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Reassembling British Politics

The choices in tomorrow's UK elections aren't particularly exciting. But are there signs of a leftward shift on the horizon?

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband with the party's election manifesto. Stefan Rousseau / Press Association

An archaic electoral system and level polling between Labour and the Conservatives suggests a messy outcome in tomorrow’s United Kingdom general election.

Center-left and center-right pundits are buzzing about the dangers posed by this unprecedented instability. The cracks in the Westminster system are deepening as the contradictions of Britain’s hyper-marketized society fizzle.

Electorally, there seems to be little room for the Left. As has been the case since the 1970s, it’s the Right that is marking political territory. Calling for disengagement from the rest of the world, greater austerity, and traditionalism in social policy — and with more than one in ten voters outside of Scotland poised to back them — it’s the “Poundland Powellism” of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) that’s making gains.

There have been signs since 2010 that the British left is stronger than it has been in decades. Still, forty years of disappointment over the Labour Party’s rightward drift have bred a well-deserved skepticism about the ability of electoral politics to achieve gains for the Left. This has resulted itself in the mushrooming of localized single-issue campaigns across the country.

Taken individually and collectively, they amount to dozens of victories and a significant increase in the number of people directly involved in left-wing politics: from Scottish independence to the long-running anti-austerity campaign in Britain’s universities and colleges — which has kept campus management on their toes, while engaging and enthusing a new cohort of activists — to countless individual actions against library closures, social service cuts, and gentrification. The coalition government’s austerity agenda has fertilized an entire ecosystem of activism that is focused on providing a sustained challenge to neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, and ultimately, capital itself.

Meanwhile in the red rose corner, established social democracy — Labour, the major unions, the Co-operative Party, and “socialist societies” like the Fabians — continues to grind its rusty gears, eking out electoral successes here and there.

As events in Scotland show, while still functioning, this machinery is increasingly shoddy. Labour’s poor showing in the polls is the result of the party’s decision over the past several decades to embrace marketization, which has cut it off from popular movements and its traditional social base.

It appears the best Labour can offer activists today is something fundamentally individualistic: a comfortable living as a councillor, member of parliament, or party worker (through the well-worn paths into the party’s cadre-ship, through the voluntary sector, public sector unions, and the National Union of Students).

This doesn’t mean that Labour is content to tumble off a cliff into Pasok-style oblivion. While seemingly still hell-bent on keeping “militants” outside of their movement and currying favor with the right-wing media, since their defeat in 2010 the Labour leadership has been cautiously moving towards, if not a rupture with neoliberalism, then at least a left rhetoric that isn’t fighting entirely on the Right’s terrain.

Since his ascension to party leader in September 2010, Ed Miliband and his liberal and social-democratic cheerleaders have been aggressively promoting the idea that under his leadership Labour is setting out to disrupt the rightward travel of politics in Britain.

They argue that this is precisely where the party went wrong during the New Labour era, when the party governed in a manner that merely sought to give Thatcherism a human face. By contrast, they contend, Miliband would govern Britain through a neo-Fabian framework where the state uses its regulatory powers to protect working people from the excesses of capital and ensures that markets work in their favor.

Key ideas articulated in Labour’s manifesto include putting workers on executive remuneration committees, tackling rising house prices by giving local authorities the power to purchase land from developers more interested in rising asset prices than building houses, and introducing tax incentives for business people who convert their companies into worker’s coops. In addition, there are a number of totemic populist measures: ending letting fees for tenants, closing loopholes that encourage casual instead of permanent hiring, and hiking the minimum wage to £8 an hour.

The Left shouldn’t dismiss these pledges out of hand. However, it is a sign of just how far mainstream political discourse has been co-opted by the Right that the Labour Party’s most radical platform in twenty-five years is essentially pulled from the same playbook as Progressive Era American liberalism.

In this vein it is quite easy to see that, while curbing some of the most egregious excesses of contemporary British capitalism, Miliband’s “post-statist” reboot of social democracy would hand capital similar long-term advantages. Unsurprisingly, the hemorrhaging of left-wing voters that began during the period of pre-crisis stasis under Prime Minister Tony Blair — characterized by stagnating incomes and rising inequality — is continuing.

Syriza’s victory has given the Left a new verb that may be applicable to Britain: Pasokification, or the replacement of a compromised pro-austerity political party with a vigorous anti-austerity alternative far more in tune with the tactics and demands of popular social movements.

For their part, Labour remains committed to austerity. Their manifesto commits them to spending cuts of around £30 billion, with exemptions for areas such as health and education. Richard Seymour recently summed up the party’s predicament for the London Review of Books:

Labour claims that addressing the ‘cost of living crisis’ is what really matters. But having accepted the straitjacket of austerity, what can Labour really do about it? The longest decline in living standards in fifty years can hardly be uncoupled from austerity policies that have retarded growth and removed vital support from working-class incomes.

