Throughout its long and volatile life, Labour had heard many predictions of imminent demise. Yet mass shock still greeted the party’s passing away in its sleep early yesterday morning, 9 May 2025, just shy of its 120th birthday. The proximate cause of death given was the trauma suffered after one election defeat too many.
This was a party that had long been accused of harbouring a death wish. Who could forget the epithet hurled at Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto? “The longest suicide note in history.” In 2015 – just weeks before the humiliation of Ed Miliband – Labour’s roving philosopher, Jon Cruddas, had predicted that his side could simply “disintegrate in real time”. Back then, he’d been called foolish; only later was he hailed as prescient.
The hindsight of the 2020s is a marvellous thing; at the time, Labour’s steady decline was obscured by its own fidgetiness. It swerved left, then squirmed right. It wanted free markets but controlled immigration; it sought to be business-friendly, to a big business class only interested in ripping off the public. Many circles were apparently squared in that tumultuous quarter-century.Meanwhile, the myth that Gordon Brown had spent all the money became unshakeable, shaping the next generation of politics – just as the jibe about the winter of discontent had reverberated through the 80s and early 90s.
Perhaps mirroring the party’s diminishing patience, the people in charge sported ever-shorter names: Tristram, Stella, Dan.Throughout, the diminishing membership displayed their traditional contemptuous loyalty to whoever happened to be in charge. By Labour’s last election of May 2025, its much-trumpeteddifference with the Tory perma-government came down to this: our PPE graduates are smarter than your PPE graduates.
All this provided gallows humour and column fodder. Yet Labour could survive numerous defeats, as Ed Miliband’s own propaganda acknowledged: “Labour has only been in government for four short periods of the 20th century.” Even David Cameron’s boundary reform, which holed Labour below the 250-seat watermark, could be endured. What the movement couldn’t afford to let slip, however, was its role as the natural conduit for the discontents of wider society. That was what distinguished it from the natural party of government, the Conservatives. Fatally, that was the part it stopped playing.
From Arthur Henderson onwards, the party’s central demand had always been fair shares. That goal was defined by the father of the NHS, Nye Bevan, as “where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and farm labourer all lived on the same street – the living tapestry of a mixed community”. Some hope of enacting that in today’s property market. In a society growing apart as fast as Britain’s, it was becoming impossible to agree what “fair” meant. Vast inequality had bred political polarisation. Labour, the party of collective politics, now represented a collection of niche electorates.
That one fact glared out of the results of the 2015 election. Multicultural London became more Labour, even while university towns and Guardianista strongholds began flirting with the Greens– a trend which was only to continue over the next two general elections. Meanwhile, across the de-industrialised north, Nigel Farage robbed votes from Miliband. “It suddenly became clear that Labour no longer had just one enemy – the Tories,” remembers Glen O’Hara, professor of history at Oxford Brookes university. “It had a whole kaleidoscope of enemies – from UKIP to the SNP.”
Economics commentators had long warned that the very idea of a national economy had become untenable. London was now a city-state for bankers and hipsters, supported by immigrant service workers the guff sold to the north and Wales about becoming a knowledge economy was just lies.
Now Ed Balls and other Labour big beasts were discovering what that meant for them: wipe-out. Economic and political polarisation were to be the central facts of the 2020s. Labour had faced this problem before in the 1930s – this time, however, it had neither electoral hiding place nor the regular inflow of political talent.
No political party can speak three different languages at the same time, especially not one that has got out of the habit of listening to its own base. Faced with an impossible task, the elite that now ruled the people’s party – the Kinnocks and Goulds and Straws – crumbled. While the Tories were also reduced to a regional party, its voter base was, at least, in largely one place. Now that Nicola Sturgeon had won Scotland, Cameron and George Osborne were much better than their Labour opposite numbers at playing the English vote. Not only that, the Tories used their decade alone in power to tame any dissenting parts of civil society. The BBC, the non-governmental organisations, the universities: all saw their funding regimes tightened up and responded by buttoning up on any unhelpful criticisms.
Labourism had emerged from an industrial culture: you could be born in a co-op hospital and be buried by the co-op funeral service. Most of those civil institutions had collapsed after Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s response had been to create a new client base of public sector workers across de-industrialised Britain. By 2020 Cameron and Osborne had put paid to that. What they left instead was an insider-outsider economy: those on a good wage with a house might still be tempted to vote Labour, those struggling on three temporary jobs a day had no such line to the movement.
Labour leaves behind an estimable legacy. As prime minister, George Osborne is still able to rely on those private finance initiative schools and hospitals, while Brown’s knot of tax credits proved impossible to cut while maintaining a low-wage workforce. The party is succeeded by two offspring. First is Fabian and Fabian, a small publishing house producing glossy proposals for ever more taxes. Then there is WWP, short for the White Working-Class party: a grouplet of cultural studies graduates who hold regular tours of defunct factories and monthly meat raffles.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010