So the election result is in and the Tories have won, with David Cameron back in for a second term. They only have a very small majority on only 331 seats, which is less than that of John Major’s majority in 1992. Despite the first-past-the-post electoral system meaning that they won a majority on 37% of the vote, the Tories nonetheless secured 41% of the electorate who voted in England and Wales, or around 11 million people, two million more than Labour. In Scotland, an even bigger shock occurred. The collapse of Scottish Labour and the obliteration of the Liberal Democrats led to the SNP taking almost every seat except for one Labour, one Tory and one Lib Dem MP, a gain of 50 seats. Under Jim Murphy, who has only been leader a few months, Scottish Labour suffered the worst defeat in its history.
In the 48 hours or so following the election the reaction of most of the left (including myself), and a great many Tories themselves, was disbelief and horrified amazement. The Tories had only an 8% chance of gaining a majority and the polls were apparently neck and neck apart from a couple of “outliers“, which were ignored in favour of the more “likely” option of a hung parliament. One man who had bet £30,000 on an outright Tory victory had to be paid £210,000 by bookies. Now that the shock has subsided serious questions have to be asked why this happened. After all, the last Tory/Lib Dem government “seemed” so unpopular. The reaction of many with leftist and liberal sympathies, particularly in the Labour and Green party, resembled those described in the infamous quote, who believe that the working class has failed the left, rather than the other way round.
Yet this piece will argue that rather than English voters being any more right wing than those in Scotland, this Tory majority is rather than a victory for the right and the “common sense” of the Tories, primarily a defeat for Labour and to a lesser extent other parties on the electoral left. This election was not about the Tories winning but Labour losing. Faced with a choice of two neo-liberal parties, one of which started the ATOS work capability assessments, began the war in Iraq and started a vicious attack on civil liberties, began workfare schemes and began a series of disastrous privatisations, such as PFI and academy schools, many people voted for what they thought was the “least worst” option. Some ‘shy Tories’ were in fact lifelong Labour supporters who found themselves unable to vote for Miliband’s party. When the opposition is a pale imitation of the real thing, offering a nearly identical ‘plan’, why not choose the real thing instead? In other words they voted Tory with no illusions.
Labour are in disarray, much like the Tories in 2001 and 2005. They seem to switch between complaining against the effects of ‘Tory cuts’ and claiming that they will be tougher on benefits than the Tory party depending what day of the week it is. The welfare “reforms” embarked on by the coalition government between 2010 and 2015 built on and accelerated those already introduced by Labour. Some criticisms of Ed Miliband relate to the idea that he did “too little” to challenge the “Tory narrative” on the disabled and benefit claimants. Yet Gordon Brown campaigned in the last election on the idea that there should be “no life on the dole“. The Labour government claimed it wanted to “transform” the welfare state for the 21st Century, and in the most recent election proposed to withdraw benefits for six months for people who refused to take a job. While foodbanks exploded under the current administration, they began to increase under the last Labour government from around 2009 onwards.
The Lib Dems, who tried to be all things to all people and the ‘protest vote’ for people on the left and right dissatisfied with the big two, entered a coalition with the Tories and challenged almost none of their policies while in office. During election debates I attended, the Lib Dem candidate insisted that despite all evidence to the contrary she was a ‘left wing choice’ and the only candidate that could prevent a Tory win. In the neighbouring seat, voters received leaflets from Lib Dems claiming the Tories could not win so they should vote for the Lib Dems against Labour. This behaviour has led to their near extinction as a political force. Voters who agreed with them voted Tory, whereas those who didn’t voted Labour, UKIP, Green or not at all. The extent to which they have merely become a ‘brand’ with no substance, purely dedicated to election-winning and failing miserably at it, is shown by the fact that some of their former campaigners are flogging ‘political campaigning masterclasses‘, presumably to anyone who wants them.
Faced with two parties, both of whom share the same set of neoliberal, pro-austerity assumptions, it is little surprise that some people picked the one that seemed to know what it was doing, rather than the one that didn’t. Pointing to Thatcher as a reason not to vote Tory has little credibility outside, and increasingly inside, those areas where her policies had the most disastrous impact. Banners saying ‘The Bitch is Dead’ are hardly going to inspire many young women voting for the first time in areas like Nuneaton, a former Labour seat taken by the Tories in 2010; they are more likely to decide hard left politics is not for them. The pandering of some leftists to right-wing homophobic and racist prejudice regarding Chuka Umuna, the Blairite Labour candidate, rather than attacking him on his views, is further evidence of this degeneration.
