‘Labour Isn’t Working’ – when will they win an election again?

George – Year 13 Student

Editor’s Note: This essay forms part of a collection of student works published in the 2020 edition of Salutaris, the GSAL Sixth Form academic journal. This is the first time that this piece of work has been published online. CPD

February marked the 120th anniversary of the Labour Party but the celebrations were marred by their historic election defeat in 2019. Across its entire lifespan, Labour has only been in control of a majority government for, roughly, 30 years despite having just one real opposition since the collapse of the Liberal party after the First World War. Labour governments have been responsible for periods of severe overspending and economic hardship and yet they still deserve credit for championing the NHS, the welfare state and the National Minimum Wage. This conflicting historical record begs the question: How successful is the Labour Party? Ultimately, to be considered a successful political party, you need to be effective at three basic abilities: winning, governing and scrutinising.

Designing brilliant policies, whilst in opposition, is meaningless if you can never attain the power to implement them. That’s not to say smaller parties don’t play an important role in our political system just because they don’t have enough support to win a majority. These types of parties, which operate based on few or single issues, aim to influence the government through MPs, demonstrated by the Cameron government promising a referendum on the EU at the 2015 Election due to UKIP’s relative ‘success’. However, Labour is a ‘broad church’ party which must, primarily, aspire to govern. Consequently, being in government only a quarter of the time, in what is effectively a two party system, is nothing short of woeful. For my generation, it is hard to remember the Labour Party in anything but the opposition, with 2019 being their fourth consecutive election loss. The most concerning aspect of this is the party’s increasingly tolerant approach to losing. A pattern has emerged over the last decade, where Labour lose a general election but refuse to believe the result was a public condemnation of their policies and was instead just a ‘brilliant defeat’[1] where they deserved to win but due to special circumstances, were just unfortunate.

They adamantly believe that in 2010 they were unduly punished for the recession which developed following the financial crisis. Instead of taking the opportunity to recognise and apologise for the obvious mistakes which took place under ‘New Labour’, the election result triggered a knee-jerk reaction within the party, which under Ed Miliband began to gradually regress back towards the unsuccessful principles of ‘Old Labour’ and abandoned the most popular policy model in their history.

After 2015, the party yet again failed to recognise the real reasons for why they lost the election. Unsurprisingly, it was not Miliband’s personality, which appeared slightly awkward through the media’s prism, which caused them to go from an eight-point lead in the polls to collecting 7% less of the voter share in the actual election. Instead, it was people’s mistrust in the party’s ability to manage the economy which ultimately led to the result, as they failed to match the Tory’s incessant focus on the deficit which had effectively been set as the main issue of the election by the government[2]. Labour’s stubborn stance on immigration and their promise to return Britain to the center of the EU highlighted their blatant inability to stay in touch with the new Eurosceptic tide of emotion in public opinion… A lesson Labour still hadn’t learnt by the 2019 election.

In 2017, you have to credit Jeremy Corbyn for running an outstanding election campaign which resonated with the youth and made Labour’s message appear authentic. However, his leadership in the two years prior was so divisive that party unity was too weak coming into the election to recover on a strong campaign alone. In contrast, by the summer of 2019 the country was crying out for the Labour Party to provide some effective opposition in Parliament to hold the Conservative government to account for not delivering Brexit. Labour received 5% more of the voter share in the May MEP election than the Conservatives and were five points clear in general election polls. Yet within less than five months, Labour had completely lost what had been a promising position, as the party trailed the Tories by 12% in the voter share of the December General Election and only won 202 seats (a loss of 60 seats).

