Could Labour disappear? The party has been a prominent feature of British politics for a century, but could we now see it just vanish?
There is a clear historical precedent. In 1906, the Liberal Party won 399 seats in the House of Commons. It was a great, reforming government, which laid the foundations of the welfare state. Between 1906 and 1922 the Liberals provided the Prime Minister. Yet in the General Election of 1929, they obtained only 59 seats, and lost all influence in British politics – until the circumstances of 2010 brought 56 Liberal Democrats into coalition. Over those 80 years, they remained a small, fringe party. A bestselling book of the 1930s was entitled The Strange Death of Liberal England. It was strange to contemporaries, precisely because a dominant force had been rapidly reduced to a rump.
People choose to support political parties for a very wide variety of reasons, which often fall into one of two general groups of motivation. An individual may cast a vote of their own accord, gathering information about the alternatives and comparing them to his or her preferences. This is how economics believes that all choices – not just political ones – are made.
But politics is also a social process, and social influence is equally important for many people’s choices. Peer pressure – a desire to conform to the norms of your social group – may override someone’s own judgement. The socio-economic composition of Liverpool, for example, means that its four constituencies were likely to be Labour in the election. But the Labour majorities are overwhelming. In Walton, Labour obtained over 80 per cent of the vote, and its majority over the second placed party was 72 per cent. Riverside is Liverpool’s most “marginal” seat, with a Labour majority of over 55 per cent. These vast margins can only be explained by social influence – by the idea in Liverpool that it is the strong social norm to vote Labour.
A lot is now known about the patterns of popularity over time for all sorts of things – a new product, an idea, a political movement – where social influence matters when people are making decisions.
Frank Bass was a larger than life Texan marketing professor who smoked cigars a foot long. Fifty years ago, he came up with a really smart idea, still in use in today, for identifying the relative importance of independent choice and social influence in the rise and fall of a product’s popularity over time. The Bass model is a salient kind of product forecasting that predicts the degree of success a new product will have in the marketplace.
In this century, Didier Sornette, a physicist at ERH in Zurich, approached the problem from a different perspective, but came up with the same conclusions as Bass: when social influence matters, the possibility of a rapid collapse in popularity is always present.
The implication for whoever becomes Labour leader is at odds with the received wisdom about appealing across the electorate. On the contrary, it is imperative for Labour to shore up its remaining core vote. Otherwise, we could be witnessing the strange death of Labour England.