Economics and politics - comment and analysis
27. September 2016 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, Europe, General Politics

Labour’s prospects of winning the 2020 election

I do not intend to repeat my analysis of Labour and the Brexit (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here), but now that Corbyn has been re-elected as leader, I ask myself what Labour’s chances are of winning the general election.

Labour remains divided. There is Left Labour, say the Corbyn group, and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), say the Blairites. Although there is some gray area somewhere in the middle, these two groups are antipodes. They disagree on the economy, austerity, social welfare policies, public services, the environment, defense, energy, immigrants and international politics. The PLP opposes Corbyn almost 1 to 5 – for every pro Corbyn MP, there are almost 5 who oppose him.

The Brexit highly complicates this constellation, because it adds further divides lines between those who favour remain, those who favour leave, those who favour restrictions on immigration and those who do not. Table 1 is a crude attempt to identify these groups and their electorate base. A caveat is in order: some speculation is unavoidable.


Table 1: Groups and electorate supporting and opposing the Brexit, favouring and opposing Corbyn and those who are undecided. PLP is the Parliamentary Labour Party; YUMs are the young urban multiculturals; NI is Northern Ireland; the social democratic opposition is the fraction in Labour which opposes the Brexit and restrictions to immigration.

A minority of the PLP supports both Corbyn and the Brexit. The great majority of the PLP opposes him, a small minority remains unconvinced. The heterogeneous radical left shows up several times. Some consider the Brexit as a ‘victory of the working class,’ while others vehemently oppose it in the name of international workers’ solidarity. A majority of YUMs support – or supported? (see here) – Corbyn, although they oppose a Brexit. The majority of the old labour base favours a Brexit and opposes Corbyn. This table could be substantially refined by including age, gender, educational levels and location, as has been done by YouGov, based on an exit poll of members (not registered supporters or union affiliates (see here)). However, my simple table suffices for the point I am trying to make.

Let’s now look at some possible political outcomes

Scenario 1 is a fast and hard Brexit – swift access to the single market under conditions which are either rather unfavourable or very unfavourable to the UK, while it gets restrictions to immigration (RI). This scenario is highly unlikely, because the Brexit, whatever it may look like at the end, if it will ever come to an end, will take much time. Here, the Corbyn group and some of the moderates within Labour more or less get what they want: access to the single market in some diminished shape or form and RI.

What would the electoral consequences be? It’s difficult to say, because it assumes consistency in voting behaviour, preferences which translate themselves in ‘rational’ voting and no intervening factors. However, it is logical to assume that the Corbyn fraction will radically alienate the YUMs. On the other hand, there is no logical reason to assume that it would get back a significant number of old labour (OL). Will OL come back to Labour because the part supports RI? What, in their perception, distinguishes Labour from UKIP, which will campaign for more and harsher RI? Even if Labour would manage to ‘satisfy’ part of old Labour, there remains the economic situation. Studies show that RI will be disadvantageous to UK-born workers. RI contradicts other Labour goals. However, Labour needs both of these groups if it wants to win the general election.

Furthermore, Labour cannot win the general election if it makes no gains in Scotland, where it remains a marginal political force today. This has nothing to do with Corbyn, it is an inheritance from the New Labour era. New Labour is almost universally despised in working class Scotland. How is Labour supposed to win votes in Scotland if it campaigns for a Brexit in a country in which an ever growing majority opposes it? The same goes for Northern Ireland.

In short: in this scenario Labour loses the general election and Corbyn is history.

Scenario 2 is much more realistic. 2016 is almost over. According to ‘insiders,’ the negotiations with the EU will take at least two years to conclude. There is ample reason to be very sceptical about this. Day after day it becomes clearer that the May government does not have a negotiating strategy. Bilateral negotiations with individual countries cannot start before a Brexit becomes a fact. If Theresa May invokes Article 50 in the beginning of 2017, as some say she will, the negotiations will, most likely, not have been concluded in 2019 and not even in 2020. When the 2020 election will loom, there will have been no Brexit, there will be no RI.

