LONDON — Anyone following Labour’s ongoing woes would be forgiven for believing the party face an ‘existential threat’ from UKIP.
Yet the reality of Labour’s crisis is very different. In fact, new analysis by the Fabian Society reveals that of the 800,000 votes Labour has lost to other parties since the 2015 general election, more than twice as many votes have gone to the Liberal Democrats as to UKIP.
Labour infighting, lack of faith in Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s failure to appeal to either side of the Brexit divide, have all caused a hemorrhage of votes away from Labour to the Lib Dems. Approximately half of all the votes Labour have lost since 2015 have gone to Tim Farron’s party.
And while there has been much talk of UKIP replacing Labour in its northern headlands, the report finds that Nuttall’s party are actually losing ground themselves to the pro-Brexit Conservatives. Even if Nuttall is able to reverse that trend, the way UKIP’s vote is distributed and the fact that Labour still holds big leads over them in their northern seats means he could only hope to win 10 seats in parliament at the very most.
Yet even this is probably overstating UKIP. What the Fabian report makes clear is that under all likely scenarios, the main beneficiaries of Labour’s collapse is not UKIP, but the Conservatives.
Because while Labour has lost relatively few votes to Theresa May’s party since the election, the swing from Labour towards the Liberal Democrats has cleared the path for the Tories to come through the middle and win dozens of seats from Jeremy Corbyn’s party.
The UKIP trap
Brexit has ensnared Labour in a trap.
Corbyn’s reluctance to come down firmly on either side of the Brexit divide means that the party is losing votes to both Remain-supporting and Leave-supporting parties. Yet as today’s Fabian report makes clear, it is the loss of Liberal-leaning voters that is most damaging the party. Labour is already in a state of terminal decline in its largely Remain-supporting former Scottish heartlands. However, the decision by Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell to effectively turn Labour into a pro-Brexit party risks turning a likely death into an almost certain one. And while Corbyn has been accused of turning Labour into the party of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ their new pro-Brexit position risks a collapse in support among their metropolitan heartlands as well.
There are no easy answers to Labour’s current crisis. Theresa May has successfully claimed the Conservative party as the home for Brexit voters. Yet Corbyn’s own Euroscepticism and the antipathy towards the EU of many Labour voters, means that Labour is neither willing, nor apparently able, to become the party of Remain either.
Yet moving towards an anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, UKIP-lite position, as some in Labour are now calling for, would only worsen Labour’s crisis.
While such a move may help recover some of the votes lost to Paul Nuttall’s party in the North and East, it would only serve to shore up Labour majorities in seats it already holds, while losing further votes to the Lib Dems, which in turn would cost them more marginal seats to the Tories.The real existential threat to Labour now comes not from its UKIP flank, but from its liberal and left-flanks instead.
A new centre ground?
So what should Labour do instead?
Well, today’s Fabian Society report suggests that Labour must form new coalitions with progressive parties, something Corbyn has already ruled out. They also suggest that Labour must find a new middle ground “between Blair’s liberal internationalism and Trump’s social authoritarianism”. This may seem tempting but the scale of the divide in British politics means that any attempt to simultaneously please Leave and Remain voters risks pleasing neither. As Margaret Thatcher famously once said, the problem with standing in the middle of the road is that you tend to get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.
Of all the possible future scenarios for Labour, this is the one that currently looks most likely.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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