After every election, pundits see the result as evidence of the terminal decline of the losing party. This is certainly the case in Britain, where the Labour Party suffered catastrophic defeat in the recent local elections and the by-election in Hartlepool, a solidly Labour seat that the Tories won.
There have been many columns arguing that Labour has lost its core constituency and has little hope of commanding a parliamentary majority ever in the future. In the United States, such predictions routinely accompany Republican defeats in the polls, and this year is no exception.
What makes this year different is that we see diagnoses of a bleak future facing the Democrats, the winners who now control the presidency and both houses of Congress. Their supporters also dominate the commanding heights of the culture and economy, of the media, entertainment, education at all levels, Big Tech, Big Sport, Big Business, and Wall Street.
Is the triumph of American progressives built on sand? Is the Democrat glee at divisions in the GOP premature? Is the fate of the Labour Party in the UK a warning for the Democrats? The two parties are often compared in terms of their direction and demographics. Both have undergone profound shifts in ideology and base of support in recent years.
Is the Labour Party Dying?
Parties fade and die, sometimes unexpectedly and comprehensively. The Federalist party in the United States faded quickly in the 19th century; Britain’s Liberal party went into a sudden and comprehensive decline a century later. One of the reasons George Dangerfield cited for this collapse in his 1935 classic “The Strange Death of Liberal England” was the rise of the labor movement and a major political party based on it.
In the 20th century, the Labour Party gained the overwhelming support of the industrial workers and their unions. Important working-class leaders rose through the ranks. But in recent years, the party has gone through some demographic shifts. The leadership is all university-educated, the industrial union members are outnumbered by public sector unions, and government employees are a large part of the party and its financing.
In the biggest vote in British history, that of the Brexit referendum of 2016, and the rift between the governing elites—the media, big business, the financial sector, education, and entertainment—and the majority of the working class, the Labour Party sided with the elites and their characterization of those who voted for sovereignty and independence as uneducated and xenophobic.
In the recent by-election in the northern city of Hartlepool, a traditional Labour stronghold that had voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in 2016, Labour ran as their candidate for Member of Parliament (MP) a Remainer, a supporter of the UK’s remaining in the European Union. He lost.
In response to Labour’s demographic and political shifts, culminating in the party’s massive defeat in the Hartlepool by-election and in local elections, Khalid Mahmood, a leader of the party and Parliament’s first Muslim MP, resigned from his ministerial position. He had this to sayabout what had gone wrong with his party:
“My view is simple: in the past decade, Labour has lost touch with ordinary British people. A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party. They mean well, of course, but their politics—obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism—have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday. The loudest voices in the Labour movement over the past year in particular have focused more on pulling down Churchill’s statue than they have on helping people pull themselves up in the world. No wonder it is doing better among rich urban liberals and young university graduates than it is amongst the most important part of its traditional electoral coalition, the working-class.”
Does this sound familiar?
A Warning for the Democrats
In his recent article in the New Statesman, Britain’s most successful left-of-center politician, Tony Blair (prime minister 1997–2007), argued that the steep decline of the Labour Party is typical of what’s happening to center and center-left parties all over Europe, including the French Socialist Party, the German SPD, and of the Spanish and Swedish left.
The Democrats are in a much stronger position. Or so it seems. They won control over both Houses of Congress and the presidency. But, Blair argues, “The Biden victory was a heavy reaction not so much against the policies as the comportment of Trump. And in Biden, the Democrats nominated possibly the only potential leader who could have won.” Unlike Obama in 2008, Biden had no coattails and the party did poorly in state-level votes. The Democrats’ success in the 2020 election, however modest and whatever its causes, was the exception to the precipitous decline of such parties in the West.
We see in the United States a similar rift as in the UK and Europe, between the main center-left or progressive party and its working class supporters. Of the party’s program of Big State, tax, and spend, only the spending part is popular, and it’s what the Republicans also did under Trump. Its approach of expanding state regulation and control is unattractive. It’s an old-fashioned non-response to the fundamental economic transformation of our time, in internet technology, quantum computing, AI, financial payments, and defense.
This old-fashioned leftism, Blair argues, “is combined with a new-fashioned social/cultural message around extreme identity and anti-police politics which, for large swathes of people, is voter-repellent. ‘Defund the police’ may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values. To top it off, the right evinces a pride in their nation, while parts of the left seem embarrassed by the very notion.”
The unions on which these parties rely for financing and political activity are in long-term decline. In the United States, public sector union membership rates are more than five times higher than those in the private sector, where only 6.3 percent of workers were union members in 2020.