Apocalypse soon?

Andrew Harrop

Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die. It needs to find a new cultural centre ground and consider how to work with others, writes Andrew Harrop

The politics of 2016 may have been frenetic but now an uneasy calm has descended on the Labour party. The Corbynite left has won the big internal battles but it seems to have no roadmap for winning back lost voters. The rest of the parliamentary party is barely audible: in place of the sound and fury of Jeremy Corbyn’s first 12 months, there is quietude, passivity and resignation. And on Brexit, the greatest political question for two generations, the party’s position is muffled and inconsistent. This is the calm of stalemate, of insignificance, even of looming death.

Labour remains strong in urban pockets but is faring very badly in by-elections. If the opinion polls are any guide, it could soon cease to be a nationally competitive political force. In Scotland there is no sign of recovery. And in England and Wales the party is only matching the level it achieved at the 2010 election, even though mid-term polls normally favour Labour oppositions. Even if the party’s numbers sink no further, at the next election it is on course to win under 200 seats for the first time since 1935, as a new Fabian analysis paper reveals today.

Labour politicians need to do more to understand the nature of the threat. MPs in the British equivalent of America’s ‘rust belt’ talk up the risk of Ukip. But Paul Nuttall will struggle to make inroads, as Labour majorities are mainly large where Ukip is a force. And whatever MPs’ local anxieties, since 2010 Ukip has actually gained relatively few votes directly from Labour and is now losing supporters to the Conservatives. The real threat in marginal seats is that former Labour supporters will scatter in all directions, while the Tories reach out to everyone who voted Leave. Theresa May’s simple electoral strategy is to be the party of Brexit and it is paying dividends.

The Conservatives won’t mind that they are also losing some ‘remain’ voters, but for Labour there are no easy choices. The Tories and Ukip may be chasing Labour’s 2 million leave voters. But the Liberal Democrats now have their sights on the party’s 5 million remainers, and in the recent by-elections they’ve won plenty over. The Fabian Society’s analysis shows that since the 2015 election Labour has lost more votes to ‘remain’ parties than to the right. So if Labour apes May or Nuttall it could easily do more harm than good.

This dilemma means that Labour cannot allow others to define UK politics as if it were split down the middle by a referendum vote. Scotland has proved where that leads. Labour MPs representing ex-industrial heartlands may feel that the country is severed in two when they see social conservatives at home and liberal urbanites in London. But, in truth, we are not a polarised nation of cosmopolitans and reactionaries. Most people are somewhere in between, and that’s especially the case in marginal constituencies.

To find a way back, Labour must therefore become the party of this cultural ‘middle’. Tony Blair once tried to own the ‘centre ground’ of the left-right economic axis. Now the party’s goal must be to dominate the centre of the newly dominant social/cultural axis that runs between Blair’s liberal internationalism and Trump’s social authoritarianism. The party must plant its flag midway between these poles and seek to occupy as much space as possible, so that it can rebuild connections with people with all sorts of different backgrounds and worldviews, whatever they did at the referendum.

Labour needs to be the party for the millions of voters who were neither die-hard remainers nor leavers; neither Richmond Park global citizens nor Faragiste pub bores. In practice, that means starting with pavement politics in the suburbs and towns where Labour isn’t winning, to show that the party is ‘from here’, not an unfamiliar somewhere else.

For the time being Labour has no realistic chance of winning an election outright. To win a majority of one the party will probably need to beat the Tories by more than in 2001; such was the scale of its Scottish meltdown. So a wounded Labour party will have to get used to the idea that it will need to work alongside others. But the party is not going to die either, because the quirks of the British electoral system create a firebreak: even if Labour’s vote share plummets, the party will still have far more MPs than any other opposition party and a sufficient parliamentary platform to start to rebuild.

It is not a story of victory or death: Labour is too strong to be supplanted by another opposition party; and too weak to have any realistic chance of governing alone. But whenever an election comes the party must fight for every vote and every seat, because there is a huge difference between winning 150 and 250 MPs. The question now is whether the party can move forward, not back?

Stuck: how Labour is too weak to win, and too strong to die by Andrew Harrop is published today. A version of this article appears in the Winter 2016/17 edition of the Fabian Review.


  1. Ludek Rychetnik

    Excellent analysis but Andrew Harrop does not seem to formulate any positive program to counter Theresa May’s vision of ” building a stronger, fairer, more Global Britain ” (White Paper)

  2. Rafal Zak

    Andrew we so grateful for this academic an article. Our Labour Party has dilemma like Democratic Party in US. We believe both magnificent organisations will be main political players again.

  3. Martin Grubb

    Andrew Harrop has said what needed to be said. The party is not going to die but to survive it must face an intellectual upheaval that has to come from a far more critical and analytical and above all an honest re-think to the question ‘whose interests is the party actually protecting, whose should it be protecting, how, and what is the evidence base?’

    It is a very interesting coincidence that on the day Andrew Harrop’s observations are published that a perfect example of policy confusion, and the need for policy upheaval, presents itself, in this instance over housing. Yesterday the media was awash with politicians and the commentariat supporting a ‘new towns’ (or rather a ‘new villages’) policy with everyone giving the impression that we can build our way out of what is without doubt an appalling housing crisis.

    However we did not hear from anyone about the negligible prospects of this policy having any significant effect on the housing crisis and in particular the warnings to that effect by the House of Lords in its very substantial housing report, ‘Building More Homes’, published in July 2016. Its Committee had a large majority of Labour and Lib-Dem peers. It took evidence from more than 150 witness submissions (including from the writer). The Committee concluded in detail (103 pages) how difficult it will be to increase the current rate of building but that building more houses, whilst highly desirable, numerically makes very little overall difference to supply/demand imbalance when set against some 2m existing ‘concealed’ households to which is then being added an overwhelming future demand.

