This is the full version of the article I wrote last month for the International New York Times on the crisis of the Labour Party and of UKIP. (I cannot publish my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until the month after it is published in the newspaper.) It was originally published on 24 February under the headline ‘Britain’s absent opposition’.
On Thursday, storm Doris lashed Britain with ferocious winds and driving snow. That same day, England’s main opposition parties faced a battering almost as fierce.
Two by-elections for the Westminster parliament took place, the first in Stoke-on-Trent Central in the Midlands, the second in Copeland in Cumbria, near the Scottish border. In Stoke, the Labour Party held on to its seat, just. In Copeland, Labour lost to the Conservatives. It was a shattering defeat, only the fourth time since 1945 that a governing party has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election.
Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland are both traditionally rock-solid Labour seats. Labour had won every election since the districts were created (Copeland in 1983; Stoke in 1950). Put a red rosette on a donkey, it was said, and it would walk to victory.
But these are not normal times. British politics is still negotiating the aftershocks of last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. Across the Western world, insurgent parties and politicians have rocked the political establishment. Against this background what was striking about the two by-elections was the crumbling of the opposition parties, both Labour and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which likes to portray itself as Britain’s populist upstarts, and the resilience of the Conservatives, the party of government.
This should be Labour’s moment. The EU referendum deeply divided the Tory party. It led to the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron. The government of new prime minister Theresa May has faced ridicule for disarray over its plans for Brexit. There is deep, popular resentment over continuing cuts in public spending, particularly for the National Health Service.
Yet it is Labour, not the Conservatives, that is now facing an existential crisis. It has plummeted in national opinion polls, trailing the Conservatives by as much as 16 per cent. In both by-elections, Labour’s share of the vote fell.
Many see Labour’s problems as deriving from just one person: party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Two years ago, the maverick leftwinger unexpectedly won the leadership contest, propelled there by a surge of new party members who had joined just to vote for him. Many claimed then that Corbyn’s victory would allow the Labour Party to surf a wave of leftwing populism.
As party leader Corbyn has been a disaster. He is opposed by the majority of his MPs, and has signally failed to win popular support outside the party’s base. Yet, Labour’s problem goes much deeper than its leader. At the heart of the party’s crisis lies the question: What is the Labour Party for?
Labour lost its status as the party of the working class long ago. A recent opinion poll suggested that the Conservatives are twice as popular as Labour among working class voters, winning support from 39 per cent to Labour’s 20 per cent. UKIP, too, was more popular than Labour.
Over the past 30 years, Labour, like many social democratic parties, has transformed itself into a party appealing primarily to the metropolitan middle class, a large proportion of which voted to remain in the EU. In the wake of the referendum, however, many such supporters are switching allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU of British political parties. One poll suggested that, on the back of disaffected Remainers, Liberal Democrats could overtake Labour at the next general election.
The trouble with Labour is that the party simply no longer works. It is neither a social democratic nor a liberal party, neither a plausible alternative government nor an effective opposition. It is difficult to know how it could find a role in today’s Britain.
UKIP is also facing a crisis. Eight months ago, the Brexit vote seemed to be an unalloyed triumph for a party that was founded for the single purpose of campaigning for British withdrawal from the EU. More recently, UKIP has attempted to remake itself as a party for the disenfranchised, ‘left behind’ working class, hostile to globalization and to immigration. Stoke-on-Trent seemed an ideal constituency in which to pursue such a strategy. An old manufacturing town, built on pottery and coal, it has faced steep decline in recent years. It seems a living embodiment of a town ‘left behind’. Of residents who voted in the referendum last year, almost 70 percent chose Leave.
So certain was he of victory that UKIP’s newly-elected leader Paul Nuttall made himself the party’s candidate. He had a disastrous campaign, called out for a series of falsehoods on issues from having a PhD to seeing close friends die in the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989. But, as with Labour, UKIP’s travails run far deeper than its leader’s failures.
Stoke might have voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, but only around a third of Leave voters appeared to have voted for UKIP. Many Leave voters – perhaps the majority – seem reluctant to endorse UKIP. This calls into question the widespread narrative about the Leave vote – that it was driven by racism, and by UKIP-style xenophobia. It also raises doubts about the UKIP strategy of challenging Labour by appealing to disenchanted working class Leave voters.
The big winners of the by-elections were the Conservatives. In a time of rising insurgent politics, it was a striking victory for the old establishment. But it wasn’t that people are flocking to the Conservatives. It is rather that they are deserting the opposition.
As in much of the Western world, the political faultlines in Britain have transformed in recent years. The key division is not between left and right, but between those who embrace the new globalised, technocratic world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. In other countries, this new faultline has been given institutional form through the rise of populist parties and leaders, from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump. In Britain, the new faultline was clearly visible in the EU referendum result. In parliamentary elections, however, the old mould has yet to be fully broken. Instead, what we can see is disaffection with all the parties, insurgent or not.
In the EU referendum, turnout in the Stoke metropolitan area was 66 per cent. In the parliamentary district in the by-election, it was a paltry 38 per cent. Even at the 2015 general election, fewer than half the electorate bothered to vote. When the issue seems to matter, and people feel they can make a change, as in the referendum, they are engaged in the electoral process. Where they feel that it makes little difference, as in Westminster elections, the turnout dramatically drops.
The irony of such disenchantment with mainstream politics is that, in the absence of a viable alternative, it is the most mainstream, most establishment party of all, the Conservatives, that has gained the most.
The paintings are, from top down, Cy Twombly’s ‘Rose V’ and ‘The Potter’ by Sid Kirkham.