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After the election: picking up the pieces

Without pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will is useless, writes Luke Cooper

May 14, 2015
14 min read

These are bleak days. The return of majority Tory rule unhindered by the need to find a coalition partner – with their erstwhile ally the Liberal Democrats eviscerated by the electorate – shocked to the core many of us on the left. How was it possible that after five years of bitter austerity and falling living standards the Tories had been returned with an outright, comfortable majority?

This isn’t like the shock the media class experienced when their cherished opinion polls came a cropper. It’s a deeper feeling of angst and uncertainty caused by the realisation that a large majority of people in this election voted for coalition parties or those, like UKIP, even further to their right. Working people – our people – voted to install a government that would be even worse than the preceding one.

Two anecdotes I’ve heard in the days since sum up perfectly what’s just happened. On a field trip with students overseas, I spoke to a colleague who had spent the previous week campaigning for the Labour Party in Cardiff North – a key marginal, number four on Labour’s target list, with a wafer thin majority of 194. It was Friday morning and I like so many others I had not only hardly slept, but was still in a state of febrile shock at the Tory victory. The colleague in question was, however, much more sanguine. ‘We saw it coming,’ he said ruefully. ‘We were getting nothing on the door. Every single one that opened just wanted to talk about foreigners and immigration.’ Like Warwickshire North – number one on Labour’s list – Cardiff North summed up a disastrous election with the Tories winning a healthy majority of 2,137.

Later in the weekend, in another of those ‘what on earth has Britain done’ conversations, a family member recounted how an acquaintance who worked in the Square Mile had told her of the scenes in the pubs on the Friday evening. Bottle after bottle of champagne was being corked as the 1 per cent toasted their great victory.

An unmitigated disaster

Neither story is, of course, at all surprising. But together they force us to accept the reality of our current situation however uncomfortable it is for us: that a large majority of the 99 per cent chose to back parties that would keep the champagne flowing for the 1 per cent. They did so in a period of economic crisis in which, while the richest 1,000 people in Britain doubled their wealth over the last ten years, the median full time weekly wage fell by 8.8 per cent between 2008 and 2014.

Nearly 1 in 2 people who voted backed the Tories or UKIP. This makes the election far worse than 1992, when 42 per cent of people voting backed John Major’s Tories.

We don’t need any special insight to work out why these parties won such significant support: their message must have resonated with large sections of the population. A focus on immigration as the source of the problems encountered by working people in their daily lives, a rejection of all things European, and swingeing cuts and austerity. Added to these familiar facets of right wing policy in Britain was the naked appeal to ethnic English nationalism in a scaremongering campaign against the SNP.

The fact these arguments resonated, particularly in enough key marginal constituencies, to win the election outright for the Tories is a disastrous outcome for the left. Worse than 1992 on paper, but without the same backdrop of huge mass campaigns and resistance to Thatcher, it’s arguably the biggest defeat we’ve been through over the last couple of decades. It’s not just the scale of the attacks we now face – the repeal of the Human Rights Act, new anti-union laws, new attacks on migrant rights, huge welfare cuts, a broken up NHS, and brutal austerity – but how arguments used by the Tories resonated which makes this an unmitigated disaster.

Pasokification? Still only a trend

These are difficult facts for the left to swallow. Predictably, many have seen Labour’s defeat as indicative of a long-term ‘Pasokification‘ – a reference to the mortal collapse of the Pasok party, which dominated Greek politics for three decades. On this argument, by failing to energise its base and the wider social movements as an anti-austerity alternative, Labour marched its troops to a drubbing. One blogger put this even more strongly than most arguing that, ‘People throughout Britain don’t just want a left alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy – they are literally dying for it.’

The analysis fits in Scotland. But it only works in England and Wales in partial and contradictory ways. What it can’t explain is why in most of England’s biggest cities – Labour heartland areas, for sure – the party recorded large victories. These are the places where you would expect an anti-austerity challenger to be snapping at Labour’s heels but it didn’t happen. The Greens won an impressive but still largely insignificant 3.8 per cent of the vote – only a small fraction of Labour’s support.

