Establishment politics is fracturing, but the General Election outcome won't represent the anger with the elite. Chris Nineham outlines a strategy for popular opposition and generating a new left
As the election approaches, each of the three main parties faces their very own crisis. The Tories are damaged by office, divided over Europe and spooked by Ukip. The LibDems' vote is in meltdown as a result of serial betrayals and buddying up with the Tories. Labour face collapse in their Scottish heartlands where some polls are saying they could lose as many as 35 out of 41 out of seats, seriously damaging their chances of an overall majority in Westminster.
This pile up of problems reflects disaffection with the whole Westminster circus. Revelations that Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind will happily charge £5,000 and more a day to provide companies with political access show once again that politics is rotting from the top.
But the causes of popular contempt go beyond MPs’ personal corruption, however grotesque. Underlying the democratic disconnect is a wider concern with inequality and a sense that the elites are running the whole show in their narrow interests.
On the economy for example, 80% are angered by tax avoidance, 59 % want to see rent controls, 74% want to see an end to cuts. The central problem is the three main parties remain committed to the very policies that people have learnt to hate since the 2008 crash.
Labour’s sorry record
Ed Miliband has had moments of defiance, including his 2013 promise to get tough with the utility companies and his attack on Boots boss Stefano Pessina for tax avoidance. More of this kind of thing could have lit up Labour’s campaign. But these forays have led not just to howls of outrage from the so-called business community but to attacks from the Blairites, and complaints from other leadership figures. The resulting timidity, combined with Labour’s lead role in the No campaign in Scotland, explains the pitiful fact that the party is only neck and neck with the Tories after years of austerity.
It is important we reject the idea that this poor showing is a result of a rightwing mood in society. The problem is rather that millions of working people just won’t be inspired to vote at all. Labour is locked into the failed framework of neoliberal economics. When push comes to shove, Miliband insists “there is no path to growth and prosperity for working people which does not tackle the deficit”. While distancing themselves from the Tories plans for hyper-austerity which will shrink the state to just 35% of GDP—a level last seen before the second world war - Labour is clear, the cuts will continue.
Labour aims to differentiate itself by a slower rate of cuts, opposition to further privatisation in the NHS and promises to chase up tax dodgers. Whatever this amounts to, it is not a breakout from the current paradigm. Having said that, establishment hysteria at every hint of deviation shows just how nervous they are about keeping the neoliberal charabanc on the road.
If anyone is in doubt about the potential of anti-austerity politics, consider the SNP’s fortunes. Since the democratic insurgency of the Yes campaign, the SNP have adopted open opposition to cuts and to Trident renewal. These kind of policies combined with a growing independence mood look set to win them a staggering 40-50 seats in May, out of a total of 59, up from 6 in 2010. Anything close to this result would make them the third party in parliament.
Since last summer their membership has quadrupled to more than 90,000 in a country of 5.3 million, making the SNP bigger than the LibDems and Ukip combined and mocking sociologist claims that today’s electorate don’t join parties. It’s clearly not that people are anti-politics, they just don’t like most of the politics that is on offer.
Meanwhile the Green Party’s leaders Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas have campaigned strongly against the government’s cuts record and done well to force themselves into some of the TV debates. The Green’s support has risen sharply as a result, they have overtaken the LibDems in polling and their membership has surged to 44,000.
This is all good news. It’s the start of the breakup of a political system that has helped stabilise British capitalism for decades. It shows alternatives can fly. It also buries the media’s favourite fantasy that Ukip is the authentic expression of discontent with the big three. And the SNP stand to make a welcome impact on post-election politics. If current polls are right, Labour would need a deal with them to put together a government, an outcome favoured by 62% of prospective SNP voters.
The Greens' more modest progress will have less impact. Britain’s archaic electoral system means that they are unlikely to win more than one or two seats and so will not do much to shift the balance in parliament.
The best case for the left
Despite the establishment’s problems, and the emergence of alternatives, the choices for the left are not exactly inspiring. The old three party system may be creaking under the strain of a credibility crisis, but this election is unlikely to produce any radical breakthrough.
