Politics In Flux
Recent by-elections are not generally a reliable guide to a general election result. However, the weakness of the three liberal parties (Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour) which currently dominate political life suggests that it is possible that no combination will be able to form a stable majority. The Liberal Democrats are discredited through loss of trust due to breaking promises made before the election. The Conservative party frightens too many people, especially outside the South East because it is perceived as a threat to their livelihoods. Labour is too like the Conservatives. It has shown a lack of confidence in dealing with charges that it is economically incompetent. Rather than point to its actual record and to Tory failures, it seems ashamed of possible deviations from the Thatcher model. But for most of the public, the Thatcher model no longer makes sense. The liberal model of governance has lost much of its legitimacy and solutions based on global free trade and the unfettered power of corporations are resented by a significant section of the population. The Labour Party in particular has allowed itself to become part of the problem. Concerns about immigration are part of broader worries about rapid change, economic insecurity and a rapidly changing labour market. The liberal parties celebrate globalisation and the instability it brings, thus aggravating voters’ fears.
There have been contrasting responses in Scotland and England. Although both countries have seen a rise in nationalism, it has taken a very different form in each country. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has positioned itself on the social democratic left. While the Scottish Labour Party took its cue from New Labour and full-blooded neoliberalism, the SNP revived an updated social democratic alternative in the tradition of John Smith. The SNP is now a mass party with something like a social democratic agenda, while the Scottish Labour Party is at best stagnating and is, in all probability, in serious decline, losing many members to the SNP and the Greens. This is a rational response on the part of the Scottish electorate to the failure of the Westminster Parties to attend to their interests. The SNP is likely to supplant the Labour Party in its heartlands for the reasons just mentioned. This will deny the Labour Party any prospect of gaining a majority at Westminster in May. It is worth noting that the SNP at 80- 90,000 members is now a mass party of the kind once seen in Britain after the Second World War. The English equivalent would be a party of 800,000, far in advance of the membership of any of the English Parties and indeed of the Scottish Labour Party with less than 14,000 members. It is worth remembering that in the years after the Second World War, the Conservatives had 3 million members and the Labour Party 1 million. In 1943, the Communist Party of Great Britain had 60,000 members.
This suggests that although the shrinking of their popular base is one of causes of the woes of the English parties, it is not just due to a lack of interest on the part of the population, but is also born of frustration that the parties have so little to offer. Politicians who talk like androids about ‘hardworking families’ and ‘the global race’ turn people away from politics. But this does not mean that the electorate have no interest in the big political issues, particularly those that they think affect their interests directly. Although the reaction to liberal politics in England has also involved nationalism , it has taken a very different form from Scotland. English nationalism has been captured by a group of professional politicians who are Thatcherite in orientation, seizing the original UKIP and initially developing a Thatcherite programme. However, as they realised that a lot of their appeal would come from working class people who felt threatened by economic liberalism and globalisation, they have been obliged to tack to the left, giving up policies such as the privatisation of the NHS. Unlike the SNP they have been unable to develop a coherent programme, trying to be all things to all voters in an attempt to pick up and maintain political momentum in any way that they can. It is interesting that they appear to have relied on the working class vote in Strood rather than the middle class in Rochester in order to return Mark Reckless to Westminster as a UKIP MP. Evidently UKIP is trying to dance at two weddings at the same time. Farage is a banker and UKIP stands for both globalisation and old-fashioned English values, at a time when globalisation is the main killer of those values. It might work for this election but not for the long term. But can the Labour Party react to this threat to their own electoral base?
The signs are not good. The Labour Party as a liberal party is wedded to the globalist agenda. It has nothing useful to say about the EU and continues to be gripped by panic over immigration. Its suggestion to withdraw tax credits from low wage EU workers on the grounds that employers should not be subsidised for employing low wage immigrants is pathetic. Apparently it is going to be still alright to subsidise greedy employers if they underpay English workers and greedy landlords through housing benefit. How it expects to gain respect amongst working people for such an attitude is baffling, particularly if they are as concerned as they say they are about reducing the welfare budget. If most of it excluding pensions is in fact a subsidy for the rich they should say so and indicate what they are going to do about it over the medium term. They appear to be terrified of being accused of ‘class war’ by the right wing papers if they even gesture towards making the powerful and well-paid pay their dues to society. Unlike Scotland, there is no threat to Labour from the left. The far left parties in England are hopeless because they too are basically liberals in all but name. They cannot connect with the communities they claim to represent and they have no realistic policies to counter economic liberalism. UKIP, for all its incoherence is thus given a clear run.
Although the Labour Party has tried to distance itself from the more overt liberal policies and attitudes that prevailed under Blair and Brown, in reality progress has been very limited. They are opportunistic and vacuous about the EU, they played the Tory game in the Scottish referendum campaign and damaged themselves in the process. Although they have committed themselves to reversing some of the most harmful of the Coalition changes to the NHS, they cannot even bring themselves to commit to supporting it as necessary through general taxation, instead hypothecating a badly thought out ‘mansion tax’ to inject extra resources. They continue to neglect their own traditional constituents in the North and West, as well as in southern England and have said nothing to support the TUC’s attempt to establish social partnership in industrial relations in Britain. They continue to string along with bungled imperialist adventures in Libya, Syria and Ukraine. Here, UKIP has stolen a march on the left by opposing imperialism and adventurism abroad.
The two-party system is very resilient as it is part of the way in which politics is understood by ordinary Britons. But it is becoming more and more difficult for it to function, as mass politics has declined and the party memberships and elites have become increasingly detached from their electorates. A successful nationalist party in Scotland is going to disrupt the party system in England and Wales and make it increasingly difficult to operate in the next parliament. Even if UKIP proves to be a false dawn, as is quite likely, the Labour Party is unlikely to be able to form a stable majority after the general election in May and will continue to look as if it does not know what it is or what it is in politics for. We may, at least for a while, be moving to a system more like the German one, where the big parties have to form alliances in Parliament. This may be the only way in which other than liberal voices get a say.