This month marks 20 years since Labour’s 1997 landslide victory. With another general election on the horizon, the mainstream message is that Labour has a leader that could destroy their electability. However the problems Labour will face in returning to government in the upcoming General Election stretch back a lot further.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party in Autumn 2015, the mainstream message was that Labour had chosen a leader that could destroy the party’s electability. However the problems Labour will face in returning to government in the upcoming General Election stretch back a lot further.
You might not be aware of the story of Catherine O Leary. An Irish immigrant to America, who following an accident involving her cow, was accused of starting the ‘Great Chicago Fire’ of 1871. Although the story was eventually revealed as a hoax, a likely attempt to defame Irish immigrants, she lived and died with the ignominy of being scapegoated. Nearly 150 years later and immigrants are still ostracised and scapegoating is still widely popular, as the last eighteen months in British politics has proven.
In 2017 the popular theory is that Jeremy Corbyn’s poor leadership has Labour on the brink of a crushing electoral defeat. However, what must not be forgotten is the near two decades of decline the party had suffered before Corbyn became leader. Tony Blair who won three straight elections is remembered fondly by Blairites, flip-flop voters and even by Liberal Democrat leaders. However, the reality is the last elections ‘victory’ illustrated, the Blair years have been extremely over over-embellishment to the point of fable and is where many of the current problems facing Labour stemmed.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2005 General Election, the Labour victory was marked as a ‘historic third term’, with Blair stating he must act ‘sensibly and wisely’ to the nation’s decision. However, only one these statements seem to be remembered. Blair, of course, resigned as Prime Minister just over two years later, leaving the responsibility to his long-term associate and adversary, Gordon Brown. Brown had long coveted the top job and had played second fiddle to Blair for years, yet he was left with something of Weltschmerz’s realisation.
Although much of his own making, having spent a decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown inherited a looming financial global crisis. Nothing in Blair’s time as leader provided protection and Labour are still tarnished as the party responsible for the biggest financial crisis in nearly a century. Tony had left Gordon holding the bag.
If this wasn’t enough, Labour reputation suffered enduring infamy through the manipulative and hawkish machinations that preceded one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in British history. These events coupled with the increasing privatisation of the NHS and wealth gap reaching its ‘largest in modern times’. Labour had alienated much of its core support.
Infighting in the Labour party has become synonymous with Corbyn’s time at the helm. However Labour has a history of being a bitterly divided party, it’s worth remembering that a prominent narrative during the Blair years was the bad blood between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor. They had both cultivated warring factions in the party since the early 90s.
Nonetheless, these rifts, at the time, paled in comparison with that across the house. Following the 2005 election, the Tories elected David Cameron as their fourth leader in as many years, a level of upheaval that most Premier League chairpersons would think twice about, in political terms, this lack of consistency often proves calamitous.
This period of Tory turmoil is put into even starker context, considering that the previous four Conservative leaders before William Hague’s selection as Conservative leader in the late 90s, were at the helm for a near combined 35 years.
Despite an astonishingly weak opposition, Labour and Blair lost 46 seats, and Labour’s share of the vote stood at 4 million less than in 1997. 23 of the 46 seats lost, were to the Tories, considering the current slim parliamentary majority the Conservative government holds and that both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband lost their respective elections by 2 million votes, the losses incurred by Blair, to such weak opposition in 2005 cannot be underestimated.
Opponents of Corbyn within the Labour Party have often accused him of ‘not taking the fight to the Tories’ and ‘needing to win key battlegrounds’. However, of the 23 seats lost to the Conservatives in 2005, the ten years that followed after Corbyn’s election as leader, Labour have only gained two back – Ilford North and Dagenham and Rainham. The latter a new seat, first contested in the 2010 election, created out of the old Hornchurch constituency – a constituency that was rezoned into two. The other seat – Hornchurch and Upminster, was won and then retained by the Tories.
The remaining seats lost were either down to parliamentary reform, which lowered the number of seats or have remained lost. This despite, several of those seats again electing a different party to represent their constituency and who again choose to overlook Labour.
The only seats recovered from the 2005 losses were a handful of seats in 2015, all of which were won the Liberal Democrats, who lost 86% of their seats.
Hardly an endorsement of Labour’s attraction to voters.
Nothing epitomises Labour’s struggles than in Scotland. Labour had always performed strong North of the Border. The modern constituency outlook in Scotland has been used in Parliament since the late 1980s, where Labour saw a return of 49 or more seats every single time. However, this trend was broken in 2005, instead of their customary 50 seats, Labour secured just above 40.
By the time the next Scottish Parliamentary Elections in 2007, with Blair still in power, the love affair Labour held with Scotland declined further; suffering a devastating loss to the SNP, as they began their ascent as Scotland’s biggest party. The SNP would dominate the next two Scottish Parliamentary Elections, with Labour slipping to the ignominy of being relegated to third behind the Tories, in a country that has prided itself, post-Thatcher, as being vehemently anti-Conservative.
To expect any Labour leader to win a British general election without the guaranteed 40-50 seat their predecessors had is a tall order, especially considering the close nature of the last two Parliaments. In 2010, it was a hung Parliament, and in 2015 the Tories won only the smallest of Parliamentary majorities (likely, only through breaching election spending rules).
Labour’s poor showing in Scotland has started to encroach into proud Labour heartlands in the Midlands, Wales and the North of England. They saw reduced majorities in these seats with the rise of UKIP and the promise of a referendum on the European Union in 2015. Now, with Brexit confirmed the precarious position Labour finds itself to command an election victory is even more uncertain.
Corbyn has been accused of his leadership being ineffective and not having the pulling power to win an election. Certainly, Corbyn has been given a steep learning curve, not helped by the hugely detrimental plotting from those within his own party. However, the biggest issues which have been largely overlooked is no matter who the leader is or how the party functioned; they are left by their not too distant predecessors with an unenvious and unlikely task.
Labour is a party in decline, maybe terminally and has been since 1997. Corbyn became the leader of not a strong Labour party; the dire position the party was in has largely been forgotten. His ascent to leader ironically a consequence of what had come before (an honest left-leaning Labour politician is the very antithesis of Blair).
Corbyn will likely become the Labour Party’s Catherine O Leary. Certainly, despite the fact his support has allowed the party to attract the new members it desperately needed, and at least a chance of resurgence against four straight elections that Labour has each time suffered a diminished return of parliamentary seats and share of the vote.