What British political parties are – and what they claim to be – is a debate which has resurfaced several times throughout history. Some academics have suggested they are ideological vehicles, whilst others have conjectured that they are tools of class interests only.
Britain’s various recent elections have caused this discussion to come to the fore once again, as Labour’s poor results – the by-election in Hartlepool and the mess Keir Starmer made regarding Angela Rayner’s role in the party attracting the most attention – have clearly shown it to be incapable of representing a coalition of interests. The party is currently very ideological and committed to a a ‘public sector good private sector bad’ worldview which seems to predominantly attract young city-dwellers and not resonate with Labour’s traditional base. Starmer has been held responsible by many commentators for this state of affairs, but it would be misleading to suggest that he alone is accountable. Whilst he has surely exacerbated and created certain issues, Labour’s crisis is not a phenomenon of the past year only. Amongst other things, Starmer has been forced to grapple with the impact of “long Corbyn”, which is still playing out on the electorate, and which complicates the identity of the party.
Labour’s struggle should also not be understood as confined to England and the Red Wall constituencies. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) owes much of its success over the past two decades to the failure of Labour to engage with Scots on issues which matter to them. The SNP has thus been able to fill the left-wing void and push Labour out as a significant political force in Scotland. The situation in Scotland – and question of the nature of political parties – is particularly interesting given that many Scots would like Nicola Sturgeon to remain First Minister, but not for her party to remain the ruling party at Holyrood. In fact, in a recent televised interview, she told viewers to vote for the SNP if they want her to get them through the pandemic, even if they do not want independence in the long run. In light of such ploys, the recent majority obtained by pro-independence parties at Holyrood (the Greens also being proponents of independence) should not necessarily be understood as meaning the majority of Scots support secession from the union.
However, there is scope to argue that, since the pandemic has favoured the vast majority of political incumbents, Labour’s position may not be as weak as it seems at a glance. The governing parties in England, Wales and Scotland have all comfortably retained power, potentially due to Britons’ desperation for stability and consistency. Being the Opposition during times of crisis also raises intractable dilemmas and decisions, especially when the crisis is as sensitive as Covid-19. Moreover, it is important to note that Labour has struggled in the past and risen again, and thus one could argue that a miraculous resurgence will be observed in the near future. Or, as is the way with the first-past-the-post system of our democracy, it may be that we do not realise that the party is dying until it’s dead.
Feature image by UK Parliament. Available via Flickr under Commercial Commons 2.0.