Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 4 February 2011

Why the Labour Party could be gone within a generation

The Labour Party could be largely gone within the next generation.

I realise this is quite a provocative statement and I am fully aware that with the current state of the opinion polls there will be plenty who would contend that my own party, the Lib Dems are more likely to disappear before Labour.

I should also point out before I start that I do not want the Labour Party to die. I was brought up in a family that had great respect for the party and its socialist foundings and tradition. If I had joined a political party before about 2000 it would almost certainly have been Labour. I was delighted and genuinely excited in 1997 when Tony Blair won a huge landslide and I think that the Labour government did some very good things in its early years. The minimum wage amongst others for example was a great change and the fact that all the major parties are now signed up to it has ultimately vindicated it.

Also, if the economy tanks in the next two or three years then Labour will very likely get in by default. I accept that is the case and what follows is predicated on the assumption that the economy does improve and the coalition's policies are ultimately seen as successful. What then for Labour?

If that happens then I think that within the next couple of decades we could see the demise as a serious political force of the party of Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan.

There are a number of reasons why I think this could be the case.

Firstly, despite some recent signs that they are moving in the right direction the party leadership still has too much sway over policy making. This may seem like an arcane point but policy making is the lifeblood of political activists. Without it participation in political parties is reduced to trying to sell policies largely imposed from on high. Of course some of these policies, perhaps many will accord with the views of the membership. But there will always be some that just do not. A good example would be the 10p tax rate being abolished by Gordon Brown in 2007. Eventually that move was mitigated by a number of measures to appease Labour back-benchers but it was immensely damaging and I can imagine how difficult it was for Labour activists trying to convince people to vote for the party when it was an active issue knowing there was no way in hell the party at large would have allowed the leadership to adopt such a policy had they had a veto on it. I know from discussions that many Labour activists are unhappy with how little chance they have to influence policy within the party and some look with some envy upon how the Lib Dems and other smaller parties are more internally democratic. The longer this goes on, the more in the long term I am convinced that the party membership will atrophy and wane. After all, I am sure there will be some who will decide it is not worth their time volunteering if their views will make little difference to the policies. A quick aside here - I know that some of the policies being pursued by the current government were not endorsed by the Lib Dem party membership but there are a good number that were and that is the compromise of coalition. If the Lib Dems had had a majority like Labour did between 1997 and 2010 then the government programme would have been essentially created and decided by the party.

Secondly, the Labour party does not seem to know what it stands for any more. I think it has been very instructive to observe the manoeuvrings of various senior Labour politicians since the general election. It is clear that there are deep divisions on questions such as how to tackle the deficit (Ed Balls and Alistair Darling were at loggerheads over this) or tuition fees with Alan Johnson being set against a graduate tax only to come round at the last minute to Ed Miliband's way of thinking but with no real enthusiasm. When this is coupled with the two year review that is going on at the moment which is scheduled to fill in Ed M's "blank sheet of paper" it does feel like the party has somewhat lost its way. Don't get me wrong, it is a good idea for political parties when rejected by the electorate to take stock but to see a party that once held such a clear vision for the future and founded the modern welfare state to be so directionless is quite sad and does not bode well for its future.

The third reason I think Labour could well find themselves waning as a political force is down to their innate tribalism. Now I have been misunderstood when I have used this word before so I will try to be precise here. I am referring to the tendency for Labour politicians and activists to push their own party line to the exclusion of everything else and to rubbish those of their opponents, even to the point where had their own party introduced a measure they would be supporting it but because it comes from somewhere else they are suddenly apparently viscerally opposed to it. I know all political parties do this but from what I have observed Labour are the worst at this. And it matters. A recent report by the IPPR reinforces other things I have read that even if First Past the Post is retained for Commons elections, hung parliaments are going to become more and more likely. But the way Labour acted in the coalition negotiations back in May 2010 (which I have gleaned from multiple sources) reflected this more tribal attitude and made it clear that they would have been very difficult to work with, even if you put the mathematics to one side. If coalitions are going to become more and more frequent then a party that seems unwilling to compromise is going to find it difficult to get back into power. I am basing this also on my observations of how they have gone about attacking the coalition. There is no recognition of the compromises necessary, just blindly attacking the Lib Dems for "selling out" or "betraying" people. Now I am aware that as a Lib Dem activist I am biased here and maybe the public at large like this sort of thing but I hope that is not the case. It feels outdated to me and smacks of a party that is still mired in a binary way of approaching politics that again does not auger well for them.

