Neil Hall / REUTERS Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in London, May 2017.

Don’t Blame Corbyn

Labour’s Problems Run Deeper Than Its Leadership

Recent elections in Western democracies have been spectacles of popular dissent and political emotion. Not so in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election to be held on June 8 has inspired little more than malaise. There will be no primetime debates between May and the opposition, and there will be no marches through the capital, especially in light of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester. Most observers simply assume that the country is headed for a Blue Murder—a sweeping victory for May’s Conservatives at the expense of the Labour Party, which recent polls suggest could lose 56 of its 229 Parliamentary seats.

What is the source of Labour’s poor prospects? The obvious answer is Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader. A longtime activist from Labour’s left flank, Corbyn is widely perceived as incompetent and untrustworthy: his net favorability rating among British voters fell from negative 25 percent to negative 40 percent between August and February. A steep loss in June could force Corbyn to step aside. For his critics, new Labour leadership seems like a silver lining. 

Party leaders need to regenerate members’ faith in democracy if they want Labour to return to government.

But the fixation on Corbyn misses a more enduring source of Labour’s weakness. Over the last two decades, many of the voters who make up Labour’s traditional base have lost faith in British democracy. Fewer and fewer affiliate with the party. Of those who do, a growing percentage abstain from voting.

The regeneration of the Labour Party will require more than new leadership. Labour must build trust from the bottom up, reinvesting in local government to restore voters’ faith in the promise of public services.

Peter Nicholls / reuters A housing estate in London, December 2015.


In the United Kingdom, as across the developed world, support for democracy is in decline. Recent work by the political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa has illustrated a “democratic disconnect,” under which the popular foundations of mature democracies are eroding.

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