Opinion Politics

How can Labour still claim it is the party of the working class?

In the latest stage of the identity crisis of Europe’s centre-left parties, Labour is losing touch with its working class heartlands.

Disastrous polling 

According to research undertaken by YouGov, Labour is now the third most popular party among working class voters. And only 16% would consider voting for the party.

Let’s be clear. Labour’s collapse among working class voters is catastrophic. For a party that claims to be the voice of the organised labour movement, not having the backing of the working class is pretty damaging.

After seven years of Tory austerity including five with the Liberal Democrats, and with 19 million people in the country who don’t have enough money to get by, the Labour Party still does not appeal to the majority of people living in working class areas.

Labour, with its anti-austerity appeal, should be well above the Conservative Party. But the party is 16 points behind the Tories according to YouGov. Which clearly means that Labour is losing its fight against the government.

Blame Corbyn?

Now, it would be unfair to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of being solely responsible for these poor ratings. The problem for the Labour Party is bigger than Corbyn himself.

Labour’s 1997’s landslide victory was made possible due to a huge support across both the working class and the middle class up and down the country. Labour won because it was able to build an alliance of people around Tony Blair who wanted to get rid of the Conservatives.

But Labour in government wasn’t able to serve both the middle class and the working class and ended up losing the support of the unskilled workers in its own heartlands.

And the defeats in the last two general elections haven’t helped the party understand why it wasn’t able to win again. Labour seems unable to stop a secular decline in its heartland.

If Labour lost Scotland to the SNP in 2015, the party is now on the brink of losing the North of England to the Tories or UKIP.

The last two by-elections in Labour territory in England must be a wake up call for the party’s leadership, or the party could lose far more grounds to its right-wing opponents.

Bottoming-out

Between its landslide in 1997 to the 2015 general election Labour lost 8,500 votes in Copeland, making this safe seat a marginal one and a target for the Conservative Party.

Labour’s majorities in Copeland were:
1997: 11,000
2005: 7,000
2010: 4,000
2015: 2,500
2017: -2147

Therefore, the defeat in Copeland came after a trend of secular decline in the Labour vote, trending towards a loss of the seat next time it was contested.

A similar decline exists in Stoke Central where Labour managed to hold its seat against both UKIP and the Tories.

Labour’s majorities in Stoke Central:
1997: 19,924
2005: 9,774
2010: 5,566
2015: 5,179
2017: 2,620

Between 1997 and 2017, the Labour Party has lost 17,304 votes in this constituency. Stoke Central is no longer a safe seat for Labour and could have been lost to UKIP if the Tories didn’t have a candidate.

Time for reflection?

Both the Copeland and Stoke on Trent by-election results must be fully understood by the Labour Party.

Of course, Corbyn as leader must share portion of the blame for these two poor results. But it will not explain why the Labour Party isn’t able to get its message across more clearly. And why those working class communities do not feel that Labour is on their side.

Blaming Corbyn for everything that isn’t working is easy. But it doesn’t help to address the existential crisis that the party is experiencing, as many of its voters seem to not understand what the Labour Party stand for today.

In the past, it was the voice of the working class movement; it was the voice of those who work in the mines and the industry. But as all the heavy industrial jobs have now been shipped abroad, leaving millions of people without the prospect of a decent job, it is now hard for the Labour Party to represent them.

And worse, for many years the party has considered those ‘core voters’ as people who will always vote for them no matter the party do. And it took them for granted.

Time for action

But the party hasn’t demonstrated what a Labour government would actually mean for them. The party claim it will make Britain fairer, but without explaining how. So far, to many in the north of England those are just empty words.

And here is the problem for Labour: the Tories have a vision that is clear and easy to understand. They want to make Britain stronger out of the EU. And as they are on the brink on getting the country out of the EU, nobody can claim that they don’t mean what they say.

The by-elections were not a ballot on Corbyn’s performance, but they were more evidence that the Labour Party does not speak for the working class. Corbyn is, maybe, one of the most unpopular politicians in the country. But changing the leader will not help the Labour Party.

What these two by-elections show is that the Labour Party took the “working class vote” for granted for too long.

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