Her rule is a fading memory, something which cannot be said for the last Labour government. Many young people have a similar visceral dislike of Labour as previous generations do of the Tories. Thirteen years of Labour rule failed to reverse the economic decline in their former heartlands; far from being ‘lazy‘, former Labour voters increasingly opt for UKIP or stay at home altogether. A growing number have switched to the Tories, having seen a slight improvement in their personal finances over the last five years. When one man was asked why he was voting Tory, the reply was ‘because I work’.
So what do the Tories offer people? To read leftist social media you might assume that the sole reason people vote Tory is because of fear of the Scots, greed, snobbery and hatred of people on benefits. Otherwise, they’re just ‘thick’ and ‘haven’t read the manifesto properly’. Yet the Tory manifesto contains no mention of gleefully robbing people of their benefits. Instead the Tory message is that of trying to appeal to people who want to ‘get on’ and earn a living. The Scottish Tory election broadcast, for example, shows Ruth Davidson discussing her working class background and saying that the Conservatives want to help people who want to make it in life and have a better standard of living for their family. The Tories claim that they want to give people ‘a hand up rather than a hand out’ and help people to improve their situation themselves, rather than relying on the state. Like it or not, this is a very powerful message. These views are not simply held by Tories. The party appears to offer economic stability and a degree of hope for the future. This can be very appealing for those full time workers who are not on benefits but are struggling to get by. The day following the election, a friend’s boyfriend who works on a building site told me that most of his workmates had voted Tory because there had been more work in the five years since they had been in power.
During the last government, spending cuts were largely introduced within the first two years, with an increase in spending shortly before the election. In what the OBR chief Robert Chote called a financial ‘rollercoaster ride‘, the next administration will follow the same pattern, giving the impression the economy is in recovery, despite the social disaster their policies and those of their Blairite predecessors helped create. The Tories have also pledged to offer 30 hours of free childcare every week, help to build 200,000 houses and even create ‘full employment’; these are issues which Labour and the far left have campaigned on for years. They claim they want to support people who can’t work, which is interesting news for those such as the man with terminal cancer who was declared fit for work following an ATOS interview, or the million people now using foodbanks. The impact of welfare policy, workfare programmes, sanctions and the like by Tory and Labour governments fall disproportionately on people who do not vote at all, and are often not even on the electoral register. The rise and fall of different governments does nothing to reverse the decline in their quality of life. Berating such people for their failure to vote and their cynicism about all forms of politics is utterly missing the point.
It has become very easy for people to ignore the effects of neoliberal policies on their fellow citizens, and forget they are happening at all. If you are not personally affected by £12 billion of welfare cuts, it is likely it simply will not mean anything to you. Richer and poorer people live in different areas, even shop at opposite ends of the street. It is possible for people in rural Surrey, whatever their political leanings, to live their lives completely unaware of the problems afflicting towns such as Boston in the North of England, where the economy is dependent on unskilled labour, mostly Eastern Europeans, many of whom are working below the minimum wage. Many voters in prosperous, safe Tory seats chose the Conservatives not out of hatred for claimants and the poor, but because the effects of their policies are, for now, largely an abstraction for them and they picked the party they most trusted. Non-Tory voters in these areas often have a broadly similar outlook and experiences.
Many Tory supporters reacted with genuine confusion to the feelings of left-wing family and friends over the election result. One commenter at politicalbetting.com wrote that his left wing friends and family were ‘devastated’ and ‘in real anguish’ and that if Ed Miliband was prime minister, he would be annoyed, but ‘wouldn’t slit my wrists over it.’ One polling sites such as Yougov and social media like Facebook and Twitter, Labour supporters berated Tory voters for being thick, uneducated, uncaring, and brainwashed by the Mail and Telegraph. One commenter on Yougov vowed to carry on supporting the vulnerable through ‘charitable means‘ and attacked what appeared to be working class Tory supporters for not caring about anyone else except themselves. This sentiment was by no means confined to the activist left; nor was the view that the Scots were responsible for Labour’s disastrous result in England. One woman told me that she ‘couldn’t help feeling really pissed off with Scottish people because they didn’t vote Labour’. Others laid the blame at Ed Miliband for being ‘nerdy’ and a ‘weirdo’.
