The consensus at the centre of British politics is being prised open - and with this comes an opportunity to build a mass, radical left across this island
We are a month away from the most critical general election for a generation. The consensus at the centre of British politics is being prised open. Tory and Labour have a range of smaller challenger parties on a scale unprecedented for generations. And with this opening of the consensus, comes an opportunity to build a mass, radical left across this island.
The opening is hinged in two, connected, parts. The first is the long-term decline of the two-party system. In the 1950s, Labour and Tory between them would win 90% of the vote, and together had 3m members. Today, they are set to clear 60%, and have 350,000 members. British society has changed hugely: less deferential, more unequal; fewer manual workers, more homeowners; less social protection, more socially liberal. The British party system, bolted into place by the end of the Second World War and subsequent welfare state settlement, has survived thus far but hardly flourished.
The second hinge is the acceleration of that transformation since the formation, post-crash, of the Coalition government in May 2010. Here, the economy is dominant. Austerity, pursued doggedly (if sometimes falteringly) has accelerated the hollowing out of the welfare state and the post-war institutions began in the 1970s. It has, at the same time, accelerated the drive to insecure and poorly-paid work. Average real pay remains 2% below its 2010 level, despite economic growth since 2013.
Through this opening have rushed the smaller parties: on the left, the SNP clearly dominant, followed by the Greens in England and, at the rear, Plaid Cymru in Wales. To the right, Ukip has, until recently, marshaled parts of a demoralised Tory base around racist, anti-migrant slogans. The traditional sink for vague protest votes, the Liberal Democrats, has almost destroyed itself in propping up the Tories for half a decade, falling from 23% of the vote in 2010 to less than 10% in most recent polls. As a result, Britain’s antiquated political system is unlikely to survive in its current form.
The issues emerge in two parts. Seriously underestimated (until very recently) by the London-based press, the Scottish independence referendum was transformational, drawing tens of thousands of new members into the SNP and threatening the near-wipeout of Labour as a party in Scotland. It is worth remembering nobody expected, or even greatly wanted, this outcome: the SNP leadership argued for a “devo max” referendum, hoping to avoid a simple Yes/No split. Britain’s state managers in Whitehall, led by David Cameron, hoped to call their bluff and break their momentum by offering precisely that.
However clever it may have seemed at the time, this proved to be serious miscalculation. It was the dynamism and organization of the Yes campaign on the ground that brought the current British state extraordinarily close to its own dissolution. It was the severity of the Yes threat that forced Whitehall, back to draw on every institutional prop and pull every moral fibre it could grab: from business leaders threatening Armageddon, to the insidious role played by supposedly neutral civil servants.
This last factor should now set some alarm bells ringing. Sir Nicholas Macpherson, head of the Treasury, the key state institution behind the anti-Yes campaign, recently defended his (very public) abandonment of previously sacrosanct civil service neutrality. He argued that “Her Majesty’s Treasury” is necessarily a “Unionist institution. The clue is in the name,” and that the “exceptional” threat of Scottish independence warranted extraordinary measures, such as the creation of an internal anti-independence team, and the releasing of otherwise confidential (and biased and inaccurate) civil service advice to ministers to the press.
If the referendum was one variant of that “exceptional” threat, it is not hard to see that Britain’s state managers may well consider the SNP holding the balance of power in Parliament on May 8 as another. The mounting hysteria of the London press against Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP is clearly intended to warn Labour off any deal or alliance. Adam Ramsay has written of an incipient constitutional “coup”, intended to keep Cameron in power, should the vote not fall conveniently towards Unionism – and the retention of Trident. (Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy’s - foolhardy, or malicious - claim that Cameron should remain in power, post-election, hardly helped Labour’s cause, but has bolstered the true-blue Unionist case no end.)
With Parliament not due to sit again until May 27th, there will be no constitutional process scrutinizing the likely backdoor dealmaking, post-election. Under these circumstances, it will be critical for the left to press the argument that the democratic will of the people should be observed in forming the government. It was protests after the Spanish election of 2011 that called for “real democracy”, and launched the mass movement there. We must be prepared to do the same – and go on from there, whatever the outcome, to insist on the democratic overhaul of our electoral system, including full proportional representation and the abolition of the House of Lords.
Directly tied to the constitutional question is the austerity. Austerity is about more than ideology alone – although the enthusiasm for Tories and Liberals (and some Blairites) alike for shrinking the state should not be discounted. Rather, it represents a strategic choice for the British ruling class, and for this reason will be defended, up to and including the defiance of the electorate’s wishes.
First, austerity means privileging the repayment of financial claims – debts – above all other considerations, including broader economic goals. Second, the UK’s financial sector is central to the maintenance of its great power status, forming as it does a key node in the global financial system. Austerity is the means by which space is cleared in the public sector, lest the system trip over itself again; bailouts are inordinately expensive, and so sacrifices must be made. Bernard Jenkin, Tory MP and chair of the Public Accounts Committee was unusually candid last month, arguing (correctly) that the UK’s financial system was “vulnerable and exposed” and risked being “too big to save” as a result of a shrinking “national borrowing capacity”. To expand this “borrowing capacity”, therefore, it is necessary to shrink the government’s debt as fast as can be achieved before the next crisis breaks.
