Some people are such sore losers. When a legitimate vote goes against them, they refuse to accept the result. When people say things they don’t like, they try and shut them down. Oh, they may preach democracy and free expression, but they’re soon intolerant of anyone with the nerve to disagree. You know who I’m talking about. I’m referring, of course, to our new government.
Barely re-installed in Number Ten, the Conservative government have unleashed a blizzard of extremist attacks on civil liberties and democratic rights. Perhaps most shocking are its moves to smash trade unions. In a proposal so brazen it is almost comical, a government voted in by a mere twenty-four percent of electors would permit unions to strike only with forty percent support from their entire membership (and a fifty percent turnout). The government knows full well that this would make industrial action all but illegal for the foreseeable future, allowing employers to take full advantage of their workers by pushing down pay, job security, labour rights and workers’ protections. Were this not enough, they have devised special measures to clamp down on trade unionists’ free speech. In its ferocity, Frances O’Grady points out, this attack is without parallel across the developed world.
And it is not just trade unionists. While proposing further powers to cover up its activities, the government would expand its already rampant power to spy on citizens. It plans to hand itself wide-ranging powers to limit and suppress anyone it deems “extremist” – a term Theresa May proves unable even to define. We will “challenge bigotry and ignorance”, proclaims this library-shutting, Daily Mail-backed horrorshow. So highly does the state prize British values of tolerance and free speech that it will no longer “leave you alone” “as long as you obey the law”.
A raft of high-profile appointments reveal where Britain’s most dangerous extremists lie. A Justice Secretary who has argued that hanging prevents miscarriages of justice; a health minister who would abolish women’s most elementary reproductive rights; an equalities minister who voted against equal marriage; a “minister against the disabled” who voted not to spare cancer patients and disabled children from benefit cuts; you’d struggle to make this stuff up if you tried. Our most basic rights are now in question, as Michael Gove proposes to scrap the Human Rights Act for a “British Bill of Rights”, in which human rights standards apply in only “the most serious cases”. Facing suicides, homelessness and rampant hunger in one of the richest countries on earth, the government plans to cut another twelve billion pounds from the social security budget. Because we must reduce the deficit? You wish. An LSE-Essex study finds every penny the last government snatched from the pocket of the poor, children and disabled people it handed to the rich in tax cuts, leaving the deficit untouched. This is not a government pursuing fiscal probity. This is a government pursuing all-out class war.
How did we get here? How did a government pursuing such a savage programme not only make it back into power, not only boost its representation in Parliament, but achieve an outright majority?
The crowing of Tory trolls over the past week provides a simple answer: we won a majority in a fair and democratic system. Anyone claiming otherwise just can’t hack it; can’t bear to admit that we’re simply more popular, that the electorate prefers us and our programme. The only reason this is not obvious is that the left arrogantly suppresses free debate (so unlike our good selves). Disclosing their true sympathies not even to pollsters, “shy Tories” thus make their true feelings known only in the privacy of the voting booth. Even progressive papers declare (tongue lightly in cheek) that “the electorate is evil”.
This account may convince the unreflective, but hardly reflects reality. First, the government as a whole has been considerably downsized; it just happens to be the Lib Dems that got it in the neck. This was not unexpected: as Angela Merkel told Cameron, “the little party always gets smashed”. As one senior Tory admitted in 2010, their coalition partner provided a “Lib Dem shield” – a progressive gloss on both anti-environmental measures and the deepest cuts in a generation. That shield is now gone.
Second, pollster Ipsos MORI finds the predicted Tory vote was actually higher than the real vote – no “shy Tory” effect there. But the same was true of Labour, whose gap between votes predicted and received was almost three times larger. Even so, Ed Miliband did not lose votes: he lost seats. As John Lanchester points out, Labour’s share of the vote not only grew more than the Tories’, but rose especially strongly in England. If each vote counted equally, Labour would have ended this election in a slightly better position than they began it – a glaring perversity, but not unrivalled in a system that gave the SNP one seat per 26,000 votes and UKIP one every four million. (While UKIP’s strong showing might look like a mandate for the Tories’ programme, incidentally, UKIP voters – like the public in general – oppose austerity and support a variety of left-populist positions.)
