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Labour’s Victory Is Little Comfort for a Party Back On Its Heels

Thursday’s by-election in the United Kingdom has done little to patch together a divided opposition.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (left) and Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater (right
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (left) and Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater (right) prepare to address supporters after Labour's victory in the Batley and Spen by-election, in Cleckheaton, England, on July 2. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

An unexpected victory sometimes unites a divided opposition, but there’s been little sign of that for the United Kingdom’s Labour Party after it unexpectedly won Thursday’s by-election in the parliamentary constituency of Batley and Spen. Despite a cynical spoiler campaign by George Galloway, Labour remains deeply torn between supporters of fallen leader Jeremy Corbyn and current party chief Keir Starmer. Discourse around Labour’s poor results have centered around differences between Corbyn’s hard-left ideology (which delivered the party’s disastrous 2019 election results) and Starmer’s relative moderation (which has so far fared no better). Such discussions, however, miss the larger, more structural obstacles facing Labour, which together are making the question of the party’s future increasingly existential.

The most conspicuous threat, and the one that it was feared might cost the party the Batley and Spen seat, is the fall of the much-talked-up “red wall,” a swath of post-industrial Britain that stretches across Northern England and into North Wales. Although the term was only popularized in 2019, it has become an obsessive focus of British political commentary (even though it crumbled almost as soon as the term was coined). Conservatives breached the red wall in 2019, winning seats like Bishop Auckland and Blyth Valley that had been held by Labour since their creation.

Most worryingly for Labour, the Tories’ 2019 triumph represented not a onetime event but rather the culmination of a broader political realignment that has seen the Conservative Party gain ground in the white, working-class communities that dominate rural Northern England and Wales. The realignment, fueled by questions of identity, immigration, and culture, crystallized during the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, which amplified an already existing divide between Labour’s cosmopolitan, pro-EU leadership and many of the pro-Leave constituencies in its former red wall heartlands.

An unexpected victory sometimes unites a divided opposition, but there’s been little sign of that for the United Kingdom’s Labour Party after it unexpectedly won Thursday’s by-election in the parliamentary constituency of Batley and Spen. Despite a cynical spoiler campaign by George Galloway, Labour remains deeply torn between supporters of fallen leader Jeremy Corbyn and current party chief Keir Starmer. Discourse around Labour’s poor results have centered around differences between Corbyn’s hard-left ideology (which delivered the party’s disastrous 2019 election results) and Starmer’s relative moderation (which has so far fared no better). Such discussions, however, miss the larger, more structural obstacles facing Labour, which together are making the question of the party’s future increasingly existential.

The most conspicuous threat, and the one that it was feared might cost the party the Batley and Spen seat, is the fall of the much-talked-up “red wall,” a swath of post-industrial Britain that stretches across Northern England and into North Wales. Although the term was only popularized in 2019, it has become an obsessive focus of British political commentary (even though it crumbled almost as soon as the term was coined). Conservatives breached the red wall in 2019, winning seats like Bishop Auckland and Blyth Valley that had been held by Labour since their creation.

Most worryingly for Labour, the Tories’ 2019 triumph represented not a onetime event but rather the culmination of a broader political realignment that has seen the Conservative Party gain ground in the white, working-class communities that dominate rural Northern England and Wales. The realignment, fueled by questions of identity, immigration, and culture, crystallized during the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, which amplified an already existing divide between Labour’s cosmopolitan, pro-EU leadership and many of the pro-Leave constituencies in its former red wall heartlands.

The realignment means many of those red wall seats are lost to Labour for good. And unfortunately for Labour, there is still plenty of room to fall. There are no fewer than 29 Labour-held constituencies across the red wall where the Brexit Party and Tories combined for a greater vote share than the Labour member of Parliament, one of which (Hartlepool) already flipped from Labour to the Tories in a by-election in May. And after the 2019 election, Labour still controlled 53 of the UK’s 100 most blue-collar constituencies, most of which are in Northern England. The collapse of Labour in its post-industrial former heartlands, driven by a broader political realignment bigger than any one policy issue, represents an existential threat to Labour’s future.

