The 2019 defeat underlines why Labour needs to move on from the flawed 20th Century Fabian political model, says Trevor Fisher
The 75th anniversary of Labour’s 1945 victory saw some muted celebrations, notably praising Clem Attlee, but not a lot of assessment of Labour’s overall record. Faced with the fourth election defeat in a row in 2019 – no party has ever lost five in a row – Starmer has rightly chosen to proceed cautiously. But the bigger issue is that Labour has failed to challenge the political dominance of the Tory Party over the 75 years with its roots in Victorian High Imperialism. Labour Together’s recent report rightly talked of 20 years of failure. True, Blairism had started to founder by 2001, but we need to look further back. In 1945 Labour believed “We are the Masters Now”. Six years later Churchill was back in Number 10.
This started a ‘stop, go’ cycle which most Labour members seem not to grasp. Since I joined in 1975, there have been 11 general elections. Including 1979, when Callaghan lost a minority government, Labour has lost eight and won three – and the last victory, in 2005, with less than 36% of the vote. This has never stopped Labour members talking about the “next Labour government”. Yet working majority Labour governments are few and far between.
Only three Labour leaders have ever secured a majority Labour government. If we take out the tiny majorities of Attlee in 1950 and Wilson in 1964 and 1974, the record is four working majority Labour governments: Attlee in 1945, Wilson in 1966, and Blair in 1997 and 2001 – 2005 was a majority with so slim a base in the country even Blair should have noticed. His clique have never accepted that the formula of 1979 – neoliberal economics and modest reforms such as the minimum wage – had no long term appeal, even before the Iraq War in 2003 split the front.
Trouble with elections
But let’s look at the bigger picture. Blair made serious mistakes, being too close to the US under Bush; but Wilson avoided such pitfalls, kept Britain out of the Vietnam War, and in 1970 went into the election with a 12% opinion poll lead – yet lost to Ted Heath. It has never been explained why a successful government failed to hold its appeal in the heat of the election. Attlee carried out the manifesto and, as Duncan Bowie has pointed out, won more votes in 1951 than the Tories (48.8% to 48%) – but the Tories got 28 more seats. This was partly because of the electoral system. The Tories love First Past the Post, with good reason; Labour has always taken the view it can win with FPTP, and this is true – but within severe limits hardly ever discussed.
Labour replaced the Liberals in 1945 to become the main opposition to the Tories – an achievement which had taken it 45 years, from the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. Since then, Labour in office has only been possible for just 28 years, while the Tories have been in office for 45 – a ratio of not quite two years in power to three in opposition. Take out the 1970s – when Labour had a minority government from 1974-79, which is one of the great ‘might have beens’ – and the record is short bursts of Labour and long periods of Toryism.
Thus after Attlee’s six years, the Tories enjoyed Wilson’s “thirteen wasted years” till 1964. After Thatcher destroyed Callaghan in 1979, Toryism ran till 1997 – eighteen years in the wilderness with Labour losing four elections. And after the Blair-Brown years, from 2010 to now we have had ten Tory years (with Liberal help until 2015), and if the government runs till 2024 (which I doubt), that will be 14 years and four lost elections. And as we know, as the Party lost Scotland in 2015 and many established Northern seats in 2019, the old electoral base is in trouble. Scotland, with its pro-EU culture, was ripe for SNP takeover and Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats; after a dead cat bounce in 2017, Labour returned only one MP again in 2019. Labour finished fourth in Scotland, with its national vote down to 18.6%. Blair had always assumed that he could take Scottish Labour for granted, and warning signs that the New Labour project had failed were ignored as Labour chose to drive through red lights.
Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw pointed out the problems affecting Labour north of the border in their book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (2012) even before the disastrous defeat in 2015. They argued:
“If Scottish Labour is to have a positive future and role in Scottish politics, it has to recognise that the terrain of politics has dramatically altered, its post-war social order is no more, and that it needs to understand what has changed, change itself and change the nature of its politics.”
This made not the slightest difference, and Labour marched into the killing fields of the SNP in 2015 not realising the truth of what their sympathetic critics had said.
What is to be done?
No short article can examine the way Labour has repeatedly failed to establish a solid majority across the UK. To do so requires going back to 1918 and the effective start of Labour’s attempt to challenge the Tories, in the new constitution penned by the Fabian Sidney Webb. As Webb wrote in an introductory pamphlet, the aim was to attract “not only many hundreds of thousands of the new working class electors, but also… men and women of the shopkeeping, manufacturing and professional classes who are dissatisfied with the old political parties”*.
Allied to a Fabian gradualism, this has defined Labour’s battle strategy for a century with variations. As indicated, damagingly New Labour took the old working class in Scotland and seats in Northern England for granted to focus on Tory seats – successful only in the short term and underestimating the nationalists (the SNP in Scotland and UKIP-Brexit Party in England). Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour never became a truly national (i.e. UK-wide party) and was always an urban party. Less obviously, it never overcame the view of the old Labour Representation Committee that it was primarily a party of a trade union movement, itself in decline after the 1960s.
It is essential that now there is a rigorous attempt to address the issue of how to become a 21st Century party as Labour’s 20th Century model underperformed badly. What is class politics in the era of the gig economy? The working class is no longer manual workers in factories and council houses, so what unites those who work for a living? How does Labour counter a nationalist surge which saw Sturgeon want to close the border to stop Covid-19 and the Tories win in 2019 on an anti-immigrant ticket? What can replace the Fabian belief in the ‘inevitability of gradualness’, which created the illusion that the ‘future is ours’ and underestimated the difficulty of winning elections? Starmer cannot drift into the next election by simply avoiding mistakes. There has to be a robust political model to replace a Fabian tradition which has run its course.
*from The New Constitution of the Labour Party; A Party of Handworkers and Brainworkers (1918) – LSE Webb Library