July 7, 2008
‘The Social Democrats haven’t a hope of winning a general election, [because the unemployed and low-paid] make up 40-45 percent of the entire country’s workforce. Certainly under the present electoral system, they will provide Labour with a solid 200-seat base.‘
Tony Blair, August 1982
And so Labour believed back then, even though the election of 1983 took them perilously close to undercutting that 200-seat base. This notion of a ‘base’ of support was what made the formation of New Labour possible – pragmatically, abandoning the interests of your core supporters in order to attract more support from other demographics would seem to be electorally suicidal. But if that core support could be relied upon to vote Labour regardless, then abandoning those principles which run counter to the interests of the demographics whose votes you are seeking would be a wise step. Assuming, of course, your only goal in politics is the attainment of power.
Now, of course, Labour’s support is collapsing across the entire spectrum, and the loyalty of that ‘base’ is rapidly evaporating. In many respects, it’s surprising that it lasted as long as it did – eleven years in which a supposedly socialist party presided over a massive widening of the income gap is eleven years in which the interests of that ‘base’ were only serviced perfunctorily. Many of the voters who previously would have been Labour loyalists are now supporting the BNP, the Lib Dems, or even the Tories.
The rise of the BNP has caused an awful lot of anguish, but it is in no way surprising. After all, the BNP are a socialist party with an emphasis on nationalism (sound familiar?), and so can legitimately claim to be standing up for at least the short-term interests of the white working classes. They have thereby provided that particular demographic with an alternative, and they’re taking it. Why should the working classes listen to middle-class moralising about the importance of free trade, the market and allowing immigrants to work here when they see no return for themselves? You can’t sell an economic theory by talking about GDP growth, people need to be given something real.
While the Lib Dems are offering long-term solutions to help close the income gap, none of the main parties is putting forward the same sort of short-term massive state intervention that would make a real difference to the lives of these people now. There is no easy market-based solution here – low-skilled workers are simply economically unproductive given the UK’s position in the global economy. There are far fewer significant quantities of natural resources for them to extract, or factories willing to pay the higher wages required by UK employees. State intervention would merely prolong the inevitable.
Nonetheless, this has not prevented calls from within the Labour Party for a return to collectivism and to the party’s roots. Labour is currently caught in a quandary: its old voters are beginning to desert it for a party which partly resembles its former incarnation, while its new voters are deserting it for a party that resembles its present incarnation. Which way to turn? Either field is contested. But surely returning to its previous values would at least give it the security of Blair’s abovementioned 200 seats?
This is not the case. Employment patterns have shifted throughout Labour’s time in power. Examine the graph below.
Over the last fifteen years, the population of the working classes as a percentage of the workforce has declined. This trend is likely to continue in the near future – as I mentioned before, there is simply little call for low-skilled work in the current British economy. Even if Labour did manage to revive their support, relying on a shrinking demographic as a springboard back to power – not to mention a demographic that will be fought over with the BNP – is a foolish move. Thus, I suspect that they will make some cursory moves to the left in an effort to regain some of their heartland support, but retain their market ideology so as to not lose all of their new voters.
This will also affect the BNP. No matter how well they do, since they find their support in a shrinking demographic they can never wield the influence to bring about the changes they seek. For this to happen would require a massive expansion in Britain’s manufacturing industry, which is extremely unlikely even with higher oil prices making it more appealing to produce goods closer to home.
But what do we Lib Dems do about this disaffected demographic? What principled approaches can we take to improve their quality of life? As yet, I am uncertain. I am currently working on this issue with a colleague, but have yet to come up with a solution. I begin to suspect that the answer may lie in high tech industries that require low skilled workers for the production processes, as in biotechnology. But even still, answers on a postcard please.