There was little surprise in the Conservative’ victory in the UK’s recent elections. What was surprising, however, was the loss of traditional Labour seats.This can be explained by a number of obvious factors, but perhaps the critical factor has not yet been discussed.
Jeremy Corbyn was a Labour leader who struggled to sell a compelling message to the UK public and his ambiguity on Brexit endeared him to no-one. Having multi-candidate electoral contests under a ‘first past the post’ electoral system also meant that a divided ‘remain’ vote could not sufficiently surpass a unified pro-Brexit vote sufficiently to present a meaningful challenge.
But more profoundly what has afflicted afflicted the UK Labour party, as it has afflicted other social democratic parties, is a much deeper, perhaps fatal, malaise. It is that modernization, or ‘post-modernisation’, is producing a backlash against the people who used to once represent blue collar workers.
Since the late 1980s, relatively less educated, low to moderately skilled workers have seen their job security increasingly disappear. They have been caught between neo-liberal tightening of working conditions along with changing types of employment and falling unionisation, and growing global competition and technical change.
There may be jobs, but they are more often part-time, offer relatively poorer or stagnant pay and are less secure than for many decades. The ‘gig economy’ is, for many, less clever than it is desperate.
Such workers have tended to respond by seeing themselves as the hard done-by ‘people’, less well off than the ‘elites’, associated with inner urban educated professionals. That inner urban educated professionals also provide much of the leadership of social democratic parties has led to a disjuncture between many workers and their erstwhile political leaders.
Add to this ‘elite’ championing of strictly non-economic issues such as gender equality, gay rights, climate change and so on, positioning them as out of touch with the economic realities of many workers while also being responsible for what is often viewed as undermining former certainties, often understood as social breakdown.
If inner urban elites are viewed as the standard bearers of economic decline and social breakdown, migrants, refugees and multi-laterals such as the European Union are seen as its foot soldiers. The field is thus set for clever conservative politicians to appeal directly to precarious workers.
Conservative positioning as unconventional in contrast to conventional inner urban political classes, offering certainty in uncertain times and, in large part, identifying an external enemy – migrants, refugees, the EU – as the cause of uncertainty, wins votes. Social democratic parties have responded by trying to be rational. Many workers see ‘rational’ answers as enhancing job insecurity, to the extent that they are listening at all.
So, social democratic parties such as the UK’s Labour have therefore been snookered by their own apparent disconnect from their former base and by reinforcing precisely the answers the base no longer wants to hear.
Until social democratic parties learn to overcome this disconnect, they will continue to struggle and, perhaps, become an electoral irrelevance. In order to avoid this fate, however, they might have to adopt some of the conservative populist tactics and, in so doing, make themselves and responsible democracy the poorer.