Labour's problems are far deeper than Jeremy Corbyn, tracing back to the mid-20th century. But things will get worse unless he goes. The great bulk of MPs should now walk awayby Ross McKibbin / March 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Read a response from John Curtice, “Sobering Dismal Precedent: Why Labour shouldn’t split“
Unless something quite unexpected happens the Labour Party will be lucky to win a quarter of the vote at the next election—about half its vote in 1951. Neither the polls nor the recent by-elections suggest that it will be so lucky under Jeremy Corbyn, imposing an urgent conflict of loyalties on MPs and anybody else concerned to avoid the party’s outright ruin. Back in 1951 by contrast, despite falling just short of Winston Churchill’s Conservatives on Commons seats, Labour won more votes—almost 49 per cent of the total; the highest percentage it has ever won.
What was it about 1951 Britain that was so favourable to the Labour Party? There was its social structure. About 70 per cent of the male workforce were manual workers. Britain had, relatively, the largest industrial workforce in the world. Its traditional heavy industries had been given a new lease of life by the Second World War—nearly two million people, for instance, still worked in the mines and were ineradicably Labour in their loyalties—while the newer industries, aircraft, automobiles, light domestic industry were still flourishing, not yet undone by international competition. Britain was a country that made things.
The institutions and culture of industry still favoured Labour too. The trade unions, if not universally loved, were powerful and had a recognised standing in society. This culture, and memories of the Second World War, encouraged the development of a society used to thinking in bipolar terms: employers and employees, capital and labour, management and workforce, Protestant and Catholic, middle class and working class, public school and state school. Although “affluence” and its language were in the air, Britain was not yet a particularly affluent society. On the contrary, it was still a rationed one. Rationing did not finally disappear until 1954. It was out of this culture that the two-party system, Labour and anti-Labour (Conservative), emerged and had its brief life. Labour and the Tories each represented about half the electorate.