• Elliott Holley

What caused the downfall of the Labour party?

The Labour party no longer fits the modern world.

Anarchy and conservatism


In 1790, the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France. In this seminal letter, he condemned what he saw as the excesses of the French revolutionaries, and predicted that the revolution would produce not liberty, but tyranny.


His words, below, summarise the situation in his own day, but to me, they also speak remarkably well to the current state of politics in the UK, in 2021:


“In viewing this tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror,” he wrote.


“Already there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the assembly and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.”


Burke predicted that a popular general would become master of the whole Republic - a prediction that came true with the accession of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. He also predicted that the radical change sought by the revolutionaries would only produce further problems - a claim that was soon vindicated by the lengthy and destructive Napoleonic wars.


The problem, according to Burke, was that “there are no rights without corresponding duties, or without some strict qualifications".


"When men play God, presently they behave like devils".


Labour’s downfall: proximate causes


At first glance, Labour fell because it consistently failed to elect a leader with the necessary popular appeal; because it failed to win over the media; and because it made the wrong decisions, most notably on Brexit.


But the real problem is deeper: why did Labour fail in these ways?


One of the biggest reasons is that Momentum took over the Labour party and installed Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. They did so after Ed Milliband changed the leadership rules so that the leader would be elected by members rather than MPs. This reform was intended to make politics more democratic, but in its effect it had the opposite effect.


MPs are elected by the people of the constituencies they represent; whereas Labour party members are a tiny minority of the population.


Already in 2010, a mere 1% of the population belonged to a political party. That includes both Labour and the Conservatives combined. This is where we connect with the deeper problem in the UK’s democracy.


The world has changed


In the 21st century, society no longer looks the same as it did in 1900, when Labour was founded. Labour was created to advocate the rights of working class people. It was a mass-movement that could call on millions of supporters. Through the trade unions, Labour pushed for better working conditions, better pay, and social security. Its crowning achievement was the foundation of the NHS in 1945.

But in the 21st century, the unions are dead; party membership for all parties combined is less than 1%; we now have globalisation; markets are interconnected, companies are international, and free-trade is the universal doctrine of the West and its allies. Capitalism is firmly entrenched, and Communism (its opposite) has effectively not existed since 1991.


Without the threat of Communism, elites have increasingly pushed back against workers’ rights and have pursued a neo-conservative agenda. Companies were privatised, regulations were cut back, and ordinary people saw their living standards begin to stagnate and then go into reverse.


Unfortunately, most of the people affected were the young, but they don’t vote; and they are demographically outnumbered by older people, who benefit from the status quo. So nothing was done about the housing crisis and other related issues such as student debt, poor pay, poor productivity, and so on.


The financial crisis of 2008 and the massive cuts to government spending since then further eroded and hollowed out society and the middle class. Meanwhile the media was almost completely owned by right wing advocates pushing an overt political agenda.


The result of all this has been the resurgence of the Conservatives, the decline, failure and irrelevance of Labour, and the pushing of a hard-right agenda, including Brexit.


Values


Labour stands in defence of the principles of the Enlightenment: liberty, equality, fraternity, progress, secularism and constitutional government.


The opposites of these values are authority, hierarchy, nationalism, racial superiority, tradition, religion, absolutism, monarchy and aristocracy. These values are sometimes, though not entirely accurately, attributed to the Conservative party.


The original values of the Enlightenment were championed (in different ways) by people like Voltaire, Thomas Paine, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseu, Immanuel Kant, Montesquieu, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Adam Smith, Denis Diderot, Mary Wollstonecraft and many others in the 17th and 18th centuries.

But not everyone agreed with revolution. While the ideal of liberty was popular to many, some thinkers (such as Edmund Burke) warned that too much radicalism might lead to anarchy.


Today's Labour party seems to have little to offer. On Brexit, the greatest issue of our time, they have singularly failed to take a compelling stance, and have been utterly outwitted and outflanked by the Tories. In 2019, Labour sat on the fence; they tried to be everything to everyone, and ended up being in a position to deliver nothing to anybody.


