Gordon Brown has finally announced the date for general election. Bitterly unpopular, presiding over a government close to burn-out and the sharpest, deepest recession in living memory, New Labour is nonetheless not yet out of the game.
Having helped exacerbate the financial crisis in Britain, Brown and Darling have proved relatively adept in responding to it. Their comparatively swift efforts to prop up the financial system with billion-pound bailouts have helped reduce the impact of the recession.
Unemployment has risen, but not to the levels some feared. Times are tight, and the future uncertain, but the economic situation has stabilised for the moment.
The bailouts, however, have created a major fiscal crisis for the British state. The British ruling class is expected to return the money it has borrowed internationally. They intend to do so by making the rest of us pay, through public spending cuts and some tax rises.
They have chosen to privilege the ability of bankers to carry on gambling over funding the public services people actually need. The only real disagreement amongst the main parties is how much and how quickly to cut.
However, that limited disagreement has opened up a real distinction between the Tory and Labour on economic policy.
Labour wishes to cut less aggressively, and has indicated some, rather token, willingness to hit the bankers with bonus taxes and higher income tax. The Tories want to cut harder, and want to cut taxes for the rich.
And the response to the crisis by some workers has made the distinction more clear. With BA workers and others on strike, the Tory press crow about Labour’s Unite union funding. The Labour press have had a field day with billionaire tax-dodger Lord Ashcroft funding the Tories.
This is a clear-cut class divide. A tight election is being ferociously fought.
Britain's election system awards seats on a constituency-by-constituency basis. This means that there can sometimes be little relationship between what a party gets nationally, and the number of seats it wins in Parliament. Infamous examples include Labour receiving the highest-ever share of the vote, 49%, but losing the 1951 election. And in 1983, the Lib Dem/SDP Alliance won 25% of the vote, but just 23 seats. Because of the way the seats are currently distributed amongst the parties, the Conservatives require a much higher swing in their direction to be sure of an outright majority.
The senior civil service is preparing for a hung Parliament, in which no single party holds a majority in the House of Commons, and so must look to others for support. Gordon Brown has been told he will be allowed over two weeks, post-election, in which to try and put a coalition together if needed.
The Lib Dems, potential kingmakers in a coalition, have nailed their true-blue colours to the mast. Nick Clegg claims he is Thatcher’s heir. And they want to cut public services more deeply than even the Tories - just spreading the pain out over a longer period.
Whatever government emerges, British politics is heading for a major shake-up. New possibilities may open for the left as a result.
Cameron and the Tory threat
All this is not in the usual script, however. The Tories should, by now, be coasting to victory against an unpopular government. They are not because of a fatal flaw in David Cameron’s political project.
Thanks in part to an overwhelming media campaign in his favour, Cameron secured the Tory leadership in late 2005 against more traditional Conservative candidates. He and his friends from Eton have attempted since then to give the impression of a change in the Tories. His explicit model is Tony Blair.
Cameron has said he wishes to “detoxify” the Conservative brand. He has rightly perceived that the Tories remained bitterly unpopular with large swathes of the population. They were the “Nasty Party”, bigoted and unashamedly pro-rich.
Cameron was photographed cycling to work. Appearances were made, in shirt-sleeves at the kitchen table, on YouTube. A handful of black candidates were found for safe Tory seats.
Many of these moves aped Blair’s attempts to present himself as a modern social liberal, beyond old-fashioned class politics.
But Cameron has utterly missed the point. Blair could pose as New Labour because his predecessor, Neil Kinnock, had spent nearly a decade preparing the way for him.
On the back of a series of major defeats for the organised working class, Kinnock systematically smashed the left inside Labour. Witch-hunts and expulsions were used to isolate and break up organised opposition, cheered on by his supporters in the media and academia.
This effort meant Kinnock never won a general election. That was left to Blair, in 1997.
Cameron never took on his own party. Nor did any of his predecessors. That has left his leadership in an unsustainable position. The row over gay rights and Tory homophobia has exposed the problem. Whatever Cameron says himself, he is still head of a party dominated by saloon-bar bigots.
They tolerate Cameron’s posturing when times are good. When things become harder, they turn on him.
But they are repellent to the voters. Cameron hopes to win to his brand of Toryism. And the contradiction is weakening his whole campaign.
Cameron has not been able to assemble a mirror-image to the anti-Tory coalition Blair had around him in 1997. Where are the popstars and celebrities queuing up to endorse David Cameron? Where are the intellectuals and commentators, beyond the usual Tory ranks?
Worse yet, it’s not even clear that the Tories have convinced the City and British business that they would be any more credible administrators of UK capitalism than Brown, Darling, and Mandelson.
Cameron may want to be the Tories’ Tony Blair. He should have aimed to be their Neil Kinnock. He may yet be condemned to that fate.
The left and the elections
Nonetheless, the sheer unpopularity of New Labour has made a Cameron-led government a viable prospect. That has significantly changed the game for those on the left.