Yet Labour’s problems go far deeper than the charisma of their leader. Most of their seats are now concentrated in London, Wales or the North of England. Their electoral support in northern seats is falling away, with many voters in these areas staying at home. Labour leadership candidates and front benchers are now largely drawn from upper-middle class social strata in London, with as much experience of the policies they claim to oppose as their Tory counterparts, or officials such as Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, tainted by their links to the last Labour government. The election result in Scotland was the culmination of a process that has been taking place since the Blair years and devolution. It was thought that devolution would satisfy Scottish demands for greater autonomy, but the development of a separate Scottish political culture, public services and legal system has produced the opposite effect.
Scottish Labour campaigned alongside the Tories against independence. Jim Murphy, unpopular with the public and most Labour activists, only took the job as Labour leader because nobody else wanted it. Following Labour’s worst ever Scottish defeat, during which he lost his seat, Murphy initially refused to resign, despite most of the party and several affiliated unions calling him to do so. He won a vote of no confidence by three votes, including his own and that of a Labour peer drafted in to support him, but later announced he would resign the following month. The Scottish TUC is taking pains to disassociate itself from Labour, pointing out that only 10 out of its 38 unions affiliate to it.
The Tories are doing even worse in Scotland. The party took a dismal 14.1% of the vote there, the worst result in any election. In the 1955 election, the party was more popular in Scotland than in England, but it is now a ‘moribund force‘ and had lost most of its support well before the rise of Thatcherism. The SNP, while most of its activists are on the centre-left, draws some of its support from higher-income voters and people who may otherwise form part of the support base of the Conservative party. Two percent of the Scottish population are now SNP members, making it a mass party and giving it the kind of support that English parties can only dream of. Many Tory voters have switched to Labour because they know their party has little hope of gaining any seats and Labour’s policies are more palatable than those of the SNP. To some extent this hides the crisis in the Scottish Labour party, which has had five different leaders in the last eight years. In John Harris’s video of the Scottish election, one of the only Labour voters explains he’s voting for them ‘because I’m a conservative.’
Cameron’s anti-Scottish scare tactics and the proposals to effectively freeze Scottish MPs out of the government by forbidding them from matters affecting England, ensures the UK government and the Tories suffer a further loss of legitimacy in Scotland. There are calls within Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives to distance themselves from Cameron and Westminster. Another referendum is likely within the next ten to fifteen years and this time the answer may be yes. It is difficult to see how Scotland can remain long-term in the UK with no representation in the government and the Tories’ ‘English Votes for English Laws’ proposal. The Tories have almost no popular legitimacy in Scotland, having fought a campaign in England on stirring up fear of the SNP, identified with ‘the Scots’ in general. The Tories referred to rule by the SNP as ‘rule by foreigners’ – Scotland is now a ‘foreign country’.
This election was a disaster for the Labour party; it was even more so for the far left. Since the election, most of the far-left criticism of the Labour party revolves around the idea that Labour is too right wing. According to this view if Labour was to adopt policies advocated by the Trotskyist left, such as nationalisation of major industries, an end to benefit sanctions and austerity, and a substantial increase in the minimum wage, they would have won the election. The failure of the party to do this led them to electoral doom. This argument was put in the starkest terms by the International Marxist Tendency, the group formerly led by Ted Grant, who split from the CWI after Militant’s ‘open turn’ and chose to remain in Labour. They stated:
Only by taking over the commanding heights of the economy – the banks, insurance companies and major monopolies – can we democratically plan the economy in the interests of working people. On this basis, we can provide well-paid jobs, decent housing and free education for our children. The resources would be there to massively raise living standards and eliminate capitalist austerity. British people are crying out for a radical programme. If such a programme was put forward it would win a landslide everywhere.
The problem with this is that there is no evidence whatsoever that this programme would ‘win a landslide everywhere’. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, led by the CWI, proposed an almost identical programme and got less than 37,000 votes, with no deposits saved. The Green party, who stood on an anti-austerity platform and succeeded in gaining far-left supporters, only managed to elect one MP. They did gain a million votes and were the most successful of the ‘left of Labour’ options. In Coventry, the former Militant MP Dave Nellist, a long standing councillor, lost his deposit. In the 1983 election, such a programme was put forward by the Labour party, which then lost disastrously. Nationalisation is not socialism; like austerity, it is a project to save capitalism. Putting these resources in the hands of the state does not mean that they are in the hands of working people. Chinese and Russian nationalised corporations behave in exactly the same way as any other corporation. The nationalisation of the banks in the UK was not a step towards socialism.