Outside of Scotland — where the Scottish National Party (SNP), a historically centrist party that’s recently repositioned itself as social democratic, looks poised to make major gains at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats — Labour will likely avoid Pasokification at the polls. However, this doesn’t mean that Labour’s position is secure in the future, nor does it mean that Labour’s historic electoral hegemony on the Left is going unchallenged.

When the Green Party of England and Wales won their first seat in 2010, they didn’t attract much attention, because by winning just over a quarter of a million votes nationwide the Greens didn’t improve their overall vote tally and in fact saw a slight decrease in support.

This now looks set to change. Over the past two years Green membership has grown from 13,000 to 60,000, and their vote share and elected officials have similarly increased. They’re currently polling at 5 percent in the opinion polls — with especially strong support among young people — suggesting that well over one million people are intending to vote for them.

The reason for the Green Party’s rise appears to be their careful attempts to position themselves as anti-austerity and firmly to the left of Labour. Yet according to an analysis by the New Statesman, the Greens’ new supporters (up to sixty percent of the total) are former Liberal Democrat voters, with almost as many drawn from Conservative ranks as from Labour. In a similar vein, polling by Ipsos/Mori shows that while socially liberal, the views of Green Party supporters on economic matters tend to be relatively centrist.

The first analysis, however, doesn’t pay particular attention to the youthful profile of the party’s new supporters. Many now saying that they intend to vote for the party weren’t eligible to vote in 2010 because they were under the age of eighteen. Likewise the Liberal Democrats’ progressive stance on social issues, commitment to the abolition of university tuition fees, and atomic weapons means that their support base prior to entering the coalition government was disproportionally skewered towards those under thirty-five.

While the Greens are facing a fight to retain their member of parliament (MP) in Brighton, there is the potential for the party to act as a spoiler for Labour in currently Liberal Democratic–held seats in university towns like Bristol, Cambridge, and Norwich.

This shift has led socialists working inside the Labour Party to argue that Labour can be far bolder in terms of the policies they present to the electorate. Conrad Landin, a Morning Star correspondent and a member of the National Committee of Young Labour, recently wrote for Vice that “after years of a hefty lead among 18 to 24-year-olds, the latest YouGov poll has Labour level-pegging with the Tories on 30 percent of the vote. The Greens are now taking 16 percent of this demographic, and incidentally they favour hiking up taxes on the rich, renationalising the railways, ending Right to Buy and scrapping anti-union laws.”

In some ways the Greens’ leftwards shift can be considered a sign that sections of the British population are looking for radical alternatives to the UK’s historic parties. Like the SNP, the Greens weren’t historically considered a party of the Left; rather, their campaigns against technology and overpopulation meant they were considered deeply eccentric and consigned to the fringes of electoral politics. This impression was deepened during a period in the late 1980s when David Icke, then in his messianic phase, was their principle speaker.

Today their headline manifesto policies include: a 60 percent top income tax rate, building five hundred thousand new state-owned homes, public ownership of mass transit, an end to tuition fees, the reintroduction of university grants, a cutting of the working week to thirty-five hours, and increasing the minimum wage to £10 per hour.

The party also pledges to return public spending to 47 percent of national income, the same level that it was at in 2010 when the coalition government came to power. In the long term, they pledge to replace most benefits with a universal basic income and scrap the Trident nuclear missile system.

These policies are married to a sustained critique of contemporary British capitalism. In the introduction to their manifesto, the Greens state that “back in the 1970s a determined assault on public life began, and the market became the model and measure of public life. Since then, successive governments of all colours have found ways to justify and deepen the role of the market in our lives… The market has been in charge for so long that it dominates our imagination and colours our view of ourselves.”

Judging by the statements of their leaders, it is clear that the Green Party sees its role as shifting political discourse and political practice in the United Kingdom to the left. MP Caroline Lucas, doubtless with half an eye on her constituency won from Labour, claims that the party’s aim is to “keep Labour honest.” Meanwhile the party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, says she considers the Greens to be cast in the same mould as Syriza and Podemos.

But like the Greens’ far better established sister parties elsewhere in Europe, while having a focus on “the common good” and “quality of life policies,” the Greens are not a socialist party. Their manifesto finds fault with capitalism, but it seeks to smooth out its most egregious excesses — not replace it. In the “Ending Austerity” section of their manifesto, a desire to “throw off the shackles of market ideology” dovetails with a commitment to “the mixed economy.”

Elsewhere in the manifesto it’s clear that beyond some ambitious spending pledges the “peaceful political revolution” Natalie Bennett claims her party’s program represents amounts to little more than a green-tinted reboot of left-Keynesianism. In many key policy areas, while the party’s rhetoric is significantly further left, the actual substance of the policies on offer isn’t that different from the Labour Party’s.