The electoral system’s bankruptcy notwithstanding, for Labour this remains an undeniably disastrous result. As Richard Seymour notes, the Tories got their Portillo moment, claiming Ed Balls’ scalp not from opposition but incumbency. This, though, was not due to any great surge in Tory support: the Conservatives increased their share of the vote by less than one percent. Rather, the Tories were saved from oblivion by Labour’s own crisis. Blairism’s heyday coincided happily with a period of Tory weakness, but created long-term problems for Labour – a pattern that, political scientists Johannes Karreth and Jonathan Polk pointed out shortly before the election, repeats itself in social-democratic parties across the developed world. Blair’s ideological indistinguishability from the Tories all but abolished electoral choice, and turnout slumped to unprecedented lows – the lowest in the poorest areas. By pursuing the fêted political centre through a new base in “middle England”, Labour achieved the worst of both worlds, alienating its base while failing to secure a new one. Their support for austerity has accelerated this crisis in Europe’s social democratic parties – a process Labour activist James Doran dubs “Pasokification”, after Pasok, the Greek centre-left party that fell through the floor in January 2015.
Miliband tried to address the problems New Labour left him by winning back alienated former Labour voters. As James Meadway notes, this sometimes showed brief signs of success, his moves to the left winning him surges in the polls – but by operating within a New Labour framework of “triangulation” aimed at capturing the political centre, Miliband fell between two stools. Aping the Tories on austerity sucked the life out of any moves to the left, opening up space for the SNP. The latter could also brand Labour “red Tories” for joining the most reactionary sectors of British politics in the “Better Together” campaign. Once the Tories eased their austerity programme from 2013 onwards, Labour again became pointless. Outside Scotland, it was Labour’s most powerful and popular rival – the “didn’t vote” party – that swamped its heartlands.
Will Labour learn any lessons from this catastrophe – and if so, will they be the right ones? The absurd narcissism and denial of neoconservative ultra-Blairite Jim Murphy offer an unpromising vision of things to come. Having “snatched catastrophe from the jaws of defeat” in one colleague’s words, Murphy clings on pathetically to a Scottish party he helped eviscerate. Nor is he alone: the Blairites snapping at Miliband’s heels throughout his leadership – and who almost deposed him – occupy a position of entrenched power at the top of the party. Holding all the cards, they are best placed to consolidate their position. But this can only prolong Labour’s crisis. Who but David Cameron, after all, is Blair’s most plausible successor? The Tory leader even described himself in these terms. As for Blair, in 2010 he argued that the Tories “at their best” will simply “get on with it”, and “at their worst” will compromise with “the Old Labour instincts of the Lib Dems”. It is unclear what niche the Blairites can occupy that will not replicate Miliband’s failure – or indeed the Lib Dems’. While not guaranteed to garner Tory sympathisers, any Blairite resurgence is certain to further alienate Labour’s working-class base. For the most effective unions this will be the last straw, and they will cut ties with Labour in pursuit of greener pastures.
None of this is a foregone conclusion. Even for Labour, wipeout at the hands of an anti-austerity, immigrant-friendly progressive party in Scotland might prompt some rational reflection. But it seems unlikely. Instead, the onward march of Blairism will clear further space for a new formation on the left of British politics. Can the left overcome its suicidal tendencies and unite to fill that space? Certainly the rise of UKIP, and the undoubted influence it has exerted on policy even outside Parliament (having even now secured only a single seat), suggests one model. Regardless of its own electoral fortunes, a serious challenger on the left will either force Labour in its direction, or monopolise those areas the party has vacated. Spain’s Podemos too may offer lessons, demonstrating that a broad-based, grassroots populist party accommodating pluralist, deep democratic modes of participation and even progressive, civic nationalism can make extraordinary strides. But a fragmented and weak left will need to overcome familiar pathologies to meet the challenge of the hour.