once a voter has lent their vote elsewhere once, they can no longer be relied upon as strongly as before.

Labour’s fundamental problems were best summarised by Caroline Flint, the former, high-profile MP for the seat of Don Valley, a Red Wall seat lost to the Conservatives. In her concession speech, Flint asked, “what is the point of the Labour Party if we don’t respect and represent [the] voices [of the working class]? [These are] people whom we have not listened to nor respected enough.”

An election night graphic showing all of the UK’s six-hundred and fifty parlimentary seats as equally-sized hexagons. From these two images, the collpase of the Red Wall is clear. (Image: Esri UK/Ben Flanagan)

In 2019, voters sent the UK’s national left-of-centre parties an emphatic message. Should they choose not to listen, the Left may well find out where its floor of support truly lies come the 2024 general election. Should the successors to Corbyn and Swinson be incapable of eating a sandwich (Ed Miliband), incapable of using a calculator (Diane Abbott), unsure of whether or not they think gay sex is a sin (Tim Farron) or blindly stride on with their fingers in their ears whilst those around them beg them to change course (Jeremy Corbyn), then voters might well begin to seriously question what it is that the British Left actually stands for.

This article was originally published by Luke sandford on medium.
Twitter: @lukestweets15


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