Labour spokespeople have spent the weekend proclaiming to anyone who can be bothered to listen, that a seven percent decline in vote share and a loss of some 3,200 voters since the calamitous 2019 general election is an unqualified triumph. Yes, Labour hung on by its finger tips to the Batley and Spen seat at last week’s by-election. But the victory was less to do with Labour than the failure of its opponents.
Most obviously, Labour leader Keir Starmer might want to drop a thank you note to outgoing Health Secretary Matt Hancock; whose hypocritical breech of his own social distancing rules was all over the media in the week running up to the by-election. Tory complacency was also an issue; with the campaign team apparently assuming that after the Hartlepool win in May, Batley and Spen would simply drop into their hands. They could leave it to the other candidates to fight Labour.
The most high profile of those opponents was “Gorgeous George” Galloway; the one-time Labour MP and Saddam Hussain sycophant who had, on two previous occasions, won by-elections against faceless Blairite suits. Galloway’s pitch was “vote for me and force Keir Starmer to resign.” And no doubt had he won, the pressure on Starmer to go would have been difficult to resist. But Galloway has lost the common touch in recent years; and far from uniting the ordinary working people of Batley and Spen behind his “Workers’ Party,” Galloway joined Labour in sowing racial division. In the end, Galloway picked up votes from both Labour and the Tories to come in third with a respectable 8,264 votes; but not enough to topple Starmer.
With the immediate afterglow of the narrowest of by-election wins behind them, the Labour Party – perhaps inevitably – has entered into futile recriminations; with the Starmer and Corbyn wings of the Party blaming each other for Labour’s ongoing inability to win voters back from a Tory government which is still popular after 11 years in office and in the wake of a largely mismanaged pandemic. But for all of the heat in the disagreement, it masks the deeper reasons for Labour’s slow demise. As Paul Embery at UnHerd puts it:
“I have never, by the way, been a member of the ‘Starmer must go!’ brigade. Neither do I believe that Angela Rayner or Dawn Butler or anyone else being touted as a challenger to Sir Keir would offer a route out of the morass. In truth, the question of who leads Labour is barely relevant at the moment. What matters is whether or not the party at large is willing to undergo the kind of internal revolution necessary to make it a credible political force again. All the signs suggest it isn’t.”
Embery lays much of the blame for Labour’s unelectability on the corporate capitalist neoliberal identity politics which exercises a loud but tiny minority of activists but puts off a majority of the population (including many within the supposed oppressed minorities):
“What did anyone expect would be the consequence of an ideology — once again, traceable largely to Labour and the wider Left but embraced now by most of the establishment — predicated on the active promotion of separateness and difference? That constantly telling assorted groups how dissimilar they are from each other would somehow bring unity and cohesion?…
“The truth is that, over the past 30 years, the Labour Party was unknowingly digging its own grave. The promotion of identity politics, the embrace of a militant and uncompromising cosmopolitan liberalism, the drastic oversteer to those living in our fashionable cities and university towns, the elevation of globalism over the nation state, the sneering contempt for the small-c conservatism of large parts of the country, the rapprochement with market fundamentalism — all these things helped to drive a wedge between the party and its traditional base.”
There is much to this, of course. Nevertheless, even this criticism ignores the deeper structural change that is undermining parties of the left across the western democracies. To go back to an observation by John Michael Greer – in 1970, a semi-skilled manual worker could afford to buy a house, support a family, run a car and enjoy an annual holiday. Today that same semi-skilled worker would need state support just to put a roof over his or her head. Despite a minority of Britons becoming obscenely wealthy over the period, prosperity has been in retreat; with a growing precariat taking the place of a traditional working class that was easily identifiable prior to the 1970s.
This is the visible symptom of a rising energy cost of energy which has afflicted the developed states since the early 1970s. Put simply, everything we do requires energy; including producing useable energy. And the cost of producing that useable energy is not fixed. Indeed, because of our tendency to produce the easiest energy first, our energy cost of energy has been rising for decades. What this means is that the surplus energy needed to power and grow the much larger non-energy sectors of the economy has been declining since the late 1960s. Efficiency measures – using technology (in the broadest sense of the word) to minimise the amount of energy dissipated as waste heat – allowed additional growth over the period. Meanwhile, financialisation and debt gave the illusion of growth; while offshoring to low-wage/low-regulation regions of the world allowed western consumption to continue. But despite this, a growing proportion of ordinary people in the developed states have seen their living standards decline across the period.
