Skip to content

Momentum Lost: Surveying the Fractured British Left

In spring 2019 I published an article in this journal predicting that the British Left was far more divided than it appeared on its surface. I argued that the activist group Momentum, which had taken over the Labour Party, risked alienating traditional working-class supporters. My argument was based on the fact that Momentum tended to be dominated by the university-educated middle class, who eschewed traditional working-class politics in favor of a combination of identity politics and a vague notion of consumerist communism married to open borders.

The polling seemed to support my argument. It showed that although these “left liberals” had increased as a percentage of the Left electorate in recent years, they still made up less than 30 percent of the Left electorate. Their polar opposites—working-class socially conservative socialists—still made up around 40 percent of this electorate.

The December 2019 election provided a sad confirmation of this earlier analysis, and in dramatic fashion. I had assumed that this fracturing of the British Left would occur gradually, with the more socially conservative Labour voters gradually leaving the party or becoming dejected with politics altogether. Instead, we have seen an earthquake: these voters appear to have abandoned the party en masse and even—which I had not anticipated—thrown their lot in with the Conservative Party.

In recent weeks the issues that I discussed in my previous article have become a matter of public debate. In this essay, I want to show that many of the arguments being used on both sides are misleading. I will also attempt to give a clearer picture of the electoral shifts that have taken place in Britain due to the fracturing of the British Left.

Don’t Blame the Sleepy Leadership (At Least Not Directly)

One argument that has arisen since the December election is that the Labour Party lost massively because of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. In my original article I argued that it was not Corbyn’s leadership that was the issue. While Corbyn is a mediocre leader, he nevertheless embodied an older form of leftism—one that would be appealing to much of the Left electorate. I think that this interpretation has held up well.

It must be recalled that Corbyn was not just leader in 2019, he was also leader in 2017. In 2017, it was widely recognized that, although Labour lost the election, Corbyn had achieved success in increasing the party’s vote share. In 2015, under the leadership of the more centrist Ed Miliband, Labour only attained around 30.5 percent of the vote share. Yet in 2017, under Corbyn, they attained around 40 percent.

Some might argue that the 2017 result was more a reflection on the weakness of Theresa May’s government. But this argument assumes that would-be Conservative voters voted for Labour. Obviously, this result did not materialize. Rather, the Labour Party managed to claw back votes from the UK Independence Party and the Liberal Democrats. This must be seen for what it is: an impressive achievement under a Corbyn leadership.

What threw the 2019 result? I believe that what happened was that the 2019 election sharply exposed the fault lines on the British left. Brexit was a highly polarizing issue. The Momentum activists tended to equate support for Brexit and nationalism with racism and said so loudly on television to anyone that would listen. Before Labour’s relative success in 2017, these activists got limited media attention. But in the run-up to the 2019 election, the media assumed that these activists were behind the 2017 success and they became the public face of the party. Needless to say, the public did not like what they saw. 2017 was Corbyn’s election; 2019 was Momentum’s.

Momentum became ever more incendiary and divisive as the election grew nearer. Activist Ash Sarkar became increasingly popular at this time and started to pop up in television debates more and more. Sarkar and her ilk come across as self-consciously divisive and highly aggressive. In 2018, the Times profiled Sarkar noting that she had published YouTube videos like “The Unbearable Whiteness of Brexit” and “Against ‘Integration.’” By April 2019 she was attacking working class activists directly. Ex-firefighter and trade union leader Paul Embery recalls how he stated that open borders policies were a “betrayal of traditional working-class people” and that the Labour Party would “pay a heavy, but deserved, price for this at the ballot box.” Sarkar quickly entered the fray, saying that Embery was defending “white people” and insinuating that his position was based on racism.

To the extent that the Labour Party leadership embraced the people trading in this divisive politics, they were to blame for their defeat. But they did not create it—nor did they trade in it directly. Indeed, given that these activists were the base on which they relied for their power, they had no real choice other than to kiss the ring of the Momentum activists.

It’s a Class Thing, Not an Age Thing

After the defeat, the Momentum activists quickly picked up on exit polls that showed Labour had massive support among young people. This is true, but they have not analyzed these polls very carefully. It is no secret that young people in almost every developed country tend to poll more liberal-left than their older counterparts. But what matters is not whether this is true, but how this changed between the relatively successful 2017 election and the disastrous 2019 election. These changes can be seen in the chart below, based on polling data from Lord Ashcroft Polls.

A few things strike us immediately when we look at this data. First of all, Labour’s vote share among their most popular cohort, the 18–24s, fell substantially between 2017 and 2019. These voters did not flock to the Conservative Party, of course; they instead voted for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. A similar, though less dramatic story, can be told for the other age groups in which Labour was popular—the 25–34s and the 35–44s. 

The second thing that stands out are the class groupings on the right-hand side of the chart. As we can see, amongst the C1s, the C2s and the DEs—that is, lower middle class, skilled working class, and working class/unemployed respectively—Labour lost substantial numbers of voters to the Conservatives. The message from the polls could not be clearer: while the Brexit vote split the left-wing vote among some of the Labour-supporting age cohorts, the main damage was done among the working-class where the Conservatives took Labour voters.

This polling lines up well with the fact that Labour’s so-called Red Wall—a stronghold of Labour seats in the poorer North of England—swung from Labour to the Conservative even though these had been Labour seats for generations.

In the Long Run, the Conservative Voter is Not Dead

The other argument that the Momentum voters have deployed in the face of their crushing defeat has been to say that young voters will elect leftist leaders once the older generation die off. The way that they rationalize this to themselves is so narcissistic that it is rather hilarious. Two days before the defeat, Ash Sarkar came out with an article entitled “It’s a Myth That Labour Lost the Working Class.” In the piece, Sarkar argues that the social grades used by pollsters to classify people were “created 50 years ago” and ignore “the economic reality for young people.” She argues that, appearances to the contrary, young people are now by definition the working class.