Ostensibly, Labour was meant to represent "working class" people, i.e. those with relatively little money. Yet many of these now vote Conservative, rather than Labour. The party is out of touch with its roots. Many of these former voters were in favour of Brexit; they want immigration to come down substantially, and they don't really buy into a liberal worldview.


Many of Labour's MPs have views that are more in touch with those of young, urban, liberal professionals. And yet they party has failed to fully capture these votes either, with voters being torn between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the SDLP, Plaid Cymru and the Green party.


Ostensibly, Labour can claim to be the party in favour of ethnic minorities and against racism. But in reality, the Tories have outflanked them here as well, with several prominent members of the cabinet coming from ethnic minority Asian backgrounds.


What, then, is the point of Labour? Until they rediscover how to win elections, what they actually stand for, and who exactly they intend to appeal to, Labour will struggle to gain traction in the polls.


The Conservative party today: decadence, degeneration and anti-intellectualism


The failure and irrelevance of Labour is a tragedy, made all the more pressing by the increasing degradation of the Conservative party - which has become increasingly debased and hollowed out of any real talent, integrity or scruple.


Ironically, today’s Conservative party would achieve the impressive feat of angering both Edmund Burke (one of the most influential conservative figures of all time), and his opponent, one of the founding fathers of liberalism, Thomas Paine, who wrote a rebuttal to Burke’s argument. Paine believed in the revolution and felt that resistance to unjust authority was justified when there was no other way.


To be clear, both of them believed in liberty; the disagreement was primarily in to what extent they believed in radical change versus gradual change; and their view of the French revolutionaries.


Today’s Tories represent both the irrational, raging, savage mob that Edmund Burke criticised; and paradoxically, the embodiment of aristocratic, hierarchical, absolutist, entitled privilege that Thomas Paine opposed.


In essence, what has happened through Brexit is that the rich, entitled, regressive elite has used its money to fund newspapers to fool the poorly-informed part of the electorate into voting for Brexit, using the carrot of racist bigotry and deluded patriotism to mislead them into voting against their own interests. Heavy misinformation, lies, propaganda, scaremongering and dirty, cheating tactics were used to obtain victory and to smear the opposition.


Hence, we have a government that combines the worst possible elements of both worlds: unaccountable privilege and inequality, combined with the fierce passions and mindless savagery of the mob.

Aftermath/conclusion


I left the UK in December 2020.


According to data published in January 2021, at least 1.3 million people left the UK between July 2019 and September 2020. Accurate figures for the entirety of the period from June 2016 to the present (February 2021) are hard to find. But in its most recent figures, the UK has already suffered its worst economic decline since the Great Frost of 1709. London has also suffered the biggest drop in its population since the Second World War. And not to mention the UK having one of the worst Coronavirus death rates in the developed world.


I do not write all of this out of desire to lambast the UK, but rather, to excoriate those responsible for its decline.


Writing nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato warned against democracy, on the grounds that it could all too easily descend into mob-rule, directed by unscrupulous demagogues who would lead the ship of state to ruin, in pursuit of their own self-serving interests.


It is no coincidence, of course, that it was the assembly of Athens that voted to put to death the philosopher Socrates, widely renowned as one of the greatest minds of the age, for the crime of disrespecting the gods. It was also the demagogues Alcibiades and Nicias that were responsible for the disastrous expedition to Sicily in 415 BC, which led to Athens’ downfall and defeat in the Peloponnesian War.


Perhaps, at length, in some future date, England may recover. But it will likely do so after Scotland and Northern Ireland have split away. Even Wales’ loyalty is subject to rising nationalist fervour. The Union, in which I was born and raised, seems to have reached the limits of its endurance. A Union of 300 years, dashed on the rocks of narrow self-interest and folly.


I hope for a better future for the UK. One can always hope.