The Labour party did much better than expected in the election but over the longer term the system of government that has existed for a century could crumble

KEY POINTS

  • All the main parties in the upcoming UK general election were anxious to emphasise their connection with the mass of the population.
  • A decisive Conservative Party victory looked likely for weeks but in the event it failed to gain an absolute majority.
  • The Labour Party is facing an identity crisis as it is losing the support of its traditional working class base.
  • The two-party system that has existed for a century is more fragile than it appears.

Note: This article was written before the general election on 8 June but the longer-term trends it identifies are still valid.

It is hard to avoid the shadow of last year’s European Union (EU) referendum vote hovering over the UK’s election on 8 June. Not that Brexit is the only topic of debate but it does seem to have driven all the main parties to emphasise that they are in touch with the mass of the population.

The ruling Conservative Party is anxious to present itself, in the words of the prime minister, Theresa May, as the party of “proud and patriotic working class people”. She contrasts this with the centre-left Labour party which she accuses of abandoning its traditional base. The Conservatives’ main pitch is that a good result in the election would strengthen the government’s hand in the Brexit negotiations.

The Tories, as the Conservatives are also known, say that they are offering “strong and stable leadership in the national interest”. Of course, this is also an implicit way of saying that Labour would offer weak and unstable leadership which would undermine the national interest.

Meanwhile, Labour’s central slogan is “for the many not the few”. The implicit message is that Labour is the true representative of working people in contrast to the Tories’ traditional role as the party of business. In the view of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, the Conservatives represent the interests of the wealthy ‘fat cats’ in contrast to the hard-working majority.

Labour and the Conservatives are, at present, the two main forces in terms of parliamentary seats but there are, of course, other smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats (LibDems) are emphasising their pro-EU credentials, in contrast to the main parties that, before last year’s referendum at least, were sharply split on the subject. Central to the LibDem platform is a call for a second referendum once a deal on exiting the EU is negotiated. 

The LibDems’ main slogan is that they are the only party fighting to keep Britain open, tolerant and united – implying, of course, that the other parties are closed, intolerant and divided. In addition, there are significant regional parties in Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland. There is also the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) but it seems to have lost most of its support to the Conservatives since the referendum.

leaders

At the time of writing, it looked likely that the Conservative Party would win a decisive victory, although there was some talk of its lead over the Labour party narrowing. The LibDems will likely win several million votes but because of the workings of the first-past-the-post electoral system the party is unlikely to win many parliamentary seats.

However, as with France, it is worth drawing back from the day-to-day arguments to investigate if any longer-term patterns emerge. The situation is not as clear as in France where there is no doubt that the mainstream left and right parties have had a disastrous year. But there is a possibility in the UK, as in many other places in western Europe, that the centre-left party could collapse. Many have observed that it could have a disastrous election result and that could, in turn, precipitate a split in the party.

If Labour does collapse, it would be a hugely significant development. Labour and the Conservatives have been the two dominant parties since 1918, so it would be no exaggeration to call the fall of Labour an historic shift. 

Of course, recent British political history is remarkably stable compared with that of many countries in continental Europe. Through the twentieth century, the UK avoided the travails of dictatorship and foreign occupation that afflicted so many European states. But the UK’s historical stability makes the possible breakdown of its political set-up all the more notable.

To understand the Labour party properly it is necessary to go back to its founding in 1900. It was established by the trade unions as a way of representing the interests of the organised labour movement in parliament. That explains why it is called the Labour party.

The party experienced another important shift in 1918 with the endorsement of its new constitution. That was the first time that it accepted members on a constituency or local level. Clause IV of the document also defined the party’s goals in state socialist terms:  

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production distribution and exchange and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

Although this clause was played down for many years it was only in 1995 that it was modified to remove the reference to nationalisation. New Labour, as it became known under the leadership of Tony Blair, emphasised its role as a mainstream moderate party.

Although Labour enjoyed electoral success in the subsequent years – it was in government from 1997-2010 – it found itself facing an identity crisis. It was no longer clearly a working class party in the old sense but it was competing with the other main parties for middle class support.

For political scientists, the debate is over cause and effect. Was it the decline of the traditional trade union movement that led to Labour’s shift? Or was it the party’s political shift under Blair that caused it to lose working class support?

As John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, argues. “It’s true that the relationship between class and vote is weaker now than it was certainly up to the 1980s. Before that there were arguments about whether class voting was declining in a linear fashion or not. But there isn’t any argument that certainly since the advent of New Labour the relationship has got rather weaker.”

In Curtice’s view, the change in political direction taken by the Labour party was the main factor in its losing working class support. “It’s an issue to do with the supply of political choices rather than simply the demand for political choices,” he says.

“The relationship between class and vote is weaker now than it was certainly up to the 1980s… But there isn’t any argument that since the advent of New Labour the relationship has got rather weaker”

John Curtice

In contrast Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, argues that a combination of structural and political factors explain Labour’s plight. “Labour has a severe sociological problem to confront,” he says. In his view both shifts in the Labour market – with the disappearance of many traditional working class jobs – and the persistence of cultural conservatism among the working class were responsible.

Although this article has focused more on the challenges facing the Labour party it should not be assumed that the Conservatives are trouble-free. For example, Bale points out that the Conservative party’s membership has fallen from 2.9m in 1951 to just over 100,000 at present. Its links with wider society are clearly far weaker than they were.

The Labour party has also suffered a long-term decline – it had over one million members in its constituency parties in the early 1950s – but in recent years its membership has surged from a low of 156,000 in 2009 to over half a million. However, according to Bale, its membership, like that of the Conservatives, is predominantly middle class and middle-aged.

If Labour does perform particularly poorly in this election, which looks likely, it should not just be seen as a defeat for the centre left. It would represent a further breakdown in the pattern of government that has existed for a century.

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