A female prime minister calls an election when the opposition is divided, squabbling over policies and led by an unpopular socialist who’s prompted some lawmakers to jump ship. That was 1983 during the Margaret Thatcher era, and it’s déjà vu for the Labour Party more than three decades later under another Conservative premier, Theresa May. It didn’t end well for Labour back then as it crashed to its worst electoral defeat since before World War II and took another 14 years to win power. Opinion polls suggest the party is headed for a similar fate in June, with one former leader not expecting Labour to form a government again in his lifetime.
“It’s hard to see a silver lining for a party going into a general election with a 20-point deficit,” said Anthony Wells, associate director of political research at the polling company YouGov Plc. “They’re going to suffer very badly, and there’s no way of polishing it up and seeing a bright side.”
History shows it may be too soon to ring the death knell for a party that won three consecutive elections before being unseated in 2010, but the political landscape doesn’t suggest a resurrection anytime soon. Labour’s wounds reflect the backlash that brought Britain its vote to leave the European Union, Donald Trump to the White House and a far-right candidate running a close race for the French presidency.
Led by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour could lose 50 to 100 seats as the election campaign over the next seven weeks lays bare all its divisions, according to Steven Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham University. It lost 52 seats in 1983, when one Labour lawmaker, Gerald Kaufman, famously called the party’s election manifesto “the longest suicide note in history.”
“This is a high-stakes election, and what will Labour look like?” Fielding said. “Labour will look like a rabble, and that will be an image that will be imprinted on many voters for a number of elections to come. That will take a political generation to overcome.”
It’s that weakness that fueled May’s confidence in calling a snap election for June 8 as she seeks a personal mandate to push through her strategy for withdrawal from the EU, the single issue through which all political roads in Britain run at the moment.
She wants to take Britain out of the single market and customs union and is counting on an increased majority in parliament to give her greater flexibility in brokering a deal with her EU counterparts. It would mean she’d no longer be a potential hostage to lawmakers at both extremes of her own party who are seeking to soften or harden her strategy.
Corbyn, 67, whose leadership has been as unassailable among Labour members as it has unpopular among voters and his own lawmakers, welcomed May’s decision to call an election. He accused the Conservatives, or Tories, of delivering higher debt, lower wages and more child poverty while cutting funding for hospitals and schools.
In his first speech of the campaign, played the anti-establishment card that resonated in the U.S. and during Britain’s Brexit vote last year.
The election “is the Conservatives, the party of privilege and the richest, versus the Labour Party, the party that is standing up for working people to improve the lives of all,” Corbyn said on Thursday. “It’s the establishment versus the people. It’s our historic duty to make sure the people prevail.”
The problem for Labour is that while it has some policies that are “attractive” to the public, voters tend to vote on “broad perceptions of competence” and Corbyn isn’t able to get his message across, according to Wells at YouGov. At the same time, he’s alienated a chunk of his parliamentary group with poor organization and radical left views and was accused of a lackluster contribution to keeping Britain in the EU.
The first big poll carried out since May called an election showed Labour might have reason to be fearful. The Tories are seen winning 48 percent of the votes, with Labour trailing with 24 percent and Liberal Democrats at 12 percent, according to a YouGov survey of voting intentions reported by The Times.
Corbyn dismissed the poll and compared it to his surprise election as Labour leader in 2015. “Almost exactly two years ago, I was given 200-1 as an outside chance,” he told supporters on Thursday.
After Labour moderates mounted a failed coup against Corbyn last year, criticism from within his own party escalated in February when the Conservatives took a district in northwest England always held previously by Labour. There were warnings that he was leading the party toward a “catastrophic” defeat at the general election scheduled for 2020. Now that’s been brought forward by three years.
Angus Robertson, deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, told parliament on Wednesday May only wanted the election because of the “woeful state of the Labour Party.” The SNP all but wiped out Labour in Scotland, one of its traditional heartlands, in 2015 and is predicted to hang on to much of the gains. May quoted Labour members opposed to Corbyn as they sat uncomfortably behind their leader, calling him unfit to lead the country.
Already a number of Labour lawmakers have announced they won’t stand for re-election. One of them, Tom Blenkinsop, cited “significant and irreconcilable differences with the current Labour leadership” as his reason for stepping down. Another, John Woodcock, published a video on Facebook saying he plans to stand again, though can’t support Corbyn.
If Fielding, the academic, is right, Labour’s presence could fall to as low as 130 lawmakers in the 650-seat House of Commons. The party currently has 229 and is defending one seat in a special election on May 4 that now looks redundant. In the 1983 vote, it emerged with 209 seats.
“It took Labour until 1997 to recover from 1983,” said Fielding. “I can’t see any reason why it won’t happen again.”