What will the electoral consequences be? In this scenario, it is realistic to assume that he Conservatives, which are, of course, also completely divided about the Brexit, will present themselves as the party which worked day and night to broker a positive agreement, but that it proved impossible to negotiate with the stubborn and vindictive Europeans. This is the way for the Conservatives to suffer no or little political cost – they can push for a hard Brexit and succeed in remaining in the single market at the end. As for RI, the Conservatives are well capable of turning the lives of immigrants into hell without RI.

In short, it is unlikely that the ‘failure’ of delivering a Brexit will lead to Conservative electoral defeat. UKIP will undoubtedly win – one can hear Farage whine about the European oligarchy years in advance. The Liberal Democrats are for remain and oppose RI. They will certainly make a come-back, although it is impossible to guess by how much, because even in 2020 Clegg’s capitulation to the Conservatives in their last coalition government will not have been forgiven. The Liberal Democrats will win because many YUMs will vote for them. Labour will lose out in this group – this is already happening. It is also unlikely that Corbyn will get the OL vote back – he did, after all, not deliver since there is neither Brexit nor RI. Labour manoeuvred itself into a very schizophrenic situation which the Conservatives will doubtlessly fully exploit. It is hard to imagine that Labour will campaign for the conclusion of a Brexit in 2020. It would be tantamount to political suicide. Labour will get nowhere in Scotland or NI and the great majority of Britons living abroad will of course not vote for a pro Brexit party. The outcome of this scenario is also clear: Labour loses the election and Corbyn is history.

There is a third scenario, although, unfortunately, it is becoming more implausible by the day. In this scenario, the social democratic opposition gains the upper hand and Corbyn  (or someone else) makes a U-turn: yes to a parliamentary debate, representing remain – a majority of Labour voted for this in the referendum – and opposing RI. Unfortunately, the Fabian Society paper on migration is gaining dominance within the party. Today it was made clear that, at the annual Labour congress next month, the Brexit will not even be discussed. This is just poor.

This third scenario is Labour’s only chance. It is the only way to obtain a decent result in Scotland – a necessary condition for winning. Certainly, no victory can be expected there, but every seat counts. Second, the YUMs would not defect to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens in any number comparable to scenario 2. If Labour gives them what they want, they have no reason to go. This is where the future lies anyway: a growing electoral segment of young people, well-educated, multicultural in outlook, with an interest in social affairs and an ‘economy which works for everyone.’ Accommodating this group is not a ‘capitulation’ – one can very well be pro EU (in the sense of international solidarity) and completely opposed to EU economic governance.

There remains the problem of the disgruntled OL, many of which went to UKIP in 2015 and/or, as polls show, do not trust Corbyn’s leadership qualities. Labour needs a substantial part of the OL vote back. There is a solution: the social democrats need to go to the cities and industrial areas and explain to the people that it is not about their perceptions, that the Labour Party is not there to facilitate their misconceptions, that the Labour Party understands their pain and that the party intends to improve their living conditions: giving people work, good social welfare, more chances, public services, an end to austerity, but no RI, no xenophobia, no racism.

Of course, some find this impossible – and if you consider it impossible, you do not even have to try. I consider it imminently possible. People expect leadership, consistency and, above all, policies based on principles from politicians. Even it goes against the ‘perceptions’ of some, Corbyn would gain great respect and, with it, votes.

This scenario constitutes the only realistic chance for Labour to win the 2020 elections.

The situation is further complicated by several factors. I will name two. First, the media – the leftist press included – oppose Corbyn. But Corbyn does not need the press. Blair did not have the support of the media either when he won his first election. In the meantime, the political landscape greatly changed. In the UK – as in many other countries – the political system and the media have been delegitimized to various degrees. People, in general, do not believe what journalists write and there are thousands of blogs. The more the press writes that Corbyn is stuck in the 1970s, the more Corbyn can explain to the YUMs how life was in these dark ages: practically full employment, industry, decent wage growth, increasing general prosperity, freedom of expression, free education, a well-functioning NHS, social welfare, social housing, functioning and affordable public services – it sounds like a real Gulag indeed, every neoliberal’s worst nightmare.

The other major intervening factor is the fate of the euro zone. Italy organises a referendum on December 4th. A major conference, scheduled in March 2017 is, according to Tsipras, Europe’s last chance to save the euro. France holds presidential elections in May 2017. Germany organises a general election in September 2017 and there are elections in Italy in 2018. Will the euro zone survive? It is anyone’s guess.