Despairing of Labour’s long-term viability is nothing new

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer delivers his speech during the Labour Party Conference at t

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer delivers his speech during the Labour Party Conference at the Brighton Centre in Brighton. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Electability or ideology, reclaiming old heartlands or targeting new ones... BARNABY TOWNS on the choices facing Labour.

Some general election defeats are so comprehensively disastrous that the routed party must rethink and regroup amid the political equivalent of smoking ruins. Since the war, this has been true of 1945 and 1997 for the Conservatives, yielding the party 197 and 165 seats respectively, and 1983 for Labour, serving up 209 constituencies. To these 2019 can now be added, with 202 Labour members returned.

These slumps in seat numbers were seismic electoral rebukes: the Tories down 189 and 171 in number in 1945 and 1997, respectively, and Labour with 60 fewer in 1983 and 2019 - Conservatives after an unusually long 16 and 18 years in government, while Labour downgraded their position in opposition.

Labour's 202-seat parliamentary haul was the lowest in 84 years, when the party won a mere 52 constituencies in the 1935 Tory plus Liberal National and National Labour government landslide. Last year's 32% vote share was the third lowest in the 23 general elections since the UK arguably became a democracy, with equal votes for men and women from age 21. Only in 1983 and 2010 did Labour score lower. After nearly a decade in opposition, during a long period of austerity, 2019's 4.5% Labour-Tory swing matched classic Labour routs in 1979 (5.2%), 1983 (5.4%), and 1970 (4.7%).

Despairing of Labour's long-term viability is nothing new. A fourth-in-a-row defeat in 1992 prompted an academic treatise titled Turning Japanese? speculating if the UK faced the possible near-permanent hegemony of one governing party, as per the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in Japan. The theory was that if the Tories could win even in the depths of recession, could they ever lose?


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Following a third consecutive election defeat in 1959, Labour intellectual and high-flyer Anthony Crosland wrote a Fabian Society tract entitled Can Labour Win? in which he concluded: "If Labour continues to be thought of as an essentially proletarian and one-class party, it faces the certainty of steady decline." While such pessimism proved premature, 2019 too brings speculation about the end of the party.

Typically after defeat, big parties face a choice between purity and pragmatism. Occasionally, however, victory arrives without major changes to party and personnel, driven instead by the electorate's desire for change. Labour's 1964 and 1974 victories fall into the latter category.

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Thrown into opposition by voters in 1979 and 2010, Labour chose to please itself rather than the electorate. Even the Tories - usually the more ruthless of the two main parties - spurned the more popular Ken Clarke for William Hague in 1997 and Iain Duncan Smith in 2001.

But the transition from class-based to identity politics, supercharged by Brexit, complicates this traditional dilemma of indulging ideology versus expanding electability. Accordingly, don't be surprised if Labour's destiny is shaped as much by whether it chooses to lean toward its Remain or Leave supporters as by the choice between continuity Corbyn candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey or her three rivals.

Of Labour's 60 constituency losses last month, fully 53 recorded Leave votes higher than 2016's 52% national average. At the far end of this spectrum are the Tory victories in such Leave - and former Labour - strongholds as Bolsover (Leave, 70%), Ashfield (71%), and Great Grimsby (72%). Only seven Tory gains from Labour came from constituencies with above-average Remain support - the most strongly so being Putney, Labour's sole election gain, which backed Remain by 72% in the referendum.

Among Labour's top 60 target seats currently held variously by Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists, only 15 plumped for Remain by more than the UK-wide average; the other 45 did so for Leave. This means that the leadership candidates who lean more strongly to Remain, and are perceived as more 'centrist' - Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry - may place fewer marginal seats in play than their more 'extreme' Leave-leaning colleagues, Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy.

Adding to complex calculations, by choosing Long-Bailey, Labour would place more distance between itself and the Lib Dems, possibly to the latter's benefit in terms of votes. But if Starmer brokers an arrangement where each party strategically steps down in the others' Tory-held targets - unlikely if hard-left Long-Bailey wins - this may assist Lib Dems in seats that, under first-past-the-post, are more important.

YouGov's latest poll of Labour members places Starmer significantly ahead of Long-Bailey at 63:37%, while Survation estimates the final round at 51:49% for Long-Bailey. Given these findings, Labour's choice may lie between retreating to its pro-Leave heartlands or yielding that territory to Boris Johnson's nationalist-populist Tories while targeting the 52% of UK voters who now back Remain.

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