‘This time Labour really might be finished’

Falling behind: Labour would lose around 60 seats to the Tories if an election were held today.

Labour is in the midst of the greatest crisis of its 116 year history. Its core voters are deserting it. Hardly anyone thinks Jeremy Corbyn can be prime minister. Is the party done for?

For most of the last century two parties have dominated British politics. You were either Labour or you were Tory. But that historic conflict might be about to come to an end. In a recent opinion poll, just one in four people said they would vote Labour at the next general election — the lowest figure for more than a generation.

Another YouGov poll asked who of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would make the best prime minister. Just 16% of people said Corbyn. The prospect of a Labour prime minister has never seemed more distant.

Last Thursday a by-election took place in Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire. The seat is a fairly typical slice of Middle England: rural, mostly white British, neither struggling nor especially wealthy, and heavily in favour of Brexit. Labour won a mere 10.2% of the vote, beaten into fourth by UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the victorious Conservatives.

By-elections tend to favour the opposition, and so the result in Sleaford has led to fears of Labour being decimated at the next general election.

The origins of the Labour Party lie in the industrial revolution. It was set up in 1900 by Keir Hardie to represent the urban working-class, who had exploded in number during the 19th century. For years the party has been a relatively content coalition of those voters and liberal, middle-class intellectuals.

But those ties are breaking apart. In the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, millions of voters in Labour heartlands defied their party and voted leave. Many Labour MPs now disagree completely with their core voters on many significant issues.

All over the West the traditional parties of the centre-left are failing, and the right is on the rise. Writing in The Guardian, John Harris puts this down to three problems that the left is failing to answer: ‘the disruptive force of globalisation, the rise of populist nationalism, and the decline of traditional work’.

Can the party of Clement Attlee, Tony Blair and the NHS survive?

Wither Labour?

Labour is finished, say some. No party can survive with such inherent divisions. Its positions on the EU, immigration and globalisation have alienated its core vote. Left-wing ideas will not die out, but Brexit will prompt a realignment in British politics. The other parties have shown that they understand this, while Labour seems stuck in the past.

Don’t be so downcast, reply others. Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity with young people demonstrates that his Labour Party is not ‘stuck in the past’. And in any case, one bad general election will not destroy a party. Pundits and politicians wrote off the Tories in the first few years of this century. Look where they are now.

You Decide

  1. Would you vote for the Labour Party?
  2. Will the Labour Party exist in 2030?


  1. Design your perfect political party. List the five most important policies you would like it to have.
  2. Research one figure in the history of the Labour Party and give a five minute presentation on his or her importance.

Some People Say...

“Britain is in danger of turning into a one-party state.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not British. Why should I care if Labour are in trouble?
For Labour, read the Democratic Party in the USA. Or the Socialist Party in France, who stand almost no chance of re-election in next year’s presidential election. The Social Democrats in Germany are polling in the low 20s. All these traditional left-wing parties are facing the same problems as Labour: the differing values among their core support and the challenge of the populist right.
What would replace Labour?
The left-of-centre party best placed to replace Labour is the Liberal Democrats. But Britain’s electoral system makes it very difficult for a minor party to supersede a major party. Its clear position on Brexit — standing up for the views of the 48% who voted Remain — makes it appealing to some Labour voters.

Word Watch

Theresa May
In that YouGov poll, 49% said that May would make the best prime minister, with 35% saying they did not know.
Brexit Central. No county voted more heavily to leave the EU. Around 62% of people in Sleaford & North Hykeham voted Leave. In the last general election most of the county voted Tory, with a sizeable UKIP vote.
Keir Hardie
A Scottish socialist and the first Labour MP. A former miner, he established the close links with trade unions that still survive in the Labour Party today. At the outbreak of the first world war, he tried to organise a pacifist general strike, but died soon afterwards.
Labour heartlands
Many areas in Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the North East routinely vote Labour in general elections, but voted to leave the EU. In Stoke-on-Trent, where every seat has voted Labour since 1931, 69% of people voted for Brexit.
Clement Attlee
Prime minister from 1945 until 1951. One of the most important figures in modern British history, Attlee’s government formed the modern welfare state.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.