    The 141,000 houses built last year have to be set against a UK population increase which the ONS later this year (October) will assess to be in the region of 530.000 for 2016 (and for each subsequent year) with at least 70% (per ONS) being the result of direct or indirect immigration.

    It is therefore not a surprise that throughout their report the Lords identify immigration as the current and future primary exacerbating factor in the housing crisis, particularly in London. The prospect of home ownership has disappeared for most under 40 without financial assistance, and for at least a generation. The wealthy and old are hoarding property in which the young are increasingly huddled at crippling rental expense. What is less surprising is that despite such a substantial report being the work of their party members no one in Labour or the Lib-Dems seems to have read of it. An interesting question at the forthcoming Fabian conference might be to ask who has read it or Is this yet another depressing example of the denial of expert evidence if it questions received opinion.

    Andrew Harrop’s contributions to the Fabian Society invariably display a respect for fact and detail and yesterday’s observations deserve an appropriate response and some real soul searching. A policy with moral intent does not guarantee a moral acceptable outcome. Housing is a good example. The evidence illustrates how growing demand and limited supply and a constant flow of migrant tenants, to which Labour has given its blessing, has resulted in the entrenchment of the dominance of private landlords, without whom there would be no significant immigration as migrants have no other housing choice. These are circumstances where the party must examine outcome and draw a conclusion. Why do those who make money out of immigration, who are largely the owners of capital, find us so easy to manipulate for their own best interests? Why, for example, do we believe them when they say that the migrant fiscal dividend is a substantial contribution to public finances when HMRC reports that it only amounts to 0.3% of annual public expenditure, exactly the same percentage as the costs of health tourism are to the NHS budget and therefore just as insignificant.

    And when the CBI members panic at the Home Secretary’s call for information on firms’ foreign national employment numbers, why did the party rush to collude in the concealment of this information from the public (a concealment which affords protection to employers from any evidence based action for redress), and so be complicit in the cover up of the scandal of discriminatory employment policies operated by very many major employers to ensure a pliable low paid and in most instances foreign, and in many instances frightened, workforce deliberately kept in ignorance of union membership. This must mark a new low for Labour. How has the party sunk the the point when to protect their employment policies the likes of Mike Ashley have only to push the button marked ”immigration” for Labour to come to their rescue bounding along with a supine conditioned response that makes Pavlov’s dogs look like Wittgenstein? The party has got to do better than this.

  4. Andrew Dundas

    I joined the Labour Party in 1963. We were a different party back then. Nowadays we’ve become the Public Sector Party that doesn’t know about the many millions of working people that don’t have careers in the public sector.
    We need to be a more inclusive organisation. And return to our key objective which is even more relevant today. That objective was to secure greater equality – especially in terms of wealth. Moreover, when Labour is in power most inequalities are reduced. When the Conservatives and Liberals are in power, inequalities always widen. Surely that’s what we should build upon, not more money for a section of the community? `

  5. John Fotheringham

    I am on the left of the party but share a lot of your frustrations with the leadership and welcome your contribution to the debate on the way forward. I have to say, though, that, up here in Scotland, where we are facIng down the barrel of a gun, the root of our current problems lie in the policies of Blair and his supporters, which includes you. The Iraq war – and there is no getting away from this – was a colossal political blunder as well as a crime and it is this above all which deracinated the party. If you really want to be taken seriously then you have to begin with an open and honest examination of your own culpability on this issue. Much the same can be said of the question of free movement of labour in the EU. This was the core issue in the referendum especially for those of our voters and supporters who have been most affected by the influx of cheap labour. You may not like these views but ignoring them has got us into the present predicament, Again this was a Blairite policy which you and your co thinkers embraced and clung to despite the fact that any ordinary party member could have told you the impact it was having on our core support, I have no time to expand on this here but you need to be straightforward on these matters before you can claim a hearing.

    • Andrew Harrop


      Thank you for your comments and welcome for our analysis.

      Contrary to some media reports the Fabian Society is not a ‘Blairite’ organisation. Our members span the whole range of Labour opinion, including many who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections. My own politics are not Blairite either – more soft left – and I strongly opposed military action in Iraq.


  6. David Dawson

    Congratulations Andrew on your advocacy of alliances with other parties at the next General Election.A reform of the voting system is
    Likely to be a key condition and the national parties need to encourage local alliances .Tribal Labour is dying !

  7. Verina Glaessner

    Initially this article seemed to present a cogent view of Labour’s position.It then succumbed to a soundbite litany of supposed requirements for winning an election: party (faction) strategy.
    Two separate concerns are thereby conflated, that of the survival of a particular political party with ideology/slogans intact, and,the expressed or imagined ‘needs’ of a (separate) category, that of the electorate. Hence the tired and flatulent resurrection of the notion of the ever virtuous ‘middle’ which, when viewed in opposition to the Party appears both blameless and recalcitrant.
    What is, of course, at first obscured by categories such as that of ‘Blair’s liberal internationalism’ Liberal? and then dismissed from any analysis are the requirements of the particular mesh of social exchanges in which the nation finds itself at this particular moment. These needs, and the potentials they are capable of generating, for good or evil, one might say, require addressing. Our resources are finite and our time is short.
    Once again, of course, the situation of those who regularly sell their work for under the cost of production goes ignored.Not enough of them to make it worth it.

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