OP-ED

Britain: Lessons for the left after the election

Many on the left are in shock after the surprise victory by the Conservative Party in Britain’s General Election. Because of Britain’s first past the post electoral system, it took only a 0.8% increase in their vote to win them a slim majority in Parliament. Their former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were decimated and left with just eight representatives in Parliament.

May 19, 2015

Photo: EFE.

Demonstrations immediately erupted in Downing Street on 9 May by radical activists pointing out that only 24% of the British population had voted for the new government. They were met with violent police repression.

The Conservatives look set to capitalise on their majority by introducing many unpopular policies in the first two years of Parliament. Already they have promised to abolish the UK Human Rights Act, limit tenancies in social housing to five years, and introduce sweeping new powers in order to crack down on ‘extremism’. Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that Britain has been ‘too tolerant’ is an ominous sign of his intentions to attack civil liberties. These far-right policies represent the new dependence of his small majority on extremely reactionary Conservative backbenchers.

In particular, the Conservatives have promised to make strike action illegal without a postal ballot which wins the support of 40% of a trade union’s entire membership. The irony of this is not lost on angry trade union members, and union leaders like the PCS’s Mark Serwotka promised to rally in united action against the new government.
In part the Conservative victory is a result of another success. The rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and the near elimination of the Labour Party (along with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives) in Scotland. The right wing press cynically promoted the SNP in Scotland in order to undermine Labour, but its victory undoubtedly reflects the strength of the mass working class movement for independence in 2014.

Whilst the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, traded heavily on populist policies to secure the working class vote and has promised to fight austerity, in reality the SNP’s ability and inclination to ‘fight austerity’ will be weak. The SNP is a nationalist, pro-business party which has introduced populist measures (such as free higher education) in order to win over the Scottish working class in the past few years and rise from a marginal group to a force to be reckoned with. Whilst its momentum and a mass influx of workers into the party will hold its base of support together in the next five years, undoubtedly its pro-business policies will start to provoke working class resistance sooner or later.

It goes without saying that the geo-political instability caused by a permanent presence of 56 secessionist MPs in the UK Parliament, similar to the role played by Irish nationalist MPs in the nineteenth century, has big implications for all of Europe, with its numerous separatist movements.

The Labour Party’s defeat has been blamed on its failure to speak to ‘aspirational’ Britain, which is the code word used in the bourgeois press to describe the affluent middle classes. Whilst it is true that the middle class in the South of England did not abandon the right as some might have hoped, the surge in support for the Green Party, the SNP and UKIP amongst a broad layer indicates that it was really its failure to present a genuine alternative to the Lib-Con coalition which was the cause.

Ed Miliband, its leader, attempted to appeal to workers with populist policies (such as freezing energy prices) at the same time as accepting every tenet of Conservative falsification about the economy. He promised not to reverse existing cuts and, like the Conservatives, to cut the budget deficit each year. Given that cutting the deficit is exactly what the Conservatives have not done (in fact, it has risen) and that Labour’s focus on protecting the NHS is quite easily countered by a Conservative ‘ring fence’ for spending on the health service (which, along with the ring fence for pensions, is why the deficit continues to rise), it seems clear why most voters did not see Labour as a genuine alternative to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The muddled nature of the Labour campaign reached its humiliating apotheosis upon the unveiling by Miliband of a stone tablet carved with six promises. Designed to demonstrate the commitment of Labour to its electoral pledges, the ‘permanent’ piece of stone (rumoured to cost £30,000) was engraved with such hilariously vague and ephemeral slogans, such as ‘An NHS with time to care’, that it was really a testament to the determined chipping away by Miliband’s advisors at any semblance of a genuinely left-wing manifesto.

It’s easy to understand why this confused platform did not win back the four million working class votes originally lost by Labour under Blair and Brown. The ‘echo chamber’ of left wing communities on Twitter and Facebook has been blamed for why the left didn’t see such a defeat coming.

The most significant shift of the election was towards minor parties. The far-right UK Independence Party which mixes socially conservative populism with libertarian free market policies, won an impressive 12.6% of the vote. The Green Party, receiving almost 4% of the vote, won the support of many left-wing, middle class, voters who had defected from the Liberal Democrats. Nationalists did well in Wales as well as their victory in Scotland. But the left, in the form of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, did not benefit from this shift.

Despite mounting its largest General Election challenge ever, TUSC gained just 118,000 votes in the General Election and the local elections which also took place on 7 May. When compared with the success of left parties in Spain, Greece, South Africa and elsewhere, it’s clear that the British left failed to capture the imagination of the working class, students and intellectuals. Having secured only a mixture of lukewarm support or outright hostility from major trade unions (a leader of the militant RMT union endorsed the Greens, for example), TUSC made only a tiny imprint in the consciousness of voters in 2015.

It will be important to analyse this failure and what it means for socialists as we prepare to battle another five years of ferocious attacks and exploit a growing constitutional crisis which has been aggravated by the outcome of the election.

TUSC promised to be ‘100% anti-austerity’ and to reverse all cuts. But, minus TUSC’s policy of nationalising the banks, the Greens ran on a programme which would seem very similar to most voters. The Green platform was also backed up by a much larger organisation and a much better marketing strategy (using Facebook advertising heavily on polling day, for example). And the SNP came across as convincingly anti-austerity under Sturgeon’s leadership. A mass reformist consciousness which exists amongst a broad layer of blue and white collar workers of all ages was therefore channelled into those anti-establishment parties with the greatest possibility of success: the Greens and the SNP on the left and UKIP on the right.

Despite TUSC being made up largely Britain’s two main Trotskyist parties, there was no revolutionary platform to vote for in this election. The anti-austerity slogan on its own is also problematic for Marxists. It is to some extent complicit with the right-wing falsehoods about the importance of cutting the deficit to which the Labour Party surrendered because it relies on the same, incorrect, idea that certain government policies can change the course of the global economy.

Keynesian, interventionist policies may temporarily soften the blow of an economic crisis, but they cannot reverse or avert it. Just in the same way that ‘cutting the deficit’, as well as increasing the pain in the short term, will have no impact on averting another crisis on a global scale.

It would have been better for the socialist left to exploit the growing anti-capitalist sentiment amongst many young workers and explain to voters that, with a new global economic crisis likely to erupt in the next five years, neither austerity nor increased government spending represents a solution which will improve living standards and ‘save’ us from the worst excesses of capitalism in the medium to long term. It also seems futile to keep this revolutionary message (which is surely shared by most TUSC activists) on a leash in order to keep left-bureaucrat union leaders involved with the coalition, when they do not really support it anyway.

The sharper cuts and the inevitable fall in living standards which is on the way will increase the anger of workers at all levels of the economy and galvanise the revolutionary left, at the same time as new opportunities are presented by a fresh movement for Scottish independence. Perhaps, in this context, a challenge to the capitalist system will be more effective in growing our forces than a platform based largely on reforming it.