Historically, their election record is equally as distressing. Since their creation in 1900, the UK has held 32 general elections, of which Labour has only come out with a majority on eight occasions. Five of these are considered landslide victories with a majority of: 146 in 1945, 98 in 1966, 179 in 1997, 167 in 2001 and 66 in 2005. However, the last three Labour landslides occurred under ‘New Labour’. It is ironic, therefore, that the party’s most successful electoral period occurred under Blair’s regime, who rejected ‘Old Labour’ principles and convinced the party to abandon their commitment to nationalisation and embrace free market economics instead[3]. Additionally, the remaining three non-landslide Labour victories were all majorities of five seats or under. Table 1 (Appendix) paints a picture that Labour governments merely punctuated a Conservative dominated 20th Century. Specifically, the Tories were in government for 10 years before Atlee’s victory in 1945, 13 years before Wilson’s victory in 1965, 18 years before Blair’s victory in 1997 and will have been in government nearly 15 years before the next general election in 2024. This indicates that the Labour Party heavily relies upon a ‘Political sea change’ to win convincingly[4]. Moreover, when the party manages to win an election, they struggle to stay in government. Tony Blair is the only Labour leader who has completed two full consecutive terms as Prime Minister. All others have either lost their second election or have failed to see out the entirety of their second term.

Unfortunately, Labour’s short time in government has left behind it a myriad of mistakes. The two largest devaluations of the pound in history under Atlee (1949) and Wilson (1967) and the Winter of Discontent (1978-9) under Callaghan. Regrettably, even ‘New Labour’ will be remembered for entering the UK into an unnecessary war in Iraq, deregulating the financial markets in the lead up to the financial crisis and for increasing the annual budget deficit from £28bn in 1997 to £152bn in 2010. It seems like economic mismanagement and chronic overspending is an inherent flaw in Labour governments and the electorate knows it. As far back as a century ago, the Labour party only won 52 MPs in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. In more recent times, the British public voted in the first Conservative-led government in 2010 since 1992 to manage the impact of the 2008/9 financial crisis. So, considering the economic fallout of Coronavirus, should we even assume it’s an inevitability that Labour will return to power? Perhaps, the focus shouldn’t be ‘how long’ will it be before they win an election, but more like, ‘will they’ ever win an election again? Since 2010, they have become riddled with radicalization and subsequently ostracized themselves from Number 10. The honest answer is the Labour Party is still a champion of issues relevant in today’s world and have a wealthy history. Labour has ended the death penalty, introduced the Equal pay Act (1970), decriminalized homosexuality, introduced Nye Bevan’s concept of a National Health Service, embraced William Beveridge’s concept of an extensive welfare state and established the National Minimum Wage in 1997 successfully, despite Conservative criticism at every step. Every political party has governed over unsuccessful periods. It would not do the party justice to hold them responsible for the errors under their watch without context. Many of the periods of economic hardship under the Labour Party were global issues rather than national. Perhaps less economic mismanagement and more an unfortunate period to govern? Labour will return to power, in that I have no doubt. Their historic defeat in the 2019 election will make winning a majority in 2024 an incredibly difficult challenge. But Labour is the biggest political party in the UK, with nearly 600,000 members. Table 2 (Appendix) shows that the party has, generally, stayed as popular as the Conservatives despite not being as electorally successful as them. It appears as if the sustained drop in their popularity since 2010 is similar to their popularity during the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Specifically, they had turned to radicalization then as they have done today. But the successful election of Kier Starmer can provide some hope and even optimism. He has strong enough links with the radical left side of the party, whilst still advocating more moderate polices, to unite the increasingly divided party, playing a similar role to Neil Kinnock by shifting the party back towards the center ground. His leadership may not be able to do enough to put Labour back into Number 10 on its own. Ultimately, the party needs to embrace the ruthless approach to elections that was embodied by New Labour.

George 516123

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[1] The Independent- “So can Labour ever win again?” by Andrew Grice

[2] The Guardian- “The undoing of Ed Miliband: How Labour lost the election” by Patrick Wintour, 2015

[3] The Economist- “The Labour Party: A Hundred Years of Failure?” 1997

[4] NewStatesman- “Sea Changes in the corridor of power” by Francis Beckett

George 516123

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