One response to this among Britain’s cultural elites, as described in David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics is “So what?” Why should we treat the problems of poor people living in the UK any differently to poor people anywhere on Earth? This attitude is common not only among the cultural elite, but also among those activists who promote corporate capitalist narratives designed to fragment and atomise national electorates. And crucially, it is an attitude common to the leadership and membership of the modern Labour Party. It is also a clear consequence of the neoliberalism embraced so readily by the Blairites in the 1990s.
New Labour might have been Margaret Thatcher’s greatest success, but it ultimately exposed the folly of Thatcherism. The one thing that Thatcher had in common with today’s left-leaning activists was the wrong-headed belief that the proposed reforms would not have any negative consequences. Thatcher imagined that that her brand of deregulation and privatisation would free a generation of entrepreneurs to reinvigorate Britain’s industrial base; creating new, hi-tech jobs to replace old steam industries like coal, rail and shipbuilding. She talked about there being no such thing as society, only individuals and their families; but seemingly had no idea just how rapidly neoliberalism would undermine family life. It is doubtful that Thatcher anticipated the offshoring of so much of British industry, or the amount of foreign capital which would take ownership of formerly British businesses. Nor did she envisage the extreme levels of income and wealth inequality that were a direct consequence of the deregulation of banking and finance. Nevertheless, those things were baked into the neoliberal recipe; as was the corrosion of social institutions. In neoliberalism, the atomised individual is all that there is; even families are atomised. And it is no part of government’s role to give a helping hand to those individuals who fall on hard times.
Under Blair – and Clinton in the USA – the sole duty of the state to those who had fallen on hard times was to provide a place in education. It was up to each individual to take up that place… and to choose wisely. It was not the fault of government if someone was unwise enough to attend a third-tier university instead of Cambridge or Oxford – or an Ivy League US equivalent. But neoliberal education was – and is – a cargo cult; mistaking effect for cause. Genuine degree-level employment depends upon a pool of graduates; but creating a large pool of graduates does not create degree level jobs… it merely raises the qualification bar on non-degree-level jobs. As Goodhart – and many others – have pointed out in relation to the Brexit divide, the metropolitan liberal “anywheres” who were comfortable moving to a different city to study and who have been comfortable moving to secure the best-paid jobs tend to have a faith-based confidence in their individual abilities (although these have been tested and found wanting in the course of the pandemic). The “somewheres” – living in the far from prosperous ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small town rural regions of Britain – always had a more realistic awareness of individual limitations; and are far more aware of the importance of such things as family and community as a basis for mutual support when times get tough. And yet it is precisely these collective forms of mutual support that neoliberalism burned through like sulphuric acid.
Blair’s New Labour was on the wrong side of this; cementing a neoliberal consensus into place despite its corrosive impact on the very places Labour used to call its “heartlands.” And while they could get away with it during the 1995-2005 debt-based boom years, things quickly fell apart after the 2008 crash. It is one thing to believe oneself to be a free-standing neoliberal individual in an economy where banks are bending over backward to throw currency at you. It is something quite different to realise your individual limitations when the banks call in their loans and the state imposes swinging austerity cuts. Cuts, by the way, which Labour supported in principle even if it quibbled about the amounts.
Labour’s conceit from the mid-1980s onward was that its heartland vote had nowhere else to go. And so to win election it needed to appeal to metropolitan liberals – Goodhart’s “anywheres.” But as early as 1988, that belief was open to challenge. On a grim November day in that year, a by-election in the supposedly Labour, ex-industrial Glasgow Govan constituency resulted in the left-leaning Jim Sillars winning the seat for the Scottish National Party. It shouldn’t have happened. Thatcher had been in office for nine years; and the received wisdom was that the main opposition party should win by-elections. But Labour was by then a long way along the road to its full conversion to neoliberalism. And north of the border at least, former Labour voters did have somewhere else to go. Sillars’ 1988 victory marked the point at which the SNP shed its “Tartan Tory” image, and began to outflank Labour from the left. And as its popularity grew, Labour was obliged in 1997 to offer a devolution referendum as a means of holding onto voters who might have otherwise switched to the SNP. The referendum resulted in a clear majority in favour of a devolved Scottish Parliament; which Labour appeared to be the main beneficiary of. But as the Blair years moved on, voters went over to the SNP in such numbers that the SNP has been able to form majority governments under a voting system designed to prevent majorities. At the same time, they have made Scotland a no-go area for the Labour Party in general elections – Labour winning just one Scottish seat in 2019.