For much of the last decade, it was possible to argue for an electoral alternative to New Labour. Iraq, in particular, summed up everything that was wrong with Blair and New Labour for millions of people. A space was created in which a credible non-Labour left could grow.
The emergence of a credible Tory threat has dramatically reduced the electoral space available to the non-Labour left. This has been obvious since the 2008 Greater London Assembly elections, when the tight competition between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone severely squeezed the left vote.
Even with London’s proportional voting system, Labour supporters and those on the left prioritised defeating the Tories ahead of voting left and against Livingstone’s pro-City policies. In this general election, that desire to stop the Tories is even stronger.
Their fear is understandable. Millions of people throughout the country can remember just how bad the Tories were for 18 years, with skyrocketing unemployment, the destruction of public services and massive interest rate hikes. The prospect of David Cameron as Prime Minister, with George Osborne as Chancellor, rightly fills them with horror.
Brown and company may be awful. But they are still seen to be not as bad as the Conservatives. Brown, Darling and Mandelson have astutely played up to that fear in recent months, playing up the prospect of swingeing Tory spending cuts.
Of course, all the parties think cuts are necessary. None are prepared to challenge the bankers.
The Tories’ ill-disguised relish for attacking public services, and recent front-bench homophobia, has exposed the sham of Cameron’s “brand detoxification”. And the Lib Dems are demanding still deeper attacks on public services.
Faced with this, it’s no surprise New Labour is enjoying an opinion poll revival. It’s the very strength of the Tories that is perversely shoring up Brown’s support.
The need for an alternative to New Labour remains. Cuts must be resisted. A new, green economy must be built. Labour is incapable of either.
But that alternative is unlikely to be built in this election. It’s important that those on the left don’t put too big a gap between themselves and the millions of ordinary Labour supporters we need to convince.
We should be arguing, loud and clear, to stop the Tories - by voting left where you can; and Labour where you must.
Elections, especially in the UK, are difficult terrain. The electoral system punishes minor parties, and Labour has a century’s head start on us. When a Tory government threatens, the battlefield is even less promising.
Only a very few left candidates in this election will do well as a result. Only where consistent work has been put in locally, and some national profile secured, will non-Labour candidates get a good vote. We cannot pretend that this is going to be an easy election for the left
Electoral reform in the future, now a serious prospect, will make a left electoral project more viable.
After the election
We will be facing a series of difficult questions as a result of May 6, whatever government is formed.
There are likely to be three different, but related, discussions that develop.
First, the argument to return to Labour is already brewing. Some are claiming that the apparent upturn in Labour’s fortunes is like the 1980s, with an emboldened left leading a revival. John Cruddas, left-inclined MP for Dagenham, is cited as an example.
The truth is sadly different.
Labour’s membership has revived in the past. Although fallen hugely since its heyday in the 1950s, the early years of Blair’s lead saw a rise in members to over 400,000 as thousands of people grew desperate to end the Tories’ rule. Disillusionment soon set in, with membership collapsing to no higher than 120,000. There is no sign yet of a significant rise in Labour membership.
The Labour left is a pale shadow of its former self, when in 1981 Tony Benn could come within a whisker of winning a leadership contest. Today, it cannot even manage to stand a candidate against Gordon Brown. The grip of the right inside the party, always stronger than that of the left, now looks near-unbreakable.
At best, it would take years, perhaps decades, of internal party struggle to shift the right’s vice-like hold. It is unlikely many people have the stomach for that battle. And it is a sign of desperation, not of confidence, that people are rallying to Labour now.
Nonetheless, the argument to “reclaim Labour” could gain some traction. If Gordon Brown is Prime Minister in a minority government, the Labour left will claim this increases the left’s leverage in Parliament. If Labour is out of office, the Labour left will claim a return to Labour’s “core values” is now needed.
Either way, those arguing for a fundamental break with Labour could face a series of sharp political arguments in coming months. Those outside Labour must continue to work with those inside or still supporting Labour.
Second, the unions and the movements will matter more than ever. A revival in trade union militancy has been visible over the last year, leading up to the BA strikes. These have not reshaped the political scene, but the pressure is clearly rising. Continued legal restrictions on strikes may by themselves cause an explosion.
However, we need to turn that fight against single employers into a political struggle. That will mean reforging the alliance of unions and the movements that has flared up over and over again during the last decade, from the great Seattle WTO protests onwards.
Third, the question of the economic crisis, and the crisis of the state, will dominate all other considerations.
Whichever party wins, it has been made clear that cuts on a near-unprecedented scale will be made to public services. Campaigns against the cuts must be supported.
But resistance alone will not be enough. We have to turn around the political logic of the cuts. The whole debate at present is premised on the need for cuts. To turn the tide, we must stand that logic on it head. Instead of ordinary people paying for the bankers’ crisis, the bankers’ should be made to clear up their own mess.
A political campaign is needed, alongside supporting resistance. That means arguing both for opposition to the cuts, and for alternatives to them - like taxing the rich, and rescheduling public debt.
Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).