Learning from Failure, Failure to Learn: The Collapse of Britain’s Labour Party

January 3, 2020 Updated: January 5, 2020
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Commentary

It’s easier to learn from success than from failure. In both cases, the task is to figure out what works and do more of it.

But that’s harder to do in the face of failure, even when it’s obvious that one has failed.

You have to admit that what you were doing didn’t work, find the exceptions—times when things went well and what was different about them—take stock of what you want and what’s realistic, and change course. The tendency, all too often, is to double down and blame others.

After its historic defeat in the British general election of 2019, its worst since 1935, the Labour Party is caught up with postmortem analyses, explanations, and excuses. The party is wrestling with the questions of what went so wrong, what it means, and what to do about it.

Is the result part of a wider realignment in Western politics or a one-time response to the circumstances of the moment? Has the party, associated since its founding at the beginning of the 20th century with unions and the working class, become something else—the party of identity politics, urban middle-class professionals, and woke elites? Are working-class voters abandoning what was, for generations, at least demographically, their party? Has the party abandoned them and written them off?

The questions, with minor variations, are being asked of other parties of the left, such as the social democrats (SPD) in Germany or the Democratic Party in the United States. Those parties are asking themselves what they can learn from Labour’s failure in Britain.

Excuses

The response of the Conservatives (or Tories) to their historic victory—after some initial gloating, chortling, crowing, bragging, hooting, swaggering, glee, and guffaws, as one correspondent described the scene in the House of Commons—was to adapt quickly and even humbly to the new situation.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, emphasized the need for the nation to heal and come together after the bitter divisions over Brexit. He went out of his way not to attack those who have maligned him personally or rub their noses in their humiliating defeat.

Above all, Johnson stressed the need to earn the trust of the many working-class constituencies in the North that had abandoned Labour and “lent their votes” to the Tories. This required listening carefully to the new “blue-collar conservatives” from the North and investing heavily in their long-neglected areas.

The early response from Labour was to double down in their extreme and vitriolic denunciation of the Tories. Johnson was a fascist, heading the “the most extreme right-wing cabinet in the political history of this country,” as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man, John McDonnell, claimed. Leaders and activists on the left had been angry and overwrought throughout the campaign and, indeed, ever since the majority voted to leave the European Union in the referendum of 2016, against the wishes and expectations of the entire liberal establishment.

Johnson’s government is certainly no more “right-wing” or “extremist” than previous Conservative governments (such as Margaret Thatcher’s). But if it were, how to explain why so many working-class voters from lifelong Labour families switched allegiance and voted Conservative?

If the Tories were fascists, according to this view, the ordinary people and traditional Labour voters who supported them were dupes. If the Tories were slick marketers, those who voted for them were (at best) ignorant, stupid, and uneducated. They were commonly labeled as racist bigots. One particularly unrestrained leftist academic, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, tweeted that Tory voters were “vermin.”

As Tom Harris, himself a former Labour MP, put it, “As more sensible voices are pointing out, lecturing the very people whose support you need about their stupidity is very rarely a path to electoral glory.”

The charge of extremism seems to have been a defensive response to the widespread concern among voters about the genuine extremism of the Labour leader Corbyn.

“A new approach is obviously needed,” Harris said. “And it should start by not treating us as fools. We knew what we were voting for and it was not extremism. For a party whose leader supped with terrorists and anti-Semites throughout his career, for MPs who sought to install that leader in Number 10 despite their reservations … the accusation of extremism is both poignant and deeply ironic.”

Explanations and Realignments

One of the early and most thoughtful attempts to come to grips with the “existential crisis” of Labour’s defeat came from an unlikely source—an editorial in the Guardian, the voice of metropolitan “woke” professionals, the world of progressive elites associated with the “London bubble” and university towns.

The paper spells out the extent of the disaster, and points to the split along class and occupational lines—the unstable coalition on which Labour relies—between middle-class professionals, often working in the public sector, and traditional working-class communities. Most interestingly, the editorial appeals to the working-class, community-based, and patriotic origins of the historic Labour Party.

In terms reminiscent of Britain’s great conservative public intellectual Sir Roger Scruton, it calls for a “more subtle politics of place, in which the revival and deepening of local democracy is championed.”

The Conservative Party has shifted easily between an economically liberal (or neoliberal) commitment to the free market, as under Thatcher, and a one-nation conservatism, as articulated by the great 19th-century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Johnson described himself as a one-nation Tory as early as 2010, when he was mayor of London. As an approach to social reform in politics and economics, it’s more respectful of tradition, of organic community and place, and of the needs and concerns of ordinary people. In the context of Europe, that means an independent nation free to govern itself (which was also what Thatcher wanted), a patriotism that unites the classes.

The Tories, now much more working class, more Northern, and less metropolitan, understand well the need to invest in the regions that suffered industrial decline and government neglect. Doing so will be necessary, but not sufficient.

The reasons given on the doorstep by working-class voters for abandoning Labour were not only about economic needs and promises. They were also about respect and how voters felt condemned and belittled, their traditions, views, and loyalties despised by the woke elites of the capital.

Compared with those elites, working-class voters reject identity politics and anti-Western leftism. They are socially and culturally conservative, oriented to their communities and associations, to civil society rather than the centralized state and transnational entities ruled from afar by people who neither know nor respect them.

For Labour, the way forward is not so clear. The party is deeply divided between its traditional working-class base, those who voted to leave the EU in 2016 and are socially conservative and patriotic, and the more affluent, educated, and urban middle-class professionals with global priorities and an identity politics that seems to many ordinary people ever more extreme and bizarre.

In the election, the party was divided, on the horns of a dilemma, trying to appeal to both groups. It needs both in order to form an electorally successful coalition, but they’re increasingly incompatible. If the party had supported Brexit, it would have done better in working-class regions, but worse in affluent, Remain-supporting (pro-EU) areas.

As Stephen Davies of the Institute for Economic Affairs sees it, the choice for Labour, increasingly a middle-class and graduate party, is either to “become an economically left-wing but also nationalist and conventionally patriotic party” or to “write off its working-class voters and become a party of the culturally left metropolitan middle classes and ethnic minorities. What it cannot do is try to do both—that way lies destruction.”

There are habits of contempt and vilification—denouncing their own country and supporting its enemies, blaming working-class people on whose votes they depend but whose values they despise—as well as organizational forces such as the far-left, Corbyn wing’s control of party machinery that will make it hard for Labour to learn from its failure.

If it fails to learn, it will no doubt have more failures and opportunities to learn from them over the coming decade.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.