Guest article: Is Labour’s century-long Party over?

Guest article: Is Labour’s century-long Party over?

A guest contribution from Tabman

“The founding of the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marx. Discuss.”

At the heart of this classic A-Level Politics question is an examination of the founding coalition of the Labour Party – the finding of common interest between the “Working Man”, in the form of the TUC, and the “Concerned Middle Class” represented by socialist intellectuals such as the Fabians. This founding coalition has changed shape and emphasis over the last 100 years, but its continued existence remains the reason why the Labour Party is in government today.

The extension of the Universal Franchise, the Liberal Party’s self-destruction and ruthless exploitation of the political situation by the Labour leadership led the party to become the natural home of the “progressive left” by the end of the Second World War; a situation that has pertained for over 60 years.

But could “Time” soon be called on Labour’s Party?

The signs of fracture are there. Membership has fallen below 200,000, the calls for Blair’s departure grow ever louder, and articles by the likes of John Harris chronicle the disillusionment felt within the activist base. That article hints at the reason for the strength of the Labour movement in retaining its middle class support, and the potential catastrophic effects if it loses it:

After four decades of membership, [Rina Silverman] left the Labour party in 2005 … As with so many activists, the party is in the family; her late father-in-law was the Labour MP Sidney Silverman, whose private member’s bill led to the abolition of capital punishment. When she resigned her membership in 2005, she felt a bracing sense of guilt. “You think about the people who came before you and how they would regard you. I was letting my family down. I suppose it’s a minority of people who really are that committed to this. But for us, it’s like a religion. It’s taken the place of religion.”

This Concerned Middle Class vote, once characterised on this site as “GMW” (Guardian Men and Women), and represented within the activist base by the likes of Ms Silverman, has deep roots. The Labour Party is deep in its psyche, and its loyalties are strong. But it is only part of the Labour-voting coalition. The other two important elements can be characterised as the Urban Working Class (UWC), and Aspirant New Middle Class (ANMC).

Ever since it got the vote, the UWC have viewed the Labour Party as “their” party. They have always believed Labour has had their interests at heart, although that loyalty has been severely tested as of late. That is why Labour has put so much effort into the likes of ASBOs – yet turnout in urban constituencies has declined dramatically, and the rise of the likes of the BNP highlights that this group feel marginalised. The UWC are on the front-line as recipients of the State’s support, and as their expectations are raised above the ability of services to deliver, their frustration seeks an outlet. Until now the chasing pack have been so far behind in these constituencies that Labour has been able to ignore them without suffering the consequences. Yet May 2005 showed the initial tremors of a potential electoral earthquake, if the core vote stay-at-homes increase, or the opposition coalesces around the main challenger.

The other key element in New Labour’s coalition of voters are the ANMC. Such voters are not overly ideological, but tend to support the party who they think best reflects their aspirations. This group has been characterised as “Mondeo Man” or “Worcester Woman”, and tend to be the swing voters in key marginals upon whom much attention is focussed. Whilst they remain comfortable and optimistic, my hunch is that they will continue to vote Labour – “It’s the economy, stupid”. But any economic downturn that affected their actual or perceived well-being would see this group head off into the sunset. The Conservatives would most likely assume that these voters will “return” to them, and in many cases they would be right. But nothing in politics can be taken for granted, and the Lib Dems’ recent tax-cutting initiatives could, if played properly, persuade some of this group that there is an alternative that isn’t Tory.

What does the imminent accession of Gordon Brown hold for these three types of voter?

Brown is often portrayed as having the Labour Party at his very core, and he carries the aspirations of the Labour Left, for so long marginalised under Blair. Yet Brown knows he has little room to manoeuvre if he is to retain the ANMC support deemed crucial to Labour success. Yet, “more of the same” tests the loyalty of the bedrock of Labour support – GMW and UWC. This dam of disillusionment threatens to burst, and the deluge could take the Labour Party with it. But where will the final, spent trickle of votes end up?

On the face of it, the Conservatives are best placed to benefit from those UWC who decide to vote, especially in the marginals. But the in the real homeland of the UWC, the main opposition is now in many cases in the form of the Liberal Democrats. But there are ominous signs that it could be none of the “traditional” parties who ultimately benefit, with many staying at home, or going with the populists.

Cameron has made much of trying to woo the GMW vote with recent pronouncements on tax and the public services, and here, too, he could make gains for the blue column. But many of the public sector middle class would rather cut their arms off than vote Conservative, so he has much still to do to turn things around. The Lib Dems may benefit, especially if Civil Liberties issues come to the fore, but Labour is a religion for this group and its faith has been shaken greatly without collapse before.

But there is now a strong sense that Labour’s coalition is starting to look at its collective watches, drink the remains of its drinks, and eye the door. There are other events that now look more enticing, and this will make the politics of the next decade fascinating. We could be entering a phase of electoral developments similar to the events of the 1920s – four elections and massive swings between parties in terms of votes and seats. The relative size of the Third and Minority party blocs in Parliament is a massively unpredictable factor on outcomes.

This will prove an exhilirating white-knuckle ride for the activist and the punter. Fasten your seatbelts!

Tabman is a Liberal Democrat activist and a regular contributor to discussions on this site.

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