Most working people will see voting Labour as the obvious way to express opposition to the coalition’s nasty class rule, partly because of a few mildly progressive policies, partly because of the straight fact that only Labour can bring the government down. If Labour wins, or at least forms a coalition with the SNP and others, it will be seen as a defeat for the rabid neoliberals and many (not Labour’s leaders), will interpret it as at least a partial rejection of austerity.
Socialists need to judge the election in terms of what will give activists the most confidence. Given their tepid policies, there won't be dancing in the streets if Labour win, but everyone who opposes the current economic regime will be holding their head a bit higher the morning after a defeat for the party of Cameron and Osborne. So in most places in England a Labour vote is the rational choice for socialists. Where there are leftwing Labour candidates, a big vote for them helps sends a message for change.
In Scotland of course many socialists are likely to be voting critically for the SNP, which makes sense given their new found anti-austerity enthusiasm. In some safe English Labour seats a case will be put for voting for other left-wing candidates. A good national Green polling would be assessed as part of the anti-austerity vote. But there are a few things to bear in mind here. It is not just that it is extremely unlikely that the Greens will get more than one or two MPs. The truth is their candidates are a very mixed bunch and this reflects on the nature of the party in general.
The Greens have two strong progressive leaders in Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, and some of its new recruits will have been attracted by their rejection of austerity (though others will have come from the LibDems). But the party’s libertarian structures, its right wing political origins and its overwhelmingly middle class composition make for a strange political mix. A recent poll showed that 32% of its members would favour coalition with the Tories rather than Labour for example. Indeed in Leeds the Greens could be found, from 2004 to 2006, supporting a Tory local council.
Bennett and Lucas can be relied on to take principled positions, but there are others in the Party with some wayward views. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, for example, a London Assembly member was circulating a petition that demanded WH Smith stock the racist magazine.
Even their record on austerity is shaky. Tested in practice for the first time in Brighton, the one place where they have run a council, they ended up pushing through cuts and precipitating a strike by low paid bin workers. The Greens needs to be looked at carefully and critically and on a case by case basis.
In some constituencies there will be left candidates running for TUSC or Left Unity. But the arithmetic of elections is unforgiving and prospects needs to be assessed honestly. The forces involved in these campaigns are very small and low votes are next to certain. Poor left votes won’t actually help the longer term development of an alternative. In fact they are more likely to be demoralising, and make anti-austerity politics look more marginal than it actually is.
The first signs of the fracturing of politics show that the ruling class’s grip on society is weakening. But there is no outcome to this election that will really represent the anger with a corrupt and arrogant elite. The best result in the circumstances is the biggest possible defeat of a hated government.
Why the movement matters
The frustrating nature of the election underlines once more why mass protest matters. If we want to build popular structures of opposition to austerity, the left has to take movement building seriously. It is crucial that whatever government emerges the movement is ready to go on to the offensive. It is also through strengthening the movements of opposition that we can create the momentum and the unity needed for a new left electoral project.
If the election is not going to provide a breakthrough for the left, it is not going to begin to solve the structural problems of the British establishment either. Another coalition based around the Tories and LibDems would have major credibility problems, especially if it included Ukip. A Labour government or a Labour-led coalition would have more assent initially but would quickly put Labour’s leadership on a collision course with its core support.
Locked into austerity, obsessed with hated foreign wars, facing scandals on tax evasion, child abuse and the Iraq War, the British elites are looking beleaguered. The most important thing we can do to push them further on to the defensive is to strengthen the protest movements on the ground.
This is why the People’s Assembly has called a national demonstration on June 20 against austerity, starting at the Bank of England and marching to a festival in Tower Hamlets, a council the government loves to hate. This has to be a big focus for anyone who wants real change.
We have to maximise turnouts on the Rage against Racism demonstration on March 21 and the Campaign against Climate Change demonstration next Saturday March 7. Meanwhile we need to build on the growing radicalisation by helping to get people organised in the People’s Assembly, the Stop the War Coalition and other campaigns up down the country. Last Saturday Newcastle was electrified as more than 3,000 local people protested against the Pegida Islamophobes on the biggest anti-racist demonstration in the North East since the 1930s. Meanwhile in Manchester 500 people packed into the People’s Assembly Question Time and 1,300 attended an anti-cuts gig the same night.
These kind of initiatives create popular opposition to the elites. They provide hope and alternative arguments. They are also the key to generating a new left.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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