Labour’s heavy defeat needs to be set in the context of the difficulties which left-of-centre political parties have experienced well beyond the borders of the UK.
In 2000, countless countries across the western world either had a social democratic government or social democrats had an important role in governing coalitions. By 2018, while Portugal and, more marginally, Spain fell into this category, the tally was dismal.
Parties, such as PASOK in Greece, the Socialist Party in France and the SDP in Germany had imploded, with electoral support dropping as low as single figures in some cases. Others, such as the Labour Party in the UK, La France Insoumise in France and part of the Democratic Party in the US, had swung significantly to the left, although without securing much, if any, success at the polls.
Labour’s very poor result in the recent election needs to be seen, therefore, as a phenomenon running deeper than the ability of the Labour leadership to get its message across or because of Brexit. Something more fundamental has been happening which transcends borders and affects the whole of the western world.
Why, then, is the left doing so badly? Arguably, there are three main reasons—the economy, redistribution, and culture.
The economic dimension is that since 2000 social democrats have spent a lot of time either presiding over economies that were doing poorly, especially around the 2008 crash and the very slow recovery from it, or if they were not in power, acquiescing in austerity programmes without putting forward any convincing alternatives to them.
Indeed, it seems that most politicians on the left largely dropped into assuming that growth at no more than about 1.5 per cent per annum was the new normal. This is why they have sounded unconvincing when criticising right-of-centre governments which have done no better. Meanwhile, incomes for most people have stagnated while for many they have fallen, fuelling discontent and disillusionment with political leaders who don’t appear to know what they are doing.
On redistribution, left-of-centre parties have always—to win elections—had to be an alliance between working-class people, who hoped to see redistribution working in their favour, and middle-class idealists who thought that a fair society came at a price worth paying.
Broadly speaking, the tax system does redistribute income from roughly the top 5 per cent to the bottom 20 per cent, but it has tended to leave all the other 75 per cent close to being back where they started. Slow growth has then highlighted the fact that little, if any, redistribution is taking place in favour of most working people, a problem aggravated by expenditure cuts which have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable.
At the same time, large amounts of resources have been soaked up by transfers from the more prosperous areas of the country to those which are much poorer and less productive. But those regions continue to suffer: austerity programmes have harmed working people and politicians appear to have too readily acquiesced.
As regards to culture, there have always been two nations—the rich and the poor—but globalisation has made the divisions between them much wider than they used to be, with corresponding mutually hardening attitudes.
Metropolitan elites with international connections and aspirations enjoy enviably high living standards. At the same time, millions of people have lost their good steady jobs in manufacturing, as the county has deindustrialised, leaving large areas of the country with far too little to sell to the rest of the world. As the gap widens, so does social cohesion as mutual respect and trust erode. No wonder left-of-centre parties have lost so much of their working-class support.
The recent UK election may reaffirm that hard-left policies are not the answer, but it does not seem likely that social democracy, as against democratic socialism, will pull in millions of more supporters unless the offer from the left changes in key respects.
A better offer on the economy would be a huge help, which might well be possible if the neoliberal consensus that currently seems to have a stranglehold on policy was replaced by a much greater emphasis on doing whatever needs to be done to get the economy to grow faster. Since much economic growth comes from manufacturing this would entail a significant element of reindustrialisation.
Restoring manufacturing would also do far more for the regions outside London and the south east than anything else to increase their prosperity and reduce the regional disparities from which we suffer. And then there might be more mutual respect, understanding, and cohesion.
Will all this happen? Time will tell—but it may be quite a long time.