Comment

Must the UK Labour Party always lose?

Denis MacShane / Mar 2022

Image: Shutterstock

It has been the enduring puzzle of my political life. Since 1966 the UK Labour Party has won elections in just four years – 1974, 1997, 2001, 2004. I stood for Labour in all four years. For the then utterly safe Tory seat of Solihull in 1974 and then as MP for Rotherham where I served as Tony Blair’s Minister for Europe and have spent the years since urging fellow-Brits to take the EU seriously.

At each moment of the political cycle, writers on electoral politics, both academics and journalists, tend to announce a new thesis about how voters have changed and will now forsake old party loyalties for something new.

The latest is the Financial Times’ Sebastian Payne, a fine writer, who charts the decline of the Labour vote in his native North East in a new book “Broken Heartlands: A journey Through Labour’s Lost England”. It is good reporting with vivid interviews but all it tells us what is that voters change over time.

The 12 constituencies of Tyne and Wear, including Newcastle, Sunderland and Jarrow remain Labour. Stockton and Darlington had Tory MPs in the 1980s. London once had Tory MPs in Battersea and Putney but London is now overwhelmingly Labour.

The point is that at any stage in the last 50 years one could draw dramatic pictures of the changing nature of the electorate. But the one constant is that Labour was brilliant at losing not winning.

I try and discuss this phenomenon in a new book Must Labour Always Lose?. The plain fact is that in the last half century Labour has only won in 4 years since 1966.

A major contributory factor was Labour’s inability to have a coherent policy on Europe. Future Labour leaders like James Callaghan, Michael Foot, and Neil Kinnock were anti-European in the early 1970s and in the case of Foot and Kinnock remained anti-European into the 1980s. Jeremy Corbyn in his forty years as a Labour MP has never found a good word to say about Europe.

Robin Cook and Jack Straw rose within the Labour Party be denouncing Europe though they hanged their line in order to get Labour elected.

Today, senior Labour leaders dismiss the EU as something Labour should keep a distance from with remarks that Labour could not consider working again inside the Single Market like Norway or Switzerland for at least 50 years.

The failure to read the politics of the European question correctly has helped keep Labour out of power and may still do so in the years ahead.

Europe is uniting against Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and agreeing to joint policies on arming Ukraine, sanctioning Putin and his regime’s financial supporters, opening up to refugees.

But Britain is isolated from this new European energy with my own party, Labour, trying to avoid any discussion on a future relationship with Europe.

The historical fact of Labour preference for losing elections never seems to be at the heart of Labour’s or the left’s debate and discussion.

We have excellent sociological accounts of  voting blocks – the most recent being Deborah Mattinson’s study of the cutely named red wall voters. Before that there were Mondeo men and women, or soccer Mums, or white van drivers.

It made for easy journalism but academics shied away from asking the question why Labour was a loser’s party.

The easy answer was to blame a leader some or many party members didn’t like. Today the two  favourite blamees, as it were, are either Tony Blair or Jeremy Corbyn. Whole books and endless political or academic comment pieces in the Guardian or New Statesman or The Times or FT have been devoted to explaining why all would be well were it not for the existence of Blair or Corbyn as party leader.

The leader question is important. Labour clings on to leaders even when it is clear they are losers. I was only a toddler but after his disastrous error in calling an unnecessary election in 1951 why on earth did Labour stick with Clem Attlee into the guaranteed 1955 defeat?

As an MP I sat in misery at a PLP meeting in 2009 as decent serious Labour MPs begged Gordon Brown to understand that he could not win the next election. It wasn’t left vs right. There was no alternative candidate even if for sure some harboured ambitions. Just a sad realisation we were guaranteed to lose under Gordon.

The Tories are far more ruthless. They despatched Margaret Thatcher even after her third historic win in 1987. But three years later she was out as Tory MPs knew she would lose them their seats. Tory MPs will bin Boris Johnson if  they think he will cost them seats let alone power.

Labour by contrast  stuck with the loveable Michael Foot and even Neil Kinnock after 1987 when it was clear voters would not put them in Downing Street. Labour allowed Jeremy Corbyn to lead the party to two defeats which were written in the stars.

It is not a question of  opening  old wounds but surely at some stage Labour might sit down and with dispassionate rigour look at some of the ways Labour operates which repels not attracts voters.

 

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

March 2022

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