Scotland represents another. Like the red wall, Scotland was a longtime Labour stronghold that has since realigned—although in the entirely opposite political direction. The collapse has been stunning, with Labour going from winning 41 seats after the 2010 general election to holding just one now. The reason has been the rise of the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP), which cannibalized Labour’s vote share with a similar social democratic platform to grow from six to 48 seats over the same time period. And, frustratingly for Labour, the Conservatives have begun to consolidate much of the remaining anti-nationalist vote, evident in their strong 2021 showing for the Scottish Parliament that saw them eclipse Labour’s vote share for the first time.

The result is that Labour has become increasingly irrelevant, boxed in between the nationalist SNP (the natural choice for Scottish voters who support independence) and anti-independence Tories (the tactical choice for Scottish voters who do not). This severely hobbles Labour’s ability to ever win an outright majority again, a feat it has accomplished without Scotland just twice during the past 50 years. And should Welsh nationalism ever gain steam, a similar story could play out in Wales, as the growth of the nationalist and socially democratic Plaid Cymru would similarly come at the expense of Labour. In the meantime, Labour is unlikely to reclaim its dominance in Scotland as long as independence remains a salient issue, another structural barrier inhibiting Labour’s return to power.

A third obstacle to Labour is the Tories’ increasing strength with racial and religious minorities. The U.K.’s rising diversity is often cited as an advantage for Labour, and the party does indeed continue to win them in overwhelmingly large numbers. But the Conservative Party has begun to cultivate certain racial, ethnic, and religious constituencies in a way that could blunt the formidable advantage Labour would otherwise gain from a more diverse country that saw its nonwhite share more than double between 1991 and 2011.

The most prominent example is Britain’s 1.4 million-strong Indian community. As Britain’s wealthiest ethnic group, British Indians were long considered a natural fit for the low-tax, pro-business Tories, and the party has indeed retained a core of support with the affluent “twice migrants” who arrived in Britain after being expelled from former colonies in East Africa during the 1960s and ’70s. The Tories are now attempting to press this advantage with (Hindu) British Indians at large, in part by playing up foreign-policy issues like Kashmir that drive a wedge between Britain’s large Indian and Pakistani communities. Conservatives have continued to aggressively chase the Indian vote, elevating such politicians as Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak to prominent cabinet roles while starting interest groups in support of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Another example has been Britain’s sizable Jewish community, which has voted Conservative for decades. Even before Corbyn’s leadership, approximately 70 percent of British Jewish voters said they were planning to vote Conservative in the 2015 general election, despite a Jewish Labour Party leader at the time. Ahead of the 2019 election, however, 93 percent said they would not consider voting Labour over fears of Corbyn’s alleged anti-Semitism. Although a small population at just under 300,000, British Jews are distributed across marginal seats in a stunningly efficient manner. The 1,500 Jewish voters in Kensington, for example, no doubt helped give Tories the 150-vote margin needed to flip the posh central London seat back in 2019, while the 9,000 British Jews in Manchester’s Bury South likely helped the Tories pull off another upset in the historically left-leaning seat. The Tories’ new allegiance with Jewish voters has likewise helped them keep marginal constituencies like Hendon, London-area seats that could otherwise prove amenable to Labour.

Britain’s rising diversity should, on balance, still help Labour, which won the votes of 64 percent of racial minorities in the 2019 election. But the Tories’ use of Israel and Kashmir as wedge issues, coupled with Labour’s increasing identification with Muslim voters, have helped the Conservative Party assemble a rainbow coalition of Jewish and Hindu voters to blunt the advantage Labour would otherwise gain from an increasingly diverse population. And, just like Scotland and the red wall, Labour has ample room to fall. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to admit millions of Hong Kongers, for example, could see Labour erode even further with nonwhite voters, especially since Johnson appears eager to cultivate British Hong Kongers as future Tories in a way not dissimilar to how then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attempted to cultivate Indian voters in the 1980s.

Put together, Labour’s collapse in Scotland and the red wall, coupled with its more recent weakness with certain minorities, paints a grim picture for the short-term future. In contrast, though, Labour enjoys crushing margins with young voters that will bode well for the future, with Labour activists noting that the Tories’ gains in the red wall can be explained in part by its graying population. However, it is unclear whether young voters will continue to vote Labour as they age into homeownership and higher-paying jobs, and in any case the level of generational replacement needed for Labour’s demographic advantage to become apparent is still a long way off. In the meantime, the party’s future is looking increasingly bleak.

 

A recent graduate of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, Brent Peabody currently works as a national security analyst in Washington DC.

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