Keir Starmer’s Blair tribute act is promoted as the way to win elections. It is not.
“Mainstream” social democracy has done badly for decades in elections, as well as in bringing social progress.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the French Socialist Party was the strongest party in France, with 37.5% of the first-round vote for the National Assembly in 1981, and 49.3% in the second round.
Even in 1997, it had 23.5%. In 2017, it was down to 7.4%.
The Labour Party in the Netherlands was in government most of the time from 1946 to 2002. Its vote share has gone down from 29.0% in 1998 to 5.7% in 2021.
The Social Democratic Party in Germany had a small revival in 2021’s election, when it got 25.7%. It is an uptick in a trend which has taken it down from 40.9% in 1998.
Social-democratic parties are in government in Spain and Portugal. But the trend is downwards there too, from 37.6% in Spain in 1996 to 28.0% in 2019, and from 43.8% in 1995 to 36.3% in 2019 in Portugal.
For decades Scandinavia was social democracy’s heartland. In Sweden its vote has gone down from 45.3% in 1994 to 28.3% in 2018; in Norway, from 36.9% in 1993 to 26.3% in 2021; in Finland, from 28.3% in 1995 to 17.7% in 2019.
Long-standing mainstream conservative parties have lost vote share too. There have been ups as well as downs within the trend. Blair’s 43.2% in 1997 was an up. Why?
The Tories were demoralised after their defeat on the poll tax and their ouster of Thatcher in 1990. House prices slumped drastically from 1989 to 1995. The Tories were way behind in opinion polls before Blair became leader, and for all the time from the economic “Black Wednesday” of 16 September 1992 through to 1997.
Blair did not win by confronting the Labour Party base. That came later. In 1997 he was still popular with the unions and with wide sections of the Labour Party membership (which had increased fast), often on the illusion that Blair would cunningly win the election with soft-soap policies and then deliver a “real” Labour government.
Blair had benefited from a twist in the road, not found a way to reverse the trend. At the end of the Blair-Brown era, in 2010, Labour’s vote share, 29.1%, was lower than the 32.2% of December 2019 or the 34.4% of 1992.
The base of the trends has been the social-democratic parties’ adaptation to the new world-market regime since the 1980s (neo-liberalism), rapid industrial restructurings and changes in economic geography, and successive class-struggle defeats which have left the stock of working-class assertiveness and confidence as yet insufficient to generate new Marxist parties of size and energy.
In this context, electorally the remarkable thing about the Corbyn era was the 40.0% vote share in 2017. Corbyn-Labour then showed energy, and will at least to push the envelope of neoliberalism.
Between 2017 and 2019 the Corbyn leadership failed to campaign for its positive policies of 2017. Instead it discredited itself by floundering on Brexit and on antisemitism. The left policies in the 2019 manifesto were popular, but spoiled by being dropped on the electorate a few weeks before polling day with only a few social-media posts to push them.
Even so, the 32.2% of 2019 was better than the 30.5% of 2015.
The way to win elections is to propose bold policies and act so that voters, working-class and younger voters especially, will believe the party really means to push them through.