People often warn against letting history repeat itself. But history has repeated itself, and will almost certainly continue repeating itself, for the simple reason that human nature has not changed. People are capable of making the same mistakes as our ancestors, and they will still be able to make them in another 1,000 years. It is part of what makes us human, even if we might bemoan politicians, or economists, or whoever it happens to be, “failing to learn the lessons of history”.
I am not about to add another complaint that people have “failed to learn the lessons of history” to the already long list of such complaints. Nor shall I suggest that history has managed to repeat itself in relation to the subject of this article: the modern British Labour Party, specifically the party under the tenure of Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Some have pointed out the supposed similarities between the party in the period 2015-2016 to how it was during the 1980’s, when the party moved noticeably to the left of the political spectrum, and when there were struggles between moderate and left-wing factions. The fact that Labour had a leader widely perceived as hard-left in the period 1980-1983 and has one in the person of Corbyn is also a possible comparison.
In approaching the substance of this article, I find that the events to which I shall allude in relation to the Labour Party are so much more remote than the events of the 1980’s (which are themselves so deeply buried in decades of political change as to achieve a pseudo-historical status) that the task of making these aforementioned events relevant to the modern reader is suddenly rendered a good deal more challenging. I hope, in this case, that the reader will be patient in allowing me to set out in full my argument and why the chosen events are in some small way relevant to twenty-first century British politics, if for no other reason than out of curiosity to read a piece of history they might not have come across before.
The principle theme of this article is electoral vulnerability.
In every situation where there is vulnerability there needs to be at least two parties: the vulnerable party, and the predatory party, one which can potentially exploit that vulnerability. In this case there are four potential predatory parties (literally political parties) and one vulnerable party, the Labour Party.
As I shall set out, Labour is at risk of losing its electoral backbone, the UK Parliamentary constituencies on which it replies at every General Election in order to come within range of forming a government.
A historical example, not of electoral vulnerability, but of territorial vulnerability in the face of multiple predatory outsiders was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a nation which has not existed for more than 200 years. As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, there are no direct comparisons between it and the modern Labour Party that I wish to make.
What I will briefly do in this article, however, is demonstrate how a pattern of events which took place towards the end of the Commonwealth’s existence could serve as an illustrative example of what lies in store for Labour’s representation in the House of Commons- if, that is, the potentially predatory parties exploit their opportunity to the fullest.
By the second half of the eighteenth century, the Commonwealth’s status as a major European empire had diminished significantly and the nation had, indeed, fallen so far as to be dependent upon and in part dictated to by the Russian Empire, its closest eastern neighbour. Recently disturbed by the War of the Bar Confederation and the Koliyivshchyna (racially motivated attacks on Jews and Poles in Polish-occupied Ukraine) the Commonwealth’s government was barely in control of the country and unable to properly defend its borders.
The troublesome Commonwealth sat between three major central European powers: Russia, Austria and Prussia. Each of these nations had an interest in maintaining the so-called balance of power within Europe, which meant mitigating the recent expansion of Russia with gains of their own. The indefensible vastness of the Commonwealth was a convenient target.
Thus, between 1772 and 1795, Russian, Austria and Prussia carried out the Three Partitions of Poland, which resulted in the Commonwealth disappearing from European maps and the occupation of its territory by three stronger, more organised, and highly focussed rival nations.
Over the course of the most recent six General Elections, there are certain areas of the UK in which the Labour Party has consistently performed well, and there are certain areas where it has performed poorly. Labour has been successful in England’s biggest cities, including London, the north of England, southern Wales, and most of Scotland, particularly the central belt. Though much of the geographical area of England has been closed to Labour throughout this period, the aforementioned areas have invariably given Labour a very large block of seats in Parliament, more than 200 in each election since 1992. Labour, thus, has had a reliable electoral structure, a solid block of dependable constituencies which allowed the party to focus on winning “marginal seats”, which would carry it over the line of a majority in Parliament.
The most recent elections in which Labour won a very large number of seats outside its electoral backbone were 1997 and 2001, in which Labour won many seats in historically Conservative-held areas. At the 2005 election, and every election thereafter, however, Labour’s number of seats was reduced dramatically. It has not only lost most, if not all, of the marginal seats in claimed in earlier elections, but its core constituencies are being eroded with each passing election. Labour’s strength in Wales, and northern and central England, for example, has diminished in recent elections.
Notably, voters in Scotland remained strongly pro-Labour, delivering a majority of its seats to Labour in 2010 at the exact time Labour lost dozens of English seats to the Conservatives. In the 2015 General Election, however, there was a sudden transformation in the UK political map, as all but three seats in Scotland elected Scottish National Party MPs.
The accepted logic among some political commentators is that Scotland deserted Labour in favour of the SNP because Scottish voters were disappointed by the manner in which Labour associated themselves with the Scottish Conservatives during the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum.
We could also argue that the 45% of Scottish voters who voted Yes in 2014 lined up to vote SNP in 2015, their numbers alone being able to win a plurality in nearly every Scottish seat.
Yet another argument made is that Labour, and Scottish Labour in particular, failed to find a policy platform which resonated with Scottish voters. The SNP were clearly associated with Scottish Independence, while there was nothing to differentiate Labour from the other Scottish parties; and with the SNP acting as the Party of Scotland, Labour was no longer an attractive option to those who disliked the Conservative government in London.
Whatever the reason for the SNP’s success, that success brings us to central argument of this article.