Take Withington in Greater Manchester as an example. A student area, so prime Green Party territory, was taken by Labour from the Lib Dems with a swing of 13 per cent. The Greens finished in a distant fourth behind the Tories. Of course, the pressure to vote the Lib Dems out would have hit the Greens. But in safer Labour seats, where there was no prospect of letting the coalition parties in, the Greens struggled to make inroads into Labour’s support. In my constituency, for instance, the very safe Labour seat of Islington South and Finsbury, Labour won over 50 per cent of the vote with the Greens in fifth. Nationally, the Greens recorded just 5 second places compared to 120 for UKIP, who finished with three times as many votes. Unfortunately, these results simply don’t show there was significant opposition to austerity across England and Wales – Scotland was the exception in this election.

The term ‘Pasokification’ is a useful way of talking about the problems of social democracy today. It essentially refers to the disintegration of a social democratic party under the pressure of austerity, identifying a logic that can be observed in the decline of these parties in recent years. Their support for austerity legitimises the arguments of the right and, as a result, encourages a move towards the conservatives as the honest, ‘organic’ advocates of cuts amongst the electorate. It also creates a space for a left alternative amongst the now alienated traditional base of the party.

In short, social democracy suffers a ‘scissors crisis’, as both right and left make inroads. There are trends in this direction for Labour in England and Wales, but they remain just that: trends. This map, which has been doing the roads on Twitter since the general election, shows in pink those areas where ‘did not vote’ was the largest party: it obliterates many of the core Labour heartlands in the North of England.

didnotvote

This is obviously the space and opportunity for parties of the radical left but the election also underlined how it is UKIP that is eating away at this core Labour support – not the Green Party and certainly not smaller parties like Left Unity. Indeed, in this election, UKIP was the primary beneficiary of Labour’s pasokification south of the border. The scissors crisis happened but not as we would have liked.

Analysing the catastrophe

This brings us back to the anecdote about Cardiff North. In a Labour-Tory marginal – one of the tightest in the country – a UKIP voter knew that there was an extremely high chance of letting Labour in unless they voted tactically for the Tories. But many of them voted UKIP anyway. They won just under 4,000 votes – around 8 per cent. The combined vote of the Tories and UKIP was nearly 1 in 2 – mirroring the national vote. So voting UKIP didn’t even come close to stopping the Tories taking the seat. While Labour’s vote increased marginally on 2010, the Tories and UKIP increased much more substantially, as the Liberal Democrat support fell by over 14 per cent.

The national picture was the same. Many of us, looking at pieces of research like this and this, which showed nearly 50 per cent of UKIP supporters were former Tory voters, assumed that the rise in UKIP would hurt the Tories more than it hurt Labour. And we also assumed that the collapse of Lib Dem support would benefit Labour, not the right. But the opposite happened. UKIP hurt Labour, while 27 of the Tories’ 35 gains came at the expense of a totally annihilated Liberal Democrats.

UKIP’s advance was more significant in Labour-controlled seats. Labour support fell on average by 4 points where UKIP made gains compared to only a 2 point drop for the Tories. UKIP also made big inroads amongst lower paid workers in manual employment (up 14.7 per cent) and with no qualifications (up 14.2 per cent).

They won more than 25 per cent of the vote in Labour northern towns of Grimsby (not included in the second places as UKIP came a narrow third) and Hartlepool. And did similarly well in the three Labour-held seats in Sunderland. Of their second places, some 44 were to Labour and 76 to the Tories. One of the biggest factors – consistent with previous UKIP success – affecting their chances was how ethnically mixed the area was. In constituencies where fewer than 70 per cent of residents were white, UKIP recorded a swing of 8.5 per cent, but this rose to 11.5 per cent in areas that were 98 per cent or more white (stats here). In London, where 37 per cent of residents are born overseas, UKIP did very poorly again, confirming the pattern.