This may seem bizarre to many, but Sarkar has a rationale of sorts. She points, correctly, to the fact that young people today are having a more difficult time economically than their parents. They have a harder time getting on the property ladder, tend to be “asset poor” and are burdened by university loan debt. All of this is true, but it does not make a city-dwelling hipsterist consumer—who, by Sarkar’s own admission, loves luxury consumption products like “avocado toast”—a full-fledged member of the working class. The fact that Sarkar thinks so just shows how utterly out of touch she is with the actual working class. Despite the fact that people her age do struggle in London, it pales in comparison towhat working-class people who supported Brexit face.

Consider that seven of the parliamentary seats that turned from Labour to Conservative are in the North East.1 Official data show that this region has seen the fastest growth in poverty in the UK by far. A recent government report shows that the North East has seen poverty increase by 4 percent between 2015 and 2020, double the UK average of 2 percent. Child poverty has increased by 12 percent in this region in the same period. Studies have also shown that the North East has the highest drug related deaths by far. Compare the 83.2 per million drug deaths in the North East in 2017, with the 24.6 in Sarkar’s London—nearly four times higher. While the average arts student with poor job prospects is grinding coffee, the average North Eastern working-class person is facing grinding poverty. Being a “failson” is not equivalent to living in a community plagued by heroin overdoses.

When you step back and look at it, Sarkar’s argument looks like an example of the hipster Left pushing its narrative to the point of reductio ad absurdum. It is a cliché that revolutionary student vanguardists often put themselves on the podium and speak for the working-class; now it appears that they are not content in wearing this mask, but instead want to stand on that same podium and speak with the voice of the working class. In the olden days, if the working class disagreed with the vanguardists, they were said to be plagued by false consciousness. Today, they are simply reclassified as not being working class, and the title of working class is claimed exclusively by the vanguardists and their supporters. This is political insularity and narcissism pushed to its strangest limits.

Beyond these absurd rationalizations, is there anything to the argument that, as these left-leaning young people get older, they will inevitably vote Labour? Are we only a generational cycle away from woke geriatric socialists dominating our politics? Probably not.

Let us consider the evidence in favor of this argument first. While it is true that younger voters across the developed world tend to lean more left-wing while older voters lean more right-wing, the situation in the UK appears more pronounced than in comparative countries. The chart below shows the difference between each age group’s votes in recent elections in the United States and the United Kingdom.2

We can see here just how much more left-wing younger British voters are than their American counterparts. For example, in comparison to the 56 percent of American 18–24-year-olds that cast their vote for Hilary Clinton in the United States in 2016, 78 percent of British 18–24-year-olds cast their vote for a left-wing party in the UK in 2019—a 22-point spread.  Or again, in comparison to the 53 percent of age 65+ American voters who cast their vote for Donald Trump in 2016, 67 percent of 65+ British voters voted for a right-wing party in 2019—a 14-point spread.

But this does not say anything about how these young people will vote as they age. In fact, for whatever reason (perhaps lack of religiosity, perhaps the lack of strong conservative subcultures), the young in Britain have always been unusually left-wing. But according to the best studies that we have, they still tend to vote Conservative as they age. An author of one such study notes that while there is a large spread of around 20 points between younger and older voters, their study suggests that age determines basically all of this. The following chart makes the case intuitively.

The New Alignment

Despite what the Right wants us to believe, the 2019 election was not a defeat of Corbyn and his left-wing economic ideas. Despite what the woke Left wants us to believe, the election result should not primarily be discussed with reference to age—and we should certainly not imagine that generational change will make their ideas more popular. Instead, what we have seen is a realignment. The North East of England did not vote Conservative because they had suddenly embraced the free market. It is far more likely that they associate Brexit with an end to free trade and free movement of people—two forces they see as pressing particularly hard on their communities.

The 2019 election in Britain was the first British election that was determined by a new type of culture war. That war was fought over Brexit but both sides knew that “Brexit” was a synonym for a number of different ideas—some of them economic, like free trade; some of them cultural, like the domination of our culture by “woke” activists; and some of them in between, like open borders which is justified by woke politics but the effects of which are primarily economic.

We now must stand back and analyze this new world and try to make sense of politics through its lens moving forward. That requires a complete realignment of politics along totally different lines. If this does not happen, Britain will find itself bogged down in a morass, toiling under a one-party Tory state with no incentive to fix real problems because it faces no challenges at the ballot box. That one-party Tory state will then become whatever the Tory leaders want it to be, because there will be little effective opposition.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published December 23, 2019.


1 Bishop Auckland, Durham North West, Sedgefield, Stockton South, Stockton North, Redcar and Blyth Valley.

2 This analysis uses exit poll data from the U.S. 2016 presidential election, together with preelection polling data from the 2019 British election. We were not able to use exit poll data for the 2019 election because the data that does exist (the Lord Ashcroft Poll data we used earlier) used different category classifications. While slightly inconvenient, this should not make that much of a difference to the results as many of the young voters that did switch their votes in the 2019 elections switched them to other left-wing parties and so end up in the same basket in our analysis.

Obviously, these political systems are quite different and so we have had to create our own categories. Setting up the U.S. baskets was simple and only depended on whether the voters opted for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. In the UK we have counted voters who supported Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or the SNP as “Left” and voters that supported Conservatives or the Brexit Party as “Right.”

Sorry, PDF downloads are available
to subscribers only.


Already subscribed?
Sign In With Your AAJ Account | Sign In with Blink