Labour lost one of the critical components of their electoral structure to the SNP in 2015 because, for whatever reason, they had become out of touch with Scottish voters. And at present the Labour Party is out of touch with many voters in the broader UK, in particular over the issue of immigration.
On economic policy, as well, Labour is not considered nearly as reliable as the incumbent Conservative government. And even those who dislike the government may have been put off by several unappealing aspects of Corbyn’s Labour Party. Not least among these could be the concern of anti-Semitism, doubts over Corbyn’s personal readiness for high office, and lack of a coherent plan for entering government.
Each of these disillusioning influences has an impact on Labour’s electoral attractiveness and the extent to which people will be prepared to vote Labour. But, more importantly for us, as we saw in Scotland in 2015, the long-term disillusionment of Labour’s core of voters across the rest of the UK presents the opportunity to Labour’s electoral competitors to carry out a structural electoral partition of Labour.
In the north of England and Wales, Euro sceptic Labour voters could switch to UKIP or the Conservatives. In London, the Liberal Democrats could attract voters disillusioned with Corbyn’s inflexible hard-left politics. While in central England and marginal constituencies, the comparatively reliable and competent incumbent government will suck up the votes of those contemplating an alternative and as well as those who favour lower immigration, who have a better chance of getting this with a Conservative government than a Corbyn-led Labour one.
In short, the next election could see the building blocks of Labour’s Parliamentary representation partitioned by the three other major parties, which, combined with the eradication of Labour in Scotland, could see Labour reduced to about 100 seats in the Commons.
The implications of the electoral structural partitioning are wide-ranging.
First and foremost, the reduction of Labour to 100 seats in a 2020 General Election, or perhaps earlier, would give the Conservatives a massive electoral advantage over Labour which would last possibly a decade or more. Although nothing is certain, recent UK political history has shown that it takes a very long time for large government majorities to be broken down by the opposition. The strengthened Conservative majority achieved by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1983 was not finally overturned until 1997; while Labour’s large majority from 1997 lasted until 2010.
Although the Conservatives have already been in government for six years, these two examples suggest that if the aforementioned partitioning takes place and the Conservatives achieve a very large majority, they could be in government for another two, or even three, Parliamentary terms.
Labour’s partitioning could result in Conservative government for the next fifteen years, or possibly even longer should Labour be unable to recover or any other party be unable to fill the vacuum left by Labour and challenge the Conservatives for power.
As for Labour itself, a result like the one described above would relegate the party from serious contention for government office. In the Commons Labour would be forced to compete, much as it currently is in Scotland, with other parties like UKIP and the Lib Dems for the status of opposition.
For UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, Labour’s decline and partition can only be their gain. UKIP have long awaited the moment when they can overcome the in-built disadvantage of the first-past-the-post electoral system, having been able to win only a single seat in the 2015 election despite winning 12% of the popular vote. Labour’s detachment from its core voters presents UKIP with an opportunity to suck up those votes who doubt Labour takes immigration seriously. It is ironic that only after UKIP has achieved what it was founded to achieve (bring the UK out of the EU) does it have the chance to become a truly significant presence in the House of Commons.
They have normally been portrayed, interpreted and behaved as political outsiders. The victory of their arguments in the EU Referendum proves, however, just how much closer they were to popular sentiment, at least over the issue of immigration, than the traditional parties of government, Labour and the Conservatives. The next General Election gives UKIP the chance to not only finally reap the rewards of their efforts, but also win over those people who had supported a party of government whom UKIP, and some of its voters, see as the party primarily responsible for so many problems with immigration.
The Lib Dems also have much to gain from Labour’s growing distance from the centre ground.
Having been reduced to just 8 seats in the House of Commons in 2015, the Lib Dems are not currently well positioned to hold the government to account, or indeed to set out a plan for entering government. But were Labour to step further back from the centre ground, and were we to end up with the kind of election result I have outlined, the Lib Dems stand a chance of filling that vacuum. Those who voted Labour in 2015 but can’t bring themselves to vote for Corbyn could be attracted by the Liberal Democrats under Tim Farron’s leadership, perhaps not out of any particular liking for his policies, but more out of having little else to go.
It is not inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats could replace Labour as the official opposition to the government, with Farron as Leader of the Opposition and Labour pushed outside the top two most heavily represented parties in the House of Commons for the first time since 1918.
Coincidentally, the year 1918 was the year the Polish nation came into being once again, 123 years after the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared. The Partitions of Poland took place because Poland had become ungovernable, because its government and people could not resolve the decades-old political conflicts, because, distracted by internal conflicts of interest, Poles forgot about how vulnerable they would appear to European powers looking in.
Poland was also partitioned because it had the misfortune to be situated between three countries with intelligent and cunning governments. Prussia, Austria and Russia recognised that Poland’s weakness presented them with an opportunity to make mutual gains. And while the Tories, UKIP and the Lib Dems are never going to come to an agreement over which parts of Labour’s electoral structure they want to win (like Prussia, Austria and Russia did with Poland) the concept of Labour’s “territory” disintegrating under the strain of multiple opportunistic parties should not be lost on both those who direct Labour’s electoral campaigns, and those who direct other party campaigns.
The first slice of Labour to fall away went to the SNP in 2015. Labour still has time to save the rest of its electoral structure from suffering the same fate, and whether Labour can save itself from having to compete for opposition status is to ask itself the questions Poland had to ask itself in the period 1772-1795. And, as with Poland, Labour’s survival does not simply depend on asking the questions, but arriving at the correct answers.