The disastrous Railtrack privatisation showed that when it is necessary the British state can bring services back ‘in house’ where necessary without changing its fundamental character. Even private corporations such as ATOS are operating under directives from the state and are serving that state in its need to reduce spending and reduce its debt. Nationalising these functions would not alter what they are designed to do and would not change the fact they are a brutal attack on the working class. Privatisation does not mean that services formerly provided directly by the state are outside its control; they can, as in the case of ATOS work capability assessments, be awarded to a different company, renationalised or be ordered to ‘improve’. In practice this means to fulfil the state’s overall goal of reducing welfare spending in order to clear its deficit, but more ‘effectively’. The fear of ‘becoming like Greece’ proved enough for some people to vote Tory. These fears cannot simply be dismissed; at the end of the 1980s the French state under Mitterrand tried to implement a similar programme; within six months it was forced to reverse and introduce spending cuts.
The post war settlement which TUSC and other leftist groups advocate a return to existed under conditions which are no longer possible today. We are no longer in a position where such a project can save capitalism, or is even viable for any length of time. Countries such as Sweden and Finland are dismantling their own social democratic settlements, beginning with disenfranchised, vulnerable sections of the population such as migrant workers and long-term benefit claimants. This can be shown by the fact that in Greece under Syriza, ‘lighter‘ austerity is continuing, with increasing spending being paid for by simply not paying government providers, ensuring that the country’s overall debt ratio is maintained.
While the CWI and other Trotskyists criticise Syriza for choosing to ‘save capitalism from itself’ rather than implement their nationalisation schemes, they do not offer any explanation for why their proposals would work where everyone else has failed, or how exactly nationalisation could ‘transition’ the country to socialism. Even accepting their assumptions that regimes like that of the USSR are not capitalist, there is no reason to think that nationalisation of the top companies would lead to nationalisation of the rest of the economy. Yet too many on the far left look to a revival of the post war settlement of 1945 as a model for the future. When I was a member of the CWI, we would explain to people that we wanted TUSC to be ‘like Old Labour but better’ – another ‘workers’ party’ for Trotskyists to be expelled from, only it would somehow be different because of its ‘Marxist core‘.
The idea that with a different leadership and a slightly different structure, another party – which doesn’t even have the community infrastructure such as Labour Clubs or anything like the trade union presence that party still has – could manage to overturn decades of neoliberalism, is naive in the extreme. It amounts to a ‘great man theory’ that suggests that with a different leadership, the Labour Party, or perhaps even the Tories, could be turned into a vehicle for Marxist revolution. It is the same logic that leads ‘lifelong socialists’ to campaign for the Lib Dems in the hope the Tories and their economic logic can be kept at bay. Even worse, the failure of these parts of the left to properly analyse the class struggle in 2015 and instead look back to a mythical past means that their views are turned into a religion that can never be questioned. The reduction of other parts of the left to policing online indiscretions in the same way as over zealous HR professionals or focusing on nostalgic hobby horses underlines their irrelevancy. One cannot blame workers for not knowing the basics of Marxist theory, when so much effort has been expended into ensuring that theory belongs to an academic elite.
Over two thirds of workers are no longer in trade unions. Temporary and insecure work has been a feature of the British economy for years – what are temping agencies for? It is difficult for many workers to sympathise with what appear to be well-paid public sector workers on secure contracts, when they themselves work for far worse pay and conditions; unionised workers are far more likely to belong to professional occupations and only 15% of workers earning below £250 a week are union members. Temporary workers frequently find the improved pay and security of permanent staff a huge source of resentment. Furthermore, when left-wing parties are seemingly focused on unions and unionised workers to the exclusion of everything else, and write off any possible militancy outside the unions, this essentially says to the majority of the workforce that they are irrelevant. There is little attempt by the electoral left to look outside the unions or even to recruit agency and private sector workers to them, despite lip service being paid to that idea. The Tory party, with its emphasis on benefiting people who work hard, and its achievable-sounding promises, has even begun to appear an attractive option to some.
The grassroots base of both the Labour party and the Tories has been hollowed out by neoliberalism. The Tory party once had as much of a base in some communities as the Labour party did, through churches, community groups and conservative clubs. In some areas these clubs still exist, though they are usually just places to get cheap drinks rather than ‘promoting conservatism’. In Scotland, the phenomenal growth of the SNP to 2% of the population has gone some way to reverse the decline of mass parties, although the popular bases of the Conservatives and Labour have all but collapsed there. Hoping that the Labour party can be ‘pushed to the left’ by simply changing its leadership or that another party on exactly the same lines can come and take its place is a waste of time. Demanding a minimum wage a couple of pounds above that of the main parties is not going to work. Some new thinking is needed.