The British Labour Party recently celebrated its 120th birthday. Lately, that’s all it has had to celebrate. December’s general election shrank the party’s number of MPs to 202, its lowest level since 1935. And with four more years of Tory rule to come, the candidates fighting to replace the disastrous Jeremy Corbyn as party leader appear unable to initiate a comeback.
In the general-election campaign, Corbyn proposed dramatically increasing the health budget and minimum wage, introducing free personal care for the elderly, reaching net-zero carbon emissions by the 2030s, nationalizing water, the railways, and the postal service, and abolishing private schools — at a combined cost of $97 billion. It was a demonstrably unpopular platform, yet the front-runner to take over as Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has made clear that he intends to run on it. Rebecca Long Bailey, another contender for the job, has said that she would “love” to have Corbyn in her shadow cabinet.
All of which suggests that Labour has not learned the lessons of history. Even before Corbyn’s spectacular defeat, the party had ample empirical evidence to suggest that left-wing economic policies are a path to failure at the polls. Its mishandling of inflation led to union strikes during the 1978–79 Winter of Discontent, which in turn prompted nearly 20 years of Tory rule. By the mid 1980s, Old Labour’s hard-line socialist policies were so unpopular that MP Gerald Kaufman famously described his party’s 1983 general-election manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history.”
During its 20 years in the electoral wilderness, the party’s base of support shrunk considerably. To regain power, it would have to appeal to the middle of the electorate, which inevitably meant distancing itself from its unpopular, hard-left past. It would have to wait for the country to turn on Margaret Thatcher, and to have a persuasive center-left agenda ready for the occasion. By 1997, voters had grown disillusioned with the Tories, and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” had its chance.
Under Blair’s leadership, the party sought to combine relatively conservative economic policies — avoiding the high taxes (and accompanying inflation and strikes) associated with the 1960s and 1970s while maintaining Thatcher’s privatization of industry — with a socially liberal and internationalist agenda. Blairism brought the Labour Party three victories between 1997 and 2010, before the Iraq War destroyed Blair’s popularity with voters and sent the party on its slow, catastrophic path toward Corbyn. So Blair must have relished the opportunity to say “I told you so” after December’s defeat:
Our latest defeat was entirely predictable and predicted. We went into an election with a leader [Corbyn] with a minus-40 net approval rating, on political terrain chosen by our opponents, with a manifesto promising the earth but from a planet other than Earth, and a campaign which substituted a narcissistic belief in our righteousness for professionalism.
He has a point. Labour’s activist grassroots may continue to prefer Corbyn’s leadership to Blair’s brand of centrism. But it would appear, according to polls and the general-election results, that the voters are with Blair. The British journalist Peter Hitchens argued that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won the last election because they “stole Blairism from Labour.” “The Tory party became the Blairite party,” he wrote, noting wryly that Tories embarked on this trajectory “without having a clue what they were doing,” and predicting that the result will be the end of Britain.
As for Labour, it is back in the wilderness, desperately struggling to regain relevance among the working-class voters who have historically been its bread and butter. Lisa Nandy, one leadership hopeful, has promised to put “an end to the wholesale patronising of working people as a homogeneous group.” But she has also committed to a pledge that would kick out all party members who don’t believe that trans women are women, and said that she thinks male prisoners (including rapists) ought to be put in women’s prisons if they identify as female. How can a party advocating such policies — while continuing to stick by Corbyn’s politically disastrous economic platform — expect to reach a wide range of working-class voters?
Perhaps there will come a time when the memory of Old Labour’s failures will be sufficiently faded in Britain that voters will elect a left-wing party again. But for now, it almost seems as if the Tories and Labour have swapped places: The latter represents the bourgeois establishment, while the former is the party of the working man.