Summary: UK Labour’s fundamental strategic failure is its endemic innumeracy
Over the next couple of years, as the U.K. readies itself for another general election there will be passionate debates within the U.K. Labour Party about policy offerings. Much ink will be spent on how to regain “traditional” voters whose xenophobia led them to abandon Labour in 2019. There will be much anguish about whether the manifesto is “socialist” enough or whether it represents “centrist” betrayal. Doctrinal dispute, after all, has a visceral delight that has never gone out of fashion.
But in many ways, these disputes will be pedantic irrelevance. Because whatever Labour’s policy offer ultimately is, it’s not going to put Labour into government unless the party enters an electoral alliance with the Lib Dems and Greens.
It is an axiom that the most important skill in politics is the ability to count. (It’s the electoral skill, probably more than any other, that made Lyndon Johnson such a dominant figure in US politics.) And yet, for many years now UK Labour appears innumerate.
It’s never a good idea to go into an election 10 points behind your opposition. But this is what Labour allowed happen to itself in 2019. The result was its worst defeat since 1935 and the installation of an increasingly authoritarian, and wholly incompetent, Conservative government. To make matters worse of course, this happened just as a perfect storm of two existential crises – one constitutional and economic, the other public health – hit the UK.
Innumeracy is a key reason UK Labour has never properly backed the introduction of proportional representation in Westminster elections. Even when the PR-lite “alternative vote” system was offered to the UK electorate a decade ago, many Labour leaders grumbled that it was “too complicated.”
Every other country in Europe has PR. Scotland and Northern Ireland have it for elections for their devolved government structures. Even the US has a form of PR, with its primary system. Why do so many in the UK’s political elite think such a system is too complicated for the English electorate?
Truth is, you do need a basic understanding of fractions and decimal numbers to be able to fully understand most systems of proportional representation. You know: the stuff you were taught in primary school, shortly after “one plus one equals two.”
As it stands the UK’s electoral system is a gerrymander. The population of England is broadly centre-left when one amalgamates the 2019 votes of Labour, the Lib-Dems and the Greens. In spite of this the Conservatives have a massive majority in parliament. This sort of systemic anti-democracy sparked a civil rights movement in the North of Ireland in 1968. However the English continue with their bovine acceptance that this is the best electoral system in the world, because it’s English, just as the British response to Covid is “world-beating” irrespective of how many corpses pile up.
Currently Labour looks set to go into the next gerrymandered UK general election with the same guilelessness born of their innumeracy that allowed them to be bushwacked with such electoral slaughter in 2019. There will be the usual witterings of “undemocratic practices” should anyone suggest an electoral alliance between the broad centre-left parties, or even tactical voting.
Instead Labour seems set to offer as an alternative for government the same Little Englandism offered by the Tories but with a promise for more competent management of the national decline. In such a competition, pandering to the prejudices of the voters of the reactionary portion of the electorate rather than setting out a progressive, internationalist and European alternative to the Tories, Labour seems already doomed to lose.
It’s easy to see why, in spite of all his lethal blundering, Boris Johnson still looks so pleased with himself.