Post-Election Blues in Britain

Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin wrote this short post-election piece for an Il Manifesto special on Europe(Italian version)

At the closing of the polls on election day in the U.K, an ‘exit poll’ dashed nearly everyone’s expectations that the outcome would be a ‘hung parliament’, making a coalition government, perhaps one led by Ed Miliband, inevitable. The Conservatives now have parliamentary majority of just 12. It is unclear whether this will be sufficient to sustain it in office for a full five-year term. The Labour Party is in a state of shock. Some say this is its worst performance ever, but in fact it did win a million votes more in England than it had in 2010.

Why did Labour lose? All over the world, parties which held office during the financial crisis of 2007-8 were punished. The fate which Labour suffered for this in 2010 has now been repeated five years later. In the intervening years it offered virtually no response to the unrelenting Conservative accusation that it had wrecked the economy. Labour politicians acknowledged as the results came in that this long silence had doomed them.

Instead of defending its record (which had many creditable aspects) Labour chose to work within the terms of the dominant neoliberal analysis of the crisis. It agreed that ‘the deficit’ was indeed a serious economic problem (According to leading Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman, it isn’t.) By implication it accepted that its own excessive spending had contributed to the banking crisis. (It hadn’t.) It committed itself to continuing the Coalition’s austerity programme, although less severely than the Conservatives. It thus failed to challenge the terms of the debate set up by the Tories and their allies in the press. A programme based on what seemed to many to be minor differences with the Conservatives was never going to arouse public enthusiasm.

Labour had in fact decided that the Coalition government would defeat itself, and that it could creep into power without offering any alternative vision of its own. Its belief was that UKIP would take votes from the right, and that ex-Labour voters who had voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 would now return, disillusioned with the Coalition, to the Labour fold. Labour decided to select piecemeal policies, pre-test them on focus-groups, and market them in a tightly-planned electoral operation, and it did. But passions were running too high, in the very slow recovery from the recession, for this to be enough. Scottish opposition to austerity was enough, coupled with Labour’s misguided alliance with the Coalition in the Independence Referendum, to virtually destroy the Labour Party there, where it had formerly counted on winning 40 parliamentary seats. UKIP took more crucial votes from Labour than it did from the Conservatives, in towns which had been impoverished by years of deindustrialisation, and where Labour seemed to offer little hope of regeneration. The Conservatives’ partners, the Liberal Democrats, seemed to receive all the blame for the Coalition’s misdeeds and were reduced from 59 to 6 MPs.

In times of decline, communities can become fearful and hostile to those they see as outsiders or strangers. Thus UKIP’s English nationalism, and its hostility to immigrants and the European Union whose rules prevent migrant numbers being controlled. But also a widespread antipathy to the Scots, whose campaign for Independence was seen by many as a rejection of ‘England’. The election campaign became dominated by fear – hatred even – of Europe, of the Scots, of Ed Miliband himself (shamefully targeted by the Tories on the advice of their ‘hired gun’, the Australian election strategist, Lynton Crosby.) What may have decided the election result at the last was the fear that a minority Labour government would be ‘held to ransom’ by the Scottish Nationalists. Miliband’s refusal to talk about a possible coalition, even though the polls made this seem likely, was damaging, vindicating an already-widespread distrust of politicians. ‘Why do you underestimate our intelligence?’ asked a member of the audience in a TV debate, to loud applause.

It is instructive to contemplate this dismal scene in its wider European context. Europe, of course, figured in the campaign. ‘Brussels’ has been constructed as a hate-object for the right, arguing that it restricts ‘sovereignty’, and playing upon working-class fears of the undermining of wages and the overcrowding of services by immigration. In response both to their own internal divisions and to UKIP, the Conservatives have promised a referendum on membership, possibly in 2016. The evidence is that the vote will be to stay in. But the terms of debate will be reactionary because the fact that the attack on Brussels comes from the right makes it more difficult to challenge the neoliberal and undemocratic nature of the EU from the left. And this challenge is vital. Syriza consistently argues for a different Europe. We need to demonstrate what this might mean.

The European context raises other questions too. Most importantly: are we seeing here the beginning of the collapse of traditional social democracy? As in other countries, the British version of this has moved right over recent decades to embed itself within the framing ideas of neoliberalism. Many working-class people feel totally deserted. With this defeat, the loudest voices – amplified by the media – have claimed that Miliband had moved too far to the left; that the party should return to the ‘the centre’. If this move now happens, then two questions arise. First, lacking a distinctive identity, will it be able to survive? (‘Pasokification’ is a neologism currently doing the rounds.) Second, what will happen with to the vast socio-political space that will be left unrepresented? There is no left-wing equivalent to UKIP.

In contrast to the political trajectories in Greece and Spain, there is in England virtually no base apart from the trades unions outside the Labour Party to provide a grass-roots voice for the left. The contrast with Scotland is stark. Many young activists refused to vote, deeming ‘them’ to be all the same. Yet without a strong voice from social movements – a counter to the hegemony of the elite – no party alone is going to be able to change the terms of debate: to provide those essential terms of antagonism which define a real political frontier. It is this, perhaps, which is the most dismal aspect of the situation.