Brendan O’Neill

Labour is finished. But you can’t blame it all on Corbyn

Labour is finished. But you can’t blame it all on Corbyn
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Even now, even following their historic thrashing in Copeland, Labourites still cannot face the truth. Sure, there are Twitter tears this morning. I’m sure the vibe in Corbyn’s office is skittish and fearful. There’ll be an explosion in ‘What now for Labour?’ articles. But they still do not get the yawning, abyssal depth of the crisis they face. They still don’t see that their party isn’t merely in trouble; it’s finished, over, kaput. Labour is a zombie party, a Frankenstein creature patched together from dead slogans and middle-class anti-Tory angst; a living-dead entity utterly incapable of making a connection with the living.

Most Labourites have responded to the loss of Copeland — a seat Labour won at every election since 1935 — by turning their guns on Corbyn. He’s screwed everything up, apparently, with his aloof, beardy state socialism that belongs in the era of the three-day week and uncollected bins; with his tragic supply-teacher demeanour that turns off everyone bar the trustafarians of Momentum, for whom waving the red flag is 20 per cent about trying to revive socialism and 80 per cent about irritating their parents. Corbyn is ‘running out of excuses’, says a Guardian writer. In Copeland and Stoke, Labour voters quietly revolted against him, we’re told.

This is too easy. I hold no candle for Corbyn. I remember thinking he was a sorry, shambling Seventies throwback when I was 16 years old and heard him speak out against the first Gulf War, and that was 25 years ago. But Corbyn-bashing has become a means of dodging the bigger, harder, eye-watering truth: that the working classes have been turning their backs on Labour for decades; that the link between Labour and those who labour is now ruptured beyond repair, and this rupturing started long before Corbyn took over. ‘Corbyn must go’, panicked Labourites cry. Fine, whatever, it’s your party. But if you think a younger, shinier leader is going to resuscitate Labour, then you have another think coming. You’re putting lipstick on a corpse.

It’s the most grimly fascinating political story of our times — the march of the working classes away from the party that was founded to represent them. Labour’s support among the working class is lower today than it has been at any time in history. Earlier this month, a YouGov survey found Labour is now the third most popular party among working-class voters, behind the Tories and Ukip (although this didn’t translate into success for Paul Nuttall in Stoke).

But you can’t blame it on Corbyn. It’s the continuation of a longer, general, amazing downward trend in working-class support for Labour. There was an upward blip of workers voting Labour during the Blair years — or at least during some of the Blair years: 1997 to 2005 — but that was temporary and novel and outside of that it’s been downhill since the Seventies. Among the skilled working class, support for Labour feel from 49 per cent in the 1974 election to 41 per cent in 1979 and then 32 per cent in 1983. In 1987, it was 36 per cent. It rose for a while under Blair before going back to decline in 2005 and 2010. Among the semi- and unskilled working class, support for Labour fell from 57 per cent in 1974 to 49 per cent in 1979 and 41 per cent in 1983. It returned to a pretty good high of 59 per cent during Blair’s first election battle, in 1997, but then went back to falling: 55 per cent in 2001, 48 per cent in 2005, 40 per cent in 2010. That working-class support for Labour is falling under Corbyn is just business as usual, more of the great late-20th-century exodus of workers from Labour.

And the Blairites crowing ‘We won elections when Tony was in charge’, and fantasising that replacing Corbyn with some cut-price Blairite MP that no one outside of Twitter has ever heard of will recreate the heady ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ vibe of 1997, really should stop kidding themselves. Everything points to the Blair era being just a glitch in the general, slow-motion, Ballardian death of Labour; a few years of respite from decline. Consider how gob-smackingly unpopular Blair is. Polls regularly show that people think he is an ‘electoral liability’. That Blairite bounce in the late Nineties and early 2000s was an anomaly, an accidental, short-lived deviation from collapse; and you can’t recreate an anomaly.

This is what’s wrong with Labour: it has become the party of pity and welfarism and concern for ‘The Vulnerable’ while its old voters remain self-respecting, driven individuals who want to work and be comfortable and be autonomous. Labour wants to look after the working classes; the working classes want to look after themselves. Labour activists focus virtually all their campaigning energy on propping up the welfare state; ordinary people are far more interested in work and wealth. The divide today is between a party that pities the poor and a poor who flat-out refuse to be pitied. Brexit — glorious Brexit — brought this divide into glaring relief: to avoid economic calamity and fascism we must take refuge in the EU, said Labour’s fearful, paternalistic leaders; no thanks, we will take a risk and strike out for greater political autonomy, said their more confident old core base.

Labour is spent. It has nothing of value to say to those who once supported it. Toll the bells. Dig the grave. We need a new party, one capable of understanding and maybe even realising the positive instinct for autonomy among the great mass of the population.