My final reason (I will stop in a minute!) is a bit more subtle but perhaps the most important one of all. An important part of Labour's parliamentary strength in recent decades has been how its core support has been concentrated more in heavily populated and predominantly northern areas. But a day of reckoning on this was always going to come. The fact that they were able to get 55% of the seats on 36% of the vote in 2005 may have been blithely brushed aside at the time but there was always going to be an adjustment to mitigate this inequity at some point. And with the boundary changes likely in the next few years to equalise constituency sizes this reckoning is almost upon us. Now as far as I am concerned this is the right thing to do. I think a proportional system would be ideal in terms of fairness but whatever system we have, the constituency sizes should be as equal as possible. That is also fair. But a consequence of this will be that Labour will find it harder to retain and win seats that it previously would have taken for granted. Over time this will erode its base unless it broadens its appeal. It will also reduce the "my father, grandfather and great-grandfather voted Labour" enclaves as those voters will be diluted with others often from more suburban or rural areas. All this is doing is evening things up but the effect for Labour will likely be to make their job harder.

So what can Labour do about this? I would suggest four things would help mitigate this and assist it in returning to power at some point:

1) Give the party members back their absolute right to make and veto policy. I know this caused the party damage in the past especially in the 1980s but the pendulum has swung too far the other way. If activists are going to slog their guts out in the cold and wet month after month, year after year to put the MPs into parliament the least they can expect is to be able to collectively decide the policies. It would be a bold move but the activists would love Ed Miliband if he did this and I suspect his leadership would be secure for many years. After all they are the ones who can keep him in his job were he ever to be challenged.

2) This is probably related to number 1 but a clearer statement of principles and direction of travel is needed. Labour used to know what it stood for but there seems to be a muddle at the moment. If 1 was implemented then the guiding principles would bubble up from and be reinforced by the party membership. That in itself would send a very powerful and democratic signal. In the absence of that though for now the public need to know what they would be getting from the Labour party. This may mean being very frank about some of the big mistakes the party made in government in its latter years but so be it.

3) The party leadership should do everything it can to ensure a "Yes" vote for AV in the referendum in May. The one person most likely to make the difference between and Yes and No vote is Ed Miliband. And if the referendum passes then Labour will be encouraged to engage more with other parties (partly to try and get second and third preferences) and over time to not be so tribal.

4) They should reform their leadership election system so it is one Labour party member, one vote. No longer should MPs have more say than anyone else and the third/third/third split between the three parts of the electoral college (MPs/members/unions) should be abolished. It would be brave for Ed Miliband to do this given he was elected under the existing system (and may well not have been under a reformed one) but it has to happen before the next leadership election.

I know the polls currently have Labour in a strong position but Labour also seemed well placed in the early 80s and it took them nearly two decades to get back into power from that point, and only after lots of painful soul searching and reform. I suspect something similar will need to happen again before they are serious contenders for government. The question is how quick the current leadership are to grasp the various necessary nettles.


Jono said...

"the Labour party does not seem to know what it stands for any more."

This seems highly ironic from a Lib Dem.

The Lib Dem death will come sooner than Labour's.

Anonymous said...

Latest poll ratings:

Labour 44%
Lib Dems 8%ancingla

wit and wisdom said...

A good piece and very pertinent. I agree that the Labour Party is no longer recognisable as a Labour Party. Imagine a Nye Bevin or Clement Attlee turning 18 today and looking for a party to join. The last one they would choose would be Labour.

For me the death knell for Labour is also a warning for us: they are heavily weighted in favour of private school educated people at the top. This is problematic for us but for a party which pretends to speak for 'ordinary' people its a disaster.

And in response to the comment above I'd say that rumours of our demise are often exaggerated and have been circulating for 90 years. We are democratic, we fight for every seat we win, which renews our support, we listen to people and we are happy to work with others - even the hated Tories.

Kieran E said...

Cannot see it happening. Far too many people in this country are die hard 'will never ever vote Tory/Labour', even when modern parties have shifted all over the political spectrum and, on some very important things, no longer have much connection with oringinal policies.

I hope the LDs recover to restore a credible 3rd party(they have deserved some stick, but not as much as they've gotten, especially when both other parties have gone back on promises without even a flimsy excuse in their times), but Labour are here to stay. Not knowing what they stand for, to a higher degree than the others, and the same with tribalism,if true, won't affect that, even if it should.

paul barker said...

