Cynics will read Theresa May’s U-turn in deciding to call an early general election merely as an opportunist move to exploit opposition weaknesses. The Labour Party is deeply divided and at its lowest ebb in the polls since 1983. UKIP has imploded, with four leaders in the past year and the defection of its only MP. The LibDems remain decimated after their 2015 rout. May sees an opportunity to inflict on Labour its worst defeat since the 1930s, and mop up UKIP voters, cementing Tory domination at Westminster. The government’s slim majority will be expanded, giving the executive far greater room for manoeuvre; it will be better able to face down calls for another Scottish independence referendum; and it will be empowered to push through its EU negotiations without risk of eventual defeat in the Commons, and strengthened against the Lords.
None of this is wrong – May’s own speech makes some of the motivation explicit – but is one-sided. It doesn’t account for why the opportunity she is seizing exists: why is the Labour Party in such dire straits? Why are the LibDems again so marginal? Why is UKIP imploding? A simple answer is: Brexit.
UKIP’s situation is obvious. Its entire raison d’être has been to force a referendum on EU membership. Having succeeded, it is now defunct. Last year’s foolish predictions of a Farragist take over in the event of a Leave vote are exposed as nonsense. With its agenda snatched by the government and its big beasts, major donor and even councillors abandoning it, UKIP is rudderless and its vote share is flat-lining.
The misnamed Liberal Democrats have explicitly sided with “the 48 percent” – the defeated minority in the EU referendum. They have no intention of respecting the outcome of that vote and have done nothing but conspire – wholly ineffectually – to thwart it. As reality moves forward, the LibDems have less and less to say about it.
But the real disarray is Labour’s. At least the LibDems have a clear position on Brexit, one that is likely to gain them some Remainer votes. Labour’s position is demented. Put simply, it is because Labour has nothing coherent or meaningful to say on Brexit that May can win so big in June. However, Labour’s incoherence on Brexit represents something much deeper than Corbynite-Blairite divisions within the parliamentary party, on which many media and academic pundits focus. Labour’s Brexit problem is an expression of its fundamental and inexorable political and structural decline.
In its heyday, the Labour Party sought to further the interests of working people through state intervention in capitalist markets. The party was forced to abandon this distinctive Labourist political tradition by Thatcher’s decisive defeat of the wider labour movement in the 1980s. Labourism was replaced with the “Third Way” of New Labour, which accepted the market’s primacy but sought to combine it with social inclusion and social justice through a less ambitious yet more repressive deployment of state resources. New Labour abandoned the explicitly working-class component of the old Labour programme, triangulating rightward to seek votes among middle-class middle-Englanders, but it retained the party’s more fundamental orientation to the institutions of the British state as the agent of social change.
As the British state was transformed into a member state of the EU, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour Party’s ideological attachments transformed with it. The EU’s thin cosmopolitanism and its very limited protections of workers rights – so-called “social Europe” – provided one component of the party’s progressive-sounding, Third-Way cover story for its steady abandonment of the interests of its traditional, working-class voters. This story also appealed to the public-sector middle classes that had long supported the party’s high state spending and social programmes, upon which their own livelihoods depended. As their social base shifted and narrowed, then, Labour leaders and active supporters gradually joined a politico-bureaucratic elite that was increasingly cosmopolitan and transnationally networked. A party with strong Eurosceptic traditions was thereby converted into a pillar of the pro-EU consensus.
The party’s internal contradictions were initially moderated by modest, Third-Way social spending and privatised Keynesianism under Blair and Brown, but were dramatically unmasked by the global financial crisis and, especially, the EU referendum. Labour is now caught between two, increasingly incompatible social constituencies: a disaffected, mostly Northern working class, increasingly withdrawing from politics or shifting to UKIP in protest, battered by economic decline, concerned about immigration and increasingly Eurosceptic; and a metropolitan, mostly Southern middle-class, largely benefiting from economic liberalisation and more committed to the EU.
Faced with the EU referendum, a defining political moment, Labour sided with the existing institutions of the British state against the party’s traditional supporters, and with the EU against popular sovereignty. Whatever his own Eurosceptic, Bennite proclivities, Jeremy Corbyn could not align Labour with the Leave campaign without risking its metropolitan support base, and with them many urban seats. Sacrificing his own principles for party unity, he waged a weak and pragmatic Remain campaign.
Corbyn’s true colours showed after the referendum, when he insisted on respecting the result and invoking Article 50. But the party’s profound political crisis remains. Labour cannot mimic the LibDems without losing its residual working-class base, yet it cannot truly embrace Brexit for fear of alienating middle-class, urban voters. It therefore remains stuck in limbo. Its MPs voted to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and only then, having wasted any leverage it had, did the party it issue any conditions for its support in leaving the EU. At best, this makes Labour a bystander for the two years of Brexit negotiations and then a potential spoiler when the final deal is put before parliament. The can has merely been kicked down the road, presumably in the vain hope that – as Tony Blair and others wish – opinion will shift, making an eventual “no” vote more electorally viable.
Labour’s crisis is May’s opportunity. After all, Theresa May is hardly a political colossus. In many respects, she is incompetent, flailing around on core issues and reduced to pilfering policies from Corbyn’s own disastrous predecessor. What allows her to bestride the political stage is not any great political mind, nor any deep popular affection for her party, government, or policies. It is that, alone among the main UK-wide party leaders, and against her own personal sympathies as a cautious Remainer, she is willing to represent the will of the majority of voters as expressed in the EU referendum. This allows her to posture – entirely credibly – against the unelected Lords and the opposition parties as the only person who will act on the referendum’s verdict.
The election campaign will bear this out because, as we have previously argued, the last nine months have been wasted in pointless wrangling over whether to respect the vote, and who gets to pull the Article 50 lever, rather than on the terms of Brexit. UKIP has absolutely nothing to say. The LibDems will merely re-run a referendum campaign that they lost, appealing only to the most embittered Remainers. Labour faces a stark choice. If it cannot now develop a meaningful manifesto for Brexit, an articulated vision for post-EU Britain, rather than a laundry list of things they oppose plus Corbyn’s high-minded rhetoric, it is doomed. All the signs suggest that it cannot rise to the challenge. Labour MPs and mainstream pundits will blame Corbyn for the defeat; left-wingers will defend Corbyn and blame Blairite disloyalty. Both sides will deflect attention from the real rot at the party’s heart. Brexit has exposed the fact that Labour’s entire political tradition is bankrupt.
Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay