How Labour Lost the Culture War

The broad socioeconomic coalition that once buoyed Labour has broken in two, leaving the party shattered.

Jeremy Corbyn
Hannah McKay / Reuters

Yesterday’s general election in the United Kingdom was a triumph for Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson—and an unmitigated disaster for the Labour Party and its far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

On paper, the conditions were ripe for a Labour victory. The Conservative Party has been in power for nine years. Johnson is controversial; according to most polls, his popularity ratings are significantly underwater. Although he promised to lead the country out of the European Union by October 31, alienating the half of the country that would like to remain in the EU, he failed to do so, disappointing the half of the country that wants to leave.

But when the day of the election came, Labour won its fewest members of Parliament since 1935. Strikingly, it lost scores of working-class constituencies it had held for generations, turning over large parts of its northern heartland to the Conservative Party. Rother Valley, a mining community in South Yorkshire, had been in the party’s hands since 1918; in 1966, the Labour candidate won it with a staggering 77 percent of the vote. Sedgefield, a proletarian town in England’s northeast, had been held by Labour since 1935; in 1997, Tony Blair won this constituency with 71 percent of the vote. Both are now in the hands of the Tories, who had long been known, simply, as the “nasty party” in those parts of the country.

Labour has been reduced to such a pitiful state for two main reasons. A structural transformation is making it difficult to sustain the electoral coalition that has propelled left-of-center movements to victory in the past. And the response to this structural shift that Corbyn pursued has proved to be toxic.

Back when Labour was capable of commanding convincing electoral majorities, it held together a broad class coalition. It was the natural party of working people, with overwhelming support among the less affluent and less well educated. At the same time, it enjoyed strong support among large sections of the middle class, attracting many university students, schoolteachers, and civil servants.

Although these two sides of the bourgeois-proletarian coalition have always differed in their cultural attitudes, they had significant economic commonalities. Both had an interest in high wages and strong unions. And both relied on the welfare state for the schooling of their children, for access to good doctors, and for the knowledge that they would be able to retire in dignity.

So long as the main focus of electoral politics was on economic questions, the leaders of the Labour Party could therefore hold this broad coalition together. Many Labour policies, such as generous spending on the welfare state, appealed to both.

But in the past decades, partisan alignment has shifted away from matters of economic policy toward what one might call questions of culture, such as immigration and, of course, Brexit. And whereas middle-class voters in large urban areas have progressive attitudes on immigration and strongly oppose Brexit, working-class voters tend to be highly critical of immigration and favor leaving the EU. Most of the working-class constituencies that have now swung to the Conservative Party resoundingly backed Leave in the 2016 referendum.

So Labour is now being pulled in two opposite directions. Many of its middle-class voters feel that the party is not sufficiently liberal on cultural issues; as a result, they are tempted to opt for more consistently progressive alternatives such as the Green Party. Meanwhile, many of its erstwhile working-class voters feel that the party’s leaders have come to look down on their cultural views; as a result, they are tempted to vote for the Tories, or even for more extreme alternatives such as the Brexit Party.

The rise of culture as the main cleavage of Western politics helps explain the slow death of social-democratic parties in many countries across the West. In Germany and France, and from Italy to Sweden, left-of-center parties have failed to find a political message that can reassemble the old bourgeois-proletarian coalition.

Corbyn claimed to have found the recipe for reversing the left’s decline: Move far to the left. His economic program was often touted as the most radical in generations. And as his boosters pointed out, some of its individual components polled very well. But judging from yesterday’s results, working-class voters, in particular, were not persuaded by his rhetoric about the evils of capitalism and the attractions of socialism. In a poll of British voters, the second-biggest reason people worried about a potential Labour government was that it would “spend too much and get Britain into more debt.”

The biggest reason? “Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister.”

That’s as much a result of Corbyn’s cultural attitudes as of his economic program. Over the course of his long career, Corbyn has consistently portrayed Britain as a country defined by deep injustice and iniquity, while expressing his sympathy for violent and extremist movements from the Irish Republican Army to the Iranian regime. While he has always found the time to stand in solidarity with dictators such as Hugo Chávez, he has been unable or unwilling to purge his party of anti-Semites, or to convince voters that he would take energetic action to punish criminals and terrorists. After the recent terror attack in London, he identified the culprit in … British foreign policy.

As Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London, said in a striking statement this morning:

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we know in our hearts that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was deeply unpopular with the British people and that we were extremely unlikely to form a Labour government last night. Labour’s shocking and repeated failure to tackle anti-Semitism, and our inability to put forward a credible and believable set of priorities for governing, have made a major contribution to the scale of this defeat … Labour now stands more politically and culturally removed than ever before from many of the people our party was formed to represent.

For the past years, some of the most influential progressive politicians and commentators in the United States have portrayed Corbyn as the model they seek to follow. Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from California, has argued that the left-populist strategy Corbyn adopted “is not just morally right—it’s also strategically smart.” At New York magazine, Jonathan Chait has assembled a strikingly long list of the many pundits and politicians who have made a similar argument.

Corbyn’s defeat should put these arguments to rest. In the end, his far-left vision proved to be no match for Johnson’s shrewd brand of populism, which wedded the promise of a cultural revolution on Brexit to a moderate economic program with renewed investment in schools and police officers.

Democrats in the United States should take note. Faced with an opponent who is much less shrewd than Boris Johnson, they can win a resounding victory by putting forward a progressive vision for America that actually appeals to people across the country. But if they position themselves outside of America’s cultural mainstream, they may suffer the same dismal fate as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.