Mark, while I agree with your main points I see their decline taking place over this Parliament, not decades.
The historical background is the decline in Membership of the 3 main Parties over the last 60 years.
Labour have seen a number of growth spurts in the past interspersed with long periods of decline. The peak in 1997 saw membership hit 415 Thousand only to fall rapidly, by 30 to 40 Thousand a year, slowing over time to level off at 150 Thousand in 2009.
Labour hit a new peak at the end of last year, at around 180 Thousand & its reasonable to expect another rapid decline, how rapid is the question.

Mark Thompson said...

Anon - Thanks for that. Do you have the polling figures for 4th February 2031 handy?

Rusty Liberal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rusty Liberal said...

Interesting read. I think the boundary changes will have an affect and Labour know it hence their all or bust tactics in the Lords. I would also echo the point about their behaviour in the coalition negotiations. It was quite shocking for me as a left-leaning Lib Dem just how reluctant the Labour negotiators were to give ground during the discussions. That encompassed with the sheer hatred shown by some Labour members (to the point of wishing destruction) towards the Lib Dems, made me realise just how tribal they are. There is very little room for consensus building and some of the petty nonsense that people such as Tom Harris propagate really push this point home.
The oppositionist populism they are engaging in at the moment will soon become wearisome for large parts of the electorate.

mariet said...

Very intresting blog Mark - as a "die hard" lifelong Labour voter I am sadly coming to the conclusion that they no longer reflect my views and beliefs and I agree with your comments

Anonymous said...


While you raise some important issues your article as a whole is total fucking bullshit. If you truly believe it then you are dangerously deluded, more likely you know its bollocks and using this article as a displacement exercise to stop yourself from thinking about the life threatening problems of the libdems.

In the medium term, if you guys stick with the tories and Av is lost, the libdems will move further to the right as left leaning supporters and members drifting away. Ending with a pact or merger and the libs being the more socially concerned wing of the tories. In the long term essentially re-creating the duopoly of politics with the slight twist of a tory-liberal party being the centre-right.

Ian Silvera said...

What a load of rubbish-the conclusion, not the article-, if any party will disappear it's going to be the lib dems.

Richard Manns said...

I have to disagree on several points:

1) Labour once allowed its members to vote on policies for their manifesto. The result was "the longest suicide note in history" and the defeat of 1983. Whilst I can see that Labour could do with listening to their grass-roots, that differs from being ruled by them.

2) One coalition does not the end of FPTP make. British electoral history is littered with coalitions, it's simply that we haven't had one since the war. So what? It has never stopped FPTP before. Ironically, such coalition periods often mark sea-changes in politics: the inter-war years, for example, marked the rise of Labour, whilst others such as the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Liberal Unionists saw serious realignments. As such, you might be right; if the economy does better than forecast, and Labour careers to the left, interesting things may happen in the gap.

3) Why should hung Parliaments become more and more likely? One should be very wary of such sweeping predictions in politics. After all, current polling puts you back to minivan levels of MPs. I don't reckon this will happen, but if the LDs don't think of some strategy to take the soft left vote from Labour, they'll be hammered in 2015.

johnpaul said...

witandWisdom, Attlee would'nt have joined labour today if he was 18,Attlee let MI6 spy on Bevan and supproted Gaitrkell's leadership bid in '55,wanting to sack Bevan, A comparison would be with Labour now and Ramsey Mcdonald, some else Attlee supported,

People Naturally aspire to trhe Toiry way of life so are naturally to support them Now even though albours support fell by nearly 3million between their first and second landslide, tehy were constantly ahead in the Polls,
the Tories during theri last itme in power were Massively unpopular, Isee the new people who havde Joined Labour in the alst 9 months as Feeling that ED was'nt as left wing as they had hoped and I see those who were Supportive of ALsitair Darlings Proposed cuts feeling embarresed by the view of opposing cuts now for the sake of it,
I see some similarities with those who suffered under the Thatcher years wanting labour back as they see similarities now, and yes I can see that people don't know what Labour is for, the way that they just voted tory tokeep labour out,But then some people just voted Labour in 2001 to keep the toires out too,

Mark Thompson said...

Anon2 - Thank you for your comment saying I raise some interesting issues. That was my intention. As for your comments about the substance being "total fucking bullshit" and that I probably know it's "bollocks" and some sort of diversionary tactic from the Lib Dems own problems, the Lib Dems potential existential fragility has been endlessly pondered on blogs and in the media over the last few months. It is indeed true that the party could be in very serious trouble as I acknowledged at the start of my post. However rather than add yet another piece about the problems of the Lib Dems to the pile (which I will almost certainly do in the future anyway) I thought it would be thought provoking to look at the potential existential troubles of another party that might superficially seem strong at the moment but has some serious underlying weaknesses in my view. The glib responses about current relative poll strengths are essentially irrelevant. I am talking about over the next 20 or so years.

