So now we know. The rational, evidence-based, pro-government, left-liberal feminist was unable to defeat the emotive, post-fact, anti-establishment, authoritarian misogynist. The shocking presidential election result, just months after the Brexit referendum, is another body-blow to the values which underpin the Fabian tradition. The implications of Donald Trump’s victory are huge for the United States and for global relations. But they are very significant for politics in Britain too; because the rise of Trump is an expression of a political climate which imperils the left everywhere.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat finally proves that the politics of the 1990s are dead. She was the last champion of a rhetorically-moderate, business-friendly, managerial version of the left. The policies she offered would have served people with low and middle incomes well; but the style of her politics left them cold, in these populist times. Only white graduates and high-earners gave more support to her than to President Obama. Clinton was less popular with every other demographic, and it was less well educated whites who really turned against her – their turnout surging.
In the UK it was the same story with Brexit, and Labour could now share the fate of the Democrats if the disaffected non-graduates who voted to leave the EU withdraw their support from the party. Labour has been losing working-class support for a long time, but most of the damage happened in the 2000s when the party was in government. Ed Miliband actually managed to stage a modest recovery among working-class voters, but their support for the party now seems to be plummeting again: a recent Ipsos Mori poll showed that people in the skilled manual occupational class (C2) are now less likely than professionals to say they support Labour; and, as with the Democrats, the party is more popular with graduates than non-graduates. This is just one poll, with a fairly small sample, but unless action is taken we seem to be reaching the cross-over point, where Labour is consistently more popular (or rather less unpopular) with white-collar than blue-collar voters.
This is very worrying for Labour and not simply because of the party’s proud history. The lesson of the painful 18 months since May 2015 is that Labour will never win on the basis of an ‘Obama coalition’ of liberal white-collar voters and people from ethnic minorities. Indeed, without decent support from white working-class voters, even Hillary Clinton failed and the demographics are far more favourable in the US than the UK. To have a hope of governing, Labour simply must regain support from working-class voters.
In one important respect, however, Labour is in a different position to the Democrats under Clinton. The British party’s struggle for working-class voters comes even though the party has already made a decisive break with its era of moderate managerialism. It seems that the Jeremy Corbyn experiment is not the right form of post-new Labour politics for rebuilding relations with working-class communities – even though Corbynism offers the same economic populism as Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. In part this could be because people don’t like a divided party or have made up their minds about Jeremy Corbyn as a messenger. But it is also likely to be because Corbyn’s Labour is seeking to combine its economic populism with a very strong version of social liberalism. This may play well in the big cities but, just like in the US, the polls suggest that it alienates working-class voters in towns and suburbs.
And there is no point in Labour piling up votes in the cities if it cannot win marginal seats with lots of white non-graduates. Clinton lost despite winning the popular vote and this serves as a stark reminder that, in first-past-the-post elections, geography is everything. In the UK the electoral map is now stacked against Labour, just as it turned out to be for the Democrats. At the next general election, if there is a tie in the share of the votes cast, Labour will almost certainly lose. So recovery must start with a forensic understanding of the demographics, economic fortunes and political values of disenchanted low and middle income voters in the marginal seats – both those constituencies that Labour aspires to gain and its own seats, where it is vulnerable to working-class defections. Otherwise Mrs Clinton’s Great Lakes defeats could translate in the UK into a slew of losses in Brexit-friendly constituencies in the midlands, north and Wales.
Both the US election and the Brexit vote indicate that, to avoid this outcome, Labour needs to look much more like an insurgency, with an outsider’s offer of serious change and real control. This insurgency cannot insincerely ape the nativism and authoritarianism of Farage and Trump, but it must reflect majoritarian British values not those of ultra-liberals and anti-capitalists. In other words, Labour must combine a big challenge to the economic status quo with a more socially and culturally reassuring politics – though one which avoids tipping over into intolerance, unwarranted intrusion or nostalgic escapism. Everything Labour says must be pitched as a means to achieving control and security, especially for older voters. After all, this is the message Trump’s supporters and Leave voters heard from the right, whatever we may think of the reality of those campaigns.
In rising to this challenge Labour will have to compete head-to-head with Theresa May. She is trying to establish herself as a tepid version of Farage or Trump in order to hoover up every Brexit voter she can lay her hands on. Her economics are centre-ground and populist, but she is acting as a hard-line social conservative. Labour must show that a more left-wing economic project can offer people superior security and control; and that it has a values-rich communitarian politics which is more open, egalitatian and collectivist than the little England authoritarianism of the right.
Linked to all this, Labour has to change how it looks, sounds and feels. At the moment the party’s civil war seems to offer a choice between Westminster technocracy or the virtue signalling of campus politics. In place of both, the party needs to look as if it belongs to Britain’s suburbs and towns. Senior Labour figures don’t all need to have the earthy backstory of an Angela Rayner, as Trump and Farage both demonstrate. But they do need to listen and speak with voters in a way that is no-nonsense, emotionally connected and from the heart.
These are dark days. The Trump era and Brexit present terrible threats. But if the British left does not act things could carry on getting worse: Labour might become unable to function as a nationally-competitive party of government. Let us allow something good to come out of these huge setbacks on both sides of the Atlantic and learn the lessons of the right’s victories, before it’s too late.