Underpinning UKIP’s success is this ability to unite voters from across political and social divides (some pollsters talk about ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’ Ukippers to reflect these distinctive demographic groups). Ethnic nationalism is the cultural glue to unite this coalition, pulling together the affluent and poor, former Tory and Labour voters, in a classically populist fashion. It’s not surprising that the radical left – that tends to be university educated and concentrated in large urban areas or traditionally progressive smaller towns – whether it be Green or the smaller socialist parties, finds itself both culturally and politically isolated from these groups of voters.

Labour, on the other hand, was trying – in the smaller towns and regions of England – to win back these lower and middle income workers attracted to UKIP and the Tories. In classical ‘triangulating’ fashion they tried to adapt to the anti-immigrant sentiment driving it (the infamous mugs symbolising this accommodation). But still weren’t able to speak a language these voters could understand as an English nationalist revolt swept the Tories to power.

It is now evident that this rise of English nationalist sentiment was central to the Tory victory. One post-election analysis of the polling data stresses these ‘hidden English nationalist non-voters’ coming out for the Tories, presumably influenced by their demagogic campaign against the SNP. The progressive, civic nationalism of the SNP – with its support for Europe, immigration and opposition to austerity – conversely provided the impetus for a toxically dangerous ethnic nationalism in England. This is the story of the 2015 election.

Pessimism of the intellect

It shows that elections can be won and lost on the ability to galvanise and energise core supporters, with a message as much about emotion as reason. Labour was never able to do this and the crude, ethnic nationalism of the Tories and UKIP clearly won out. Looking back to 2012, a time when Labour was riding high in the opinion polls and won a substantial, if unspectacular, victory in the local elections, we might wonder what might have been if there was an earlier general election. With the memory of an anti-austerity movement on the streets south of the border still real, and no Scottish nationalist insurgency north of it, Labour may have won. The fact the Labour leadership actually distanced themselves from the anti-austerity campaigns in 2010 and 2011 doesn’t mean its presence on the streets wouldn’t have helped Labour’s re-election bid. It is a hypothetical possibility worth thinking about if we are to come to a nuanced view of the extent of ‘Pasokification’ today.

There are many pitfalls in the current situation for the left as we try to pick up the pieces from this defeat. But two in particular stand out. One tendency on the left will overestimate the extent of Labour’s Pasokification, downplaying the substantial support it still enjoys, particularly in its heartland areas. They will struggle to explain why more than 20,000 people have joined the party since the general election. As someone who was canvassing for Left Unity in south London, I can say with a degree of assurance that those who have been out electioneering will be more cautious. There is nothing like getting out there and talking to people to bring home the lived reality of the 20,000 plus votes received by Labour Party MPs like Kate Hoey.

On the other hand, many people in the movement will apply tremendous pressure for us to fall in behind the Labour Party again to kick out the Tories, even if they elect a Blairite determined to take the party further to the right. But Labour’s long-term trajectory is clear enough and requires an equally lasting, serious strategy to establish a socialist and anticapitalist alternative of the left. This won’t, of course, change the balance of forces in the small towns and regions of England that delivered victory for the Tories any time soon, because it arguably only brought to the surface an ethnic English nationalism that was already organic to these areas.

We do need, however, to construct an alternative story of anticapitalist radicalism that is populist enough to bring together a working class that is more socially and culturally diverse than ever. Whether on the socialist or Green left the basic challenge is essentially the same: how can we reach out beyond the university educated middle income workers to the disaffected and alienated more widely? There is politics at stake in this too. It’s a question of how we are relating to the daily lives of those who we are championing. Michael Calderbank is right to plea for a Copernican turn in left thinking, treating electors as participants shaping our projects, and not simply as passive adherents or antagonists for a particular programme. This should be welcomed on the left in deeds as well as words.

Building the movement against the Tories will obviously be key. Left parties and new projects will rise and fall depending on their ability to intersect with the grassroots. We will also be working alongside people in the Labour Party, even if we don’t expect the new Labour leadership to support our fight back. Most of all, we need careful, balanced reflection on the steps we take. A left that thinks as well as acts, which avoids shrill appeals to follow one flag or another, is needed more than ever.

In these bleak times, we’d all be wise to mistrust those who claim to have all the answers. In short, we need pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

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