Richard Manns -

1) The Labour Party has moved on from those days. Its activists are not collectively in the same ideological place as 30 years ago, and what is the point of a political party if it is not defined by the politics of its grass-roots members? You end up with the hollowed out shell that was New Labour.

2&3) Indeed, coalitions are not guaranteed but they are looking more and more likely as recent analysis has shown. Even if the Lib Dems tank in the next few years, people like voting for more than just the big two and that is not going to change. Perhaps the Greens or UKIP or other parties will grow and take significant vote share in coming years instead. My point is the days of 98% of voters choosing Red or Blue are long gone whatever else happens.

Matt said...

While you raise some important issues your article as a whole is total fucking bullshit. If you truly believe it then you are dangerously deluded, more likely you know its bollocks...

That's what we like! Reasoned debate!

And the ability to traduce the author by the use of your Mystic Meg style bleatings! (Because, somehow, you psychically just know that he is a liar.

Are you a Labour Party member, by any chance?

Anonymous said...

Couple of problems.

I think it's easy to overstate the whole boundary thing. ISTR there was another big set of changes in the mid-90's that was going to keep Labour out of power for a generation. In reality, the net loss of 20-30 seats doesn't wipe a party out, it just resets the median line of British politics a little to the right or left of where it was, say from Gillingham & Rainham to Stroud. So in crude terms, Labour just need to become 2% (or whatever) more right-wing than they were. One can view the Kinnock to Blair transition in that kind of light.

I'd dispute the "coalitions are more likely" thing too - the current squeeze on the LD's is making them less likely. I'd agree the sheer binary tribalism of Labour is a weakness, I'm just not sure how important it will prove. You could argue that given the poisoned legacy of Brown, that tribalism kept them out of power in the Parliament that will be blamed for Brown's mistakes for a generation. It was arguably a good election to lose.

As has been mentioned, letting party members decide policy is often a bad thing, as the sort of political geeks who inhabit party organisations are the last people you want doing anything for the general public. Many of the LD's daftest, most voter-alienating policies have come from the conference floor. You need to steer a path between letting the activists think that they're in control, and keeping the daft ideas out of the manifesto. The Tories probably get that balance least wrong, and it's no coincidence that they win more elections than the LDs and Labour.

Membership does wax and wane. But it's less important than it was. All those LD leaflets stuffed through doors had far less influence on potential LD voters than a single TV debate. I know activism is terribly important to activists, and it can still be important in marginals, but party messages are now more centralised than they ever were.

Where membersship matters more to parties is in financing, a matter of particular relevance to Labour, but that's complicated with the relationship with the unions. In the last election you saw a lot of Labour campaigning in effect outsourced to the unions, with media campaigns and phonebanking paid for and organised by the unions. That's a huge resource that the other parties don't have access to, and shouldn't be underestimated. In that context, the Coalition would have done well to have lobbed in some stuff on union funding into the AV bill, Labour would have gladly given way on the other stuff in order to stop the faintest threat to their relationship with the unions.

As for the "don't know what they stand for" thing - isn't that a cry we've heard down the ages? What's so different now? During the weariness that comes after a long spell in power, a clean sheet is probably a good thing - and in modern politics, it's probably better, the longer it stays clean, although the Tories took that to extremes last election and are now paying the price for it a bit.

A Brown said...

'Why the Labour Party could be gone within a generation'

Looks like a gross exaggeration to me. Maybe Labour will not recover in SE England but they still have a solid core vote in Merseyside, Scotland and London as the election demonstrated and are quickly recovering in the northern cities.

As for the lib dems, they might remain a force in the south of england but could see their support truly haemorrhage in Wales, the NE etc at the next election.

Richiedaw said...

Apart from overstating the effect of equalised constituents your blog piece is the narrative of the Cameron and Clegg Project.

Marginalise Labour !

If the Coalition has it sums right cuts wise and the economy blossoms in 2013-2015 then that will be a disaster for Labour which has wedded itself to deficit denial in the voters eyes.Being on the wrong side of the economic debate will knock them out of power for generations !

Dark days for the Coalition now but if they get the economics right bright times ahead.

Amuses me so many Labour supporters crowing about their position in the polls today reminds me of the Aussies before the 2010 ashes !