The Labour Party: looking back to move forwards

There can clearly be no debate: Boris Johnson achieving a 78-seat majority for the Conservatives was a disastrous result for the Labour Party. But what lessons and leanings can be garnered from the past to help lead the party into its brave new future?

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There can clearly be no debate: Boris Johnson achieving a 78-seat majority for the Conservatives was a disastrous result for the Labour Party. 

That is about the only facet of the Labour Party that is not currently the source of intense scrutiny and passionate debate. Take, for example, the reason for their crushing defeat. The three most common suggestions doing the rounds are:

i) Jeremy Corbyn

ii) Brexit

iii) a lack of clarity in party messaging

You will note a couple of glaring omissions here: Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. 

Yes, the party’s repetitive, simplistic message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ cut through to voters, whereas muddled explanations meant the electorate — jaded to unprecedented levels by the previous 3 1/2 years of perceived post-referendum inertia — did not trust Labour to act quickly and decisively on Brexit one way or the other. 

But the reality is Labour voters that held their noses to vote for the Tories in December did not do so because they believed Johnson to be anything other than duplicitous or self-serving, or because they suddenly decided that continued austerity was necessary. 

It is also true that several of Corbyn’s key policies are extremely popular with voters across party allegiance, including left-leaning ideas like renationalising the rail network. 

So with such conflicting reasons for the defeat, do Labour move to the centre in an attempt to appeal to moderate voters? Or do they instead maintain their current course and hope that a more charismatic leader espousing similar policies to Corbyn might be enough to persuade voters at the next election?

In order to move forwards it can be good to look backwards, and that is particularly true when dealing with the unique factions that make up the modern Labour party.


A brief history of Labour governments

Since its formation in 1900, the Labour Party has only actually governed for a total of 34 years, and gained a majority in just 9 elections. It is surely inarguable, therefore, that voters in this country err towards the right, and that the Labour Party has traditionally had to offer radical change — either in terms of pitching itself against the Tories or against its own past — to gain the trust of the country’s electorate.

Labour’s first two governments were precarious minority affairs led by Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s and early 1930s. On both occasions the party suffered sizeable defeat at subsequent elections, with the 1924 election set against a backdrop of sustained attack from the right-wing press, including the publication of a letter which alleged close ties between the government and the nascent Soviet communist state. In the intervening years the veracity of the letter has been doubted, suggesting that the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by much of the press is not without precedent!

Labour’s first workable majority arrived in the post-war election of 1945. This was clearly a unique period for the country, and by electing a progressive Labour government voters showed that they believed radical social change was needed in order to secure post-war international and domestic security.

However, in spite of the government’s notable successes, Clement Attlee was then defeated in the 1951 election. Winston Churchill’s Conservatives had accepted the NHS, and it was as if the inherent conservatism of the UK electorate returned following its dalliance with socialist policies.

Following the 1951 defeat, Labour spent 13 years out of power before Harold Wilson won a small majority in 1964. Those years saw the party divided over its future direction and its role in the modern affluent world. 

Harold Wilson was a moderate figure within the party, and although he won several elections, he was a divisive figure, particularly regarding UK membership of the European common market (Europe causing problems for Labour leaders; now where have we heard that before?!).

Of course, the Thatcher (and then Major) years saw Labour in the electoral wilderness for 18 years. The party tried several paths in its attempts to regain power. The press link Corbyn most closely with Michael Foot in 1983. The Labour manifesto that year proposed extensive nationalisation of industry. The result was the party’s worst election defeat in over half a century. 

Neil Kinnock followed; his attempts to modernise the party nonetheless leading to successive defeats in 1987 and 1992.

Tony Blair’s win in 1997 is well documented, with it being accepted fact that his youthful charisma and the New Labour project incessantly distancing itself from past mistakes led to the landslide. 

But it is equally true that the country had been under Tory rule for 18 years, by which time apportioning blame to the previous Labour government for the UK’s unemployment, poverty and poor public services lacked credibility. 

Is the argument then, that Labour simply need to bide their time? After all, if Boris Johnson’s government serve a full term then the Tories will have been in government for 14 years. The electorate will hold them accountable for Brexit if it fails to deliver. They will expect investment and tangible improvement in the NHS and other public services and might decide to again turn to the left if the right falls short of their campaign promises. 

In addition, if there was one positive for Labour to take from the 2019 campaign it was that there appears to be a growing, engaged and youthful section of the electorate which is willing to embrace progressive left-wing politics. 

And this is yet another precedent, as the party first grew into a force following the 1918 extension of the franchise to males aged 21 or older, and all women aged 30 or over. The popularity of the Labour Party (and the left in general) has not changed in the subsequent generations, with the 2019 results showing a huge advantage for Corbyn with voters between 18-25. 

But Labour should take cognisance of the fact that Corbyn’s policies were genuinely popular. He was seen as sharing the concerns that many young people have relating to environmental issues, student debt and affordable housing. A more centrist Labour Party runs the risk of alienating this relatively radical portion of the electorate.

Even if they wanted to, given the leanings of the majority of the Labour membership, it is currently difficult to see how a Blair-esque ‘moderniser’ actually becomes leader at this point. But then, given the popularity of some of the party’s more radical policies, plus the evidence pointing to an engaged, left-leaning young electorate, and the crucial lessons that can be gleaned from previous attempts to react to election defeats, it may not be what the party needs regardless.


(Written by Olly Ricketts, edited by Michael O'Sullivan)

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