Opinion: Labour Party is in decline, here's why

“The Labor Party has reached a shameful post-Zionist end,” so what is going on and why?

Amir Peretz at the Maariv/Jerusalem Post election conference on September 11 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Amir Peretz at the Maariv/Jerusalem Post election conference on September 11
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For some time now political commentators have been warning us that democratic socialism, if not actually dead, is on its last legs, pointing at Germany, France, Holland and much of the rest of Europe. The truth of their prediction was brought home to me when I was in London, the city of my birth, at the time of the December 2019 election. I was able to observe at first hand the incredulity of a people still reeling from the wounds inflicted by the sharp divisions over Brexit at the startling results. “Labour is in meltdown,” declared The Guardian newspaper. “Worst Labour result since 1935,” bemoaned The Daily Mirror. And back home in Israel, Labor was going through an existential crisis. “The Labor Party has reached a shameful post-Zionist end,” announced the publication Israel Hayom.
So what exactly is going on and why?
In the UK, not even Boris Johnson himself had expected for his Conservative Party to win no less than the 14 seats the Labour Party had held since 1945. Among the big surprises were the constituency of Blythe in the industrial northeast of the UK, a mining town with a decades-long Labour tradition, and most astonishing of all, Sedgefield, former prime minister Tony Blair’s old seat, which he had held with a huge Labour majority. All of this was a body blow for Labour, its fourth electoral failure in a row and by far the biggest defeat it had suffered in recent times.
In the case of the Labor Party in Israel, it is important to remember that the leaders of then Mapai who, together with the Histadrut, the labour union, were the founders of the state and for many decades, the ruling party. The decline began around 2001 and continued through the succeeding two decades to the present situation – in which it won only four seats in the September 2019 election in a joint list with Gesher, the party of Orly Levy-Abecassis. Labor-Gesher has now linked up with Meretz hoping to achieve 11 seats in the Knesset in the March 2nd election, a very long way from being able to head a government.
Many reasons for the UK Labour Party’s failure in December were suggested by the media and also by party leaders themselves. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, was the first to take full responsibility on himself, as one of the architects of the election campaign and its over-ambitious manifesto. The word from the party workers who had canvassed for votes in those mostly northern constituencies, which had deserted Labour in big numbers, was that there were two deciding factors – the failure of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party and Brexit. The great majority of those voters had opted to leave the European Union and Corbyn had insisted on taking a neutral line on the issue. His handling, or lack of it, of antisemitism in the party, also played its part. Political commentators pointed out time and time again that many of those who had defected to the Conservatives had come to the conclusion that nobody was paying any attention to them, that their complaints went unheeded, or as one of them put it, “the left behind were key to Boris Johnson’s thumping win.” Working people, it was said, were tired of being overlooked and had reached the conclusion that the only people who mattered to the politicians were those who lived in London and the southeast, so they would vote for somebody and something different this time. Some analysts took a longer term view of Labour’s crushing defeat, putting the blame on its weakened association with the trades unions and its move to the center of the political spectrum starting in the Tony Blair era and the birth of what was called “New Labour.”
There is one area of optimism for the UK Labour Party that appears from current available statistics – not to apply to Israel. In December 2019, only 19% of UK voters aged 18-24 voted Conservative while 57% voted Labour. In the 25-34 age group, 23% voted Conservative and 55% Labour. Only when it reached the 45 and above group did the proportions change.
Of course, compared to the current situation of Israel’s Labor Party, its British counterpart with 203 Parliamentary seats is in good shape, but this is largely due to the difference in the two electoral systems. Britain’s has virtually been a two party system for centuries. The Labor Party has changed names and leaders, and more significantly its alliances, a dizzying number of times. Nevertheless, a comparison between the two can be made by narrowing it down to the appeal – or lack thereof – of socialist policies.
Explanations for Labor’s steep decline have also included the weakening of the association with the Histadrut labor federation, to the point where its former chairman, Avi Nissenkorn has joined Blue and White; the virtual disappearance of support from the kibbutzim – this movement itself in decline; the failure of the Oslo Accords, with which the Labor Party was so closely linked; the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and disillusionment with subsequent leaders; the new alignment with Gesher, which weakens its claims to traditional socialism and the absence of inroads into the Mizrahi and Russian populations. There are two other factors which seem to me to be significant, both to do with image. The first, which mirrors the situation in the UK, is that Labor’s connection to the working class is no longer evident. In Israel both Labor and Meretz are now perceived as elitist, concerned mainly with secular people living in and around Tel Aviv. The second image creator has been the constant use of the word ‘smolanim’
[leftists] as an insult by political enemies, which has seeped into the national psyche.
 It is more than possible that Labor’s problems in the UK and Israel are equally applicable to democratic socialist parties in other parts of the world: disillusion with leadership, weakened links with the trade unions and an apparent disconnect with their traditional voters.
A very wise and experienced Labor politician once told me that a good political leader should always listen to the background music. Is anybody listening?