The election has introduced a great instability around this central strategy, however. The mainstream debate has been pushed, in the space of a few weeks, into recognizing that an anti-austerity case exists. The Green Party have suffered directly as a result of the attention challenging austerity has brought to them, exposing some of their weaknesses in hostile interviews; the SNP have been significantly more robust. After some uncertainty, Labour have decisively settled in favour of austerity, even if (it should be noted) at a reduced pace.
Labour is key
Labour is the weak spot in this precarious balance of forces. Whatever the outcome, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the party to avoid a serious crisis. The most sensible result, given the current likely distribution of seats, would be a deal with the SNP. But Labour’s bone-deep commitment to Unionism, and its visceral hatred of the SNP (loudly expressed pre-election) make such an outcome far more fraught than might first appear. Any such agreement is liable to be unstable, folding quickly on the issue of either the constitution or austerity. And whilst the sound of sharpening knives amongst the Blairites has diminished somewhat in recent months, the mere fact that they can be heard at all this close to the election suggests at least some of the True Believers would rather see Labour lose than even whisper to the left.
Should Milliband fail to get himself through the door No.10, the Blairites will go on the rampage: extending pre-election moves to weaken the union link into an outright break, and stamping out whatever vestiges remain of the socialist tradition. (The model here is perhaps the Italian Communist Party, now ruling Italy in neoliberal style as the Democrats having, ditched their awkward historical baggage.)
On the other side, should Miliband become Prime Minister, perhaps with Lib Dem support, and attempt to impose further austerity, the disillusionment amongst Labour’s core supporters will only intensify – potentially including its trade union backers. A Tory-Labour deal, enacted (even if temporarily) in the name of “national unity” and “tough choices”, would rapidly accelerate that process; it remains on the edges of possibility, but as the perceived SNP threat grows, inches closer to reality.
In almost all plausible scenarios, Labour will hit a crisis – the product of its long-term decline, and short-term economic choices. Its dominant position on the UK left, pretty much solid since the General Strike of 1926, has already been partially challenged in Scotland by the SNP. The potential, here, out of this crisis, is to build a mass radical, party of the left in England, Scotland and Wales that moves beyond the failures of Blairism – its militarism and its austerity politics – and the existing far left.
That is the prize available for the taking over the next few years. It poses a simple question to those on the left: would it be possible to drive the Blairites out from their positions of power inside the Labour Party under any plausible timescale? Or is it now quicker and easier, given the wider crisis of politics, to start something new? But more than this, it raises the central strategic question. The two greatest barriers to radical social change in Britain are the UK state itself, and, in more complex fashion, the leadership of the Labour Party. The former has proved itself immensely adaptable over its centuries of existence; the latter, more than willing to adapt, smoothing out radical movements and demands as it did so, and pulling them back into the safe orbit of Parliament as Ed Milliband’s father Ralph so brilliantly analysed. The combination of state and party leadership, at is height, under direct pressure, gave us the welfare state and the NHS, but that combination is now pulling apart. A new, mass organization of the left, not tied to Parliament alone, can provide a space for radical, even revolutionary ideas that has not existed in Britain for many years.
The situation is complex, but the road to this prize can be discerned. First, we must maintain the existing anti-austerity organizations. The People’s Assembly has provided the best example, on a national scale, of how those from many different traditions and backgrounds can organise together on this central issue. That organization outside of Parliament will be needed whatever the outcome in May. Its campaign might be usefully extended to some broader democratic demands in the election's wake. And the anti-austerity demo on June 20 will arrive at an absolutely critical time. It is the ideal point at which to press home the argument for a break with austerity politics.
Second, the minimum desirable outcome is to remove the Tories from power. The maximum plausible outcome is a Labour government in a coalition of the left, with a solid bloc of left MPs returned to Parliament. To secure the former, and move us towards the latter will require nuanced voting. For England, where Counterfire is based, it will mean voting Labour in marginal seats where Tory or Liberal could win. It will mean voting Labour where the candidate is of the left. There are arguably more of these now than in recent years, both amongst current MPs and those not previously elected. And it can mean voting Labour where there is no obvious threat from Tories or Liberals, but little credible alternative, on the grounds that a solid Labour vote will boost the confidence of the labour movement’s cadre.
It may mean voting Green where the candidate is on the left and there is no risk of Tory or Liberal winning, since a big Green vote nationally will be interpreted as an anti-austerity vote. Caroline Lucas in Brighton, of course, warrants support.
We are drifting into uncharted waters. We will need to be clear on our demands, particularly in the likely event of a confused outcome, calling for an anti-austerity coalition in defence of democracy as against a Tory-led “coup”. And we will need to move rapidly, outside of Parliamentary politics, to secure the space for the left that a confused outcome can open up. The June 20 People’s Assembly demonstration is key. There is a chance, however, that if the left is focused and clear about where it needs to get to in the next few years, we can succeed across these islands.
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