Both parties propose higher taxes on wealth and incomes. Both argue that schools should be accountable to the communities they are in rather than the private interests behind the academies and free schools promoted by the coalition government. Both want to expand the National Health Service (NHS) by incorporating elderly care into the system, and are to various degrees critical of the role of private companies providing NHS services.

Labour and the Greens speak of making the market work more efficiently by breaking up the monopolistic gas and electricity energy majors. And when it comes to the control of capital, both parties stop far short of proposing complete worker control of industry, instead advocating worker representation on boards of companies and incentives to set up cooperatives.

The difference between the two parties in terms of rhetoric and approach are substantial. However, it isn’t just in the field of concrete policies that the Greens have shown themselves to have a degree of overlap with Labour. As it has grown in prominence and gained an increasingly large number of elected officials, the Greens have begun to find themselves in positions of power and responsibility, raising questions regarding how they relate to other groups on the Left.

Individually, many Green activists have been pivotal to the anti-austerity movement.

In addition, delegates for the Young Greens have pledged their support to candidates for the National Union of Students’ National Executive Board who are avowed socialists and hardened anti-cuts campaigners, including Hattie Craig — the former vice-president of the Birmingham Guild of Students, and who was nearly suspended by the university for six months following large-scale student protests — and Shelley Asquith, the president of University of the Arts London Students’ Union, and who recently led occupations there to protest cuts to courses and access bursaries.

At the national level, key figures like Bennett and Lucas (who was arrested in 2013 while on an anti-fracking demonstration) have expressed sympathy for the UK’s social movements.

On the other hand, in the run-up to local elections in 2011, the Green Party in Brighton and Hove pledged not to adhere to austerity policies and implement service cuts if elected. However, on taking control of the local authority, despite a mandate from both the local party and the people of Brighton not to impose budget cuts, the council caved in to government legal pressure and implemented cuts to council services.

Speaking to the Guardian in December 2013, Jason Kitkat the Green’s council leader defended his administration’s decision to implement £25 million worth of cuts by denouncing those in his own party who proposed fighting them as “frankly utterly absurd.”

The Greens’s willingness to put forward a cuts budget; pick fights with trade unions in Brighton; and for Green councillors to support austerity budgets in other local authority areas like Norfolk, York, and Bristol, has led many on the Left to be skeptical about how strong the Green’s commitment to anti-austerity actually is.

This might well misread them — the Green are a reformist party focused on tempering capitalism rather than replacing it. Like Labour under Ed Milliband, its policies aim to help the sorcerer humanely put the wraiths back on their leashes; not to harness them to bring about human emancipation.

With this in mind, the British left seemingly has little to cheer about this election. Despite incremental turns to the left by established forces like Labour and the SNP, and the Greens positioning themselves well to Labour’s left, there is no sign of a Syriza-style formation.

However, ever so subtly, a shift is taking place. When the Conservatives released their election manifesto, alongside the usual platitudes about family and nation and worn-out cover versions of Thatcher’s greatest hits (right to buy your housing association property anyone?) were a series of rather large spending pledges for a time of “austerity.”

Rail fares are to be frozen for the duration of the parliament, the sales tax won’t be increased, and Conservative Health Minister Jeremy Hunt told BBC Radio 4 that in addition to the £8 billion of additional funding already promised, a future Conservative government would be happy to give the NHS “as much as it needs.”

George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, didn’t move to slap him down. Those outside the Conservative Party recalled the hysterical claims that compulsory purchase amounted to “Stalinism” and being told that “difficult decisions” had to be made to reduce the budget deficit.

The answer, probably, is that with their party behind in many of the polls and on course to lose around forty seats to Labour, the Conservatives have begun scrambling around to see whether they can borrow any of their opponent’s clothes. Just as the crisis of social democracy in the 1970s forced James Callaghan’s Labour government to move rightwards from 1976, unwittingly opening the door for Thatcherism, so the Conservatives sudden conversion to periodic profligacy will expose the contradictions and undermine belief in the myth of austerity.

It will doubtless be slow, but this election campaign has suggested the possibility of a new narrative and vision, even on the center-left. In the immediate future, despite the bubbling pressure from the streets, whether this becomes the dominant theme in British politics depends on the balance of forces in the House of Commons after tomorrow’s vote. Who holds the reins of power will determine the prospects and tactics adopted by those seeking radical emancipatory change in the years ahead.

Despite that fundamentally negative truth, however the parliamentary Tetris game stacks up tomorrow, it’s vital that the Left puts pressure on those in office. It’s only then that we’ll see whether the noises from center-left politicians — be they red, green, or left-nationalist — are the fanfare of a new era or merely mood music to get their scattered coalitions into bed with them once more.

The great monolithic blocks that have dominated British politics are crumbling. How they are reassembled is up to us.