A collective Scottishness, it seems, provides a locus for political unity north of the border, which has all but disappeared in England. In Wales, where Labour faced a left-leaning Plaid Cymru, the leadership put just enough “clear red water” between themselves and Blair’s New Labour to hold onto a solid block of seats in ex-industrial South Wales. But these provide Labour with a final redoubt rather than a building block on which to build an electoral majority.
A century ago, it was clear who and what the Labour Party was for. The process of centralisation which began in the final decades of the nineteenth century came to fruition in the First World War. Small local employers merged and grew into giant national employers and employers’ confederations. Small local trade unions followed the same path; leading in the early twentieth century to the mass unions of the industrial proletarian army of miners, railway workers, shipbuilders, dockers and steel workers. Those collective identities could easily be represented by an increasingly popular Labour Party which embodied the aspirations of the organised working class. But that Labour Party reached its peak by 1949.
Gaining its first parliamentary majority in July 1945, the Labour government rushed to implement the nationalisations and social reforms which shaped the decades after the war. But the reform programme was more or less complete by 1949; and the Party became embroiled in the same division that has plagued it ever since: should the Labour Party stand for a much deeper form of socialism or should it merely attempt to manage capitalism better than it’s Tory opponents? This, in essence, is the argument Labour rehashed in its wilderness years 1951 to 1964 and again between 1979 and 1997. And note that it is the same division which manifests itself around a potential challenge to Keir Starmer’s leadership today.
Even by the late 1940s, the proletarian army working in the steam-powered industries of the nineteenth century – most of them unprofitable and nationalised to keep them alive after 1945 – was being eclipsed by a new and higher-skilled class of workers in emerging oil-powered industries like aerospace, electronics, car manufacturing, petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. Often based in key electoral regions in the south of England and the West Midlands, these workers were far less inclined to automatically vote Labour. And even the trade unions which organised these new affluent workers struggled to persuade their members that a Labour vote was in their best interest.
Despite the fears of many within the labour movement, when the Tories returned to office in 1951, they did not set about reversing the Labour reforms. On the contrary, they embraced them and set out to operate them better than the Labour government had done; for example, building more public housing and abolishing NHS prescription charges. And so the Tories cemented a post-war consensus around a “mixed economy,” which lasted through to the oil shocks of the 1970s. The Tories were the main beneficiaries of the spectacular 1953 to 1973 boom too – two decades which saw more production and trade than the entire 150 years which preceded them. But when Labour returned to office in 1964 by the tiny majority of just four seats, the boom was already beginning to falter. The recession of 1966 – mild by today’s standards – laid the ground for the inflationary wage-price spiral and the bitter trade union disputes of the 1970s. And when Labour returned in 1974 after a brief and bitter four-year Tory government under Edward Heath, they reaped the stagflationary whirlwind which paved the way for Margaret thatcher and her neoliberal reforms.
Today, the proletarian army which brought Labour to the fore – and simultaneously ended all possibility of a Liberal government – a century ago has been replaced by a growing precariat of low-paid, part-time, zero-hours and self-employed workers who are pin-balled in and out of work at the fickle whim of an uncaring “free market.” Unlike the working class of a century ago, the precariat has no collective identity each is just one of millions of atomised individuals.
These are the people who Labour strategists said would have nowhere else to go. Except that by 2019, even Boris Johnson’s UKIP 2.0 version of the Tory Party offered more hope to Britain’s precariat than a Labour Party which still occasionally remembered to claim that it was the party of working people.
Any impartial examination of the Batley and Spen by-election result has to conclude that Labour were incredibly lucky to hang onto a seat that – if they were genuinely on their way back to government – should have been won with a ten thousand majority rather than the 323 they actually achieved.
Asked in the media what Labour stands for over the weekend, various Labour spokespeople reeled off the various policies that their focus groups tell them are popular. But polling showed that the policies proposed by Jeremy Corbyn in December 2019 were very popular too, and that didn’t prevent the Tories winning by a landslide. And with the Tories now intervening in the economy and apparently attempting a green energy transition, Labour’s policies no longer appear all that radical.
Labour needs to go much further than just offering popular policies. To win elections, it will need to once again be seen as representing and representative of the mass of ordinary people as they are, not as nostalgic rose-tinted glasses may see them. Whether Labour can do this on the back of a membership which is largely white, male and middle class – and not too much younger than the Tories either – is a moot point. It might be that Labour will prefer to continue being the party of metropolitan liberals; winning big in the affluent suburbs of Britain’s university towns, but never winning enough backing to win a majority of the seats at elections. In which case, they will follow the path taken by the Liberal Party a century ago.
As you made it to the end…
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