The general election due in 2010 or even this year may well be the most important for the British left as any held over the past sixty years. We can safely assume that the Labour Party will be led into it by Gordon, a man too schooled in Scottish Labour politics to let himself be sidelined by some young pretender. The fate of David Miliband, trapped into seminars on the techniques of waterboarding so that he can talk with Karzai and Netanyahu on equal terms, will remind any potential challenger of just how an old pol deals with upstarts. We may also assume that its outcome will not be a ringing endorsement of Brown’s leadership. It is what follows from the election that may prove momentous.
There are some on the left who are pinning their hopes on a hung parliament in which the price of Liberal Democrat support will be some kind of proportional representation. Possibly. But placing one’s trust in such a fickle agent is misplaced. It is only too likely that, if Nick Clegg and his cohorts get a whiff of power and a couple of junior ministries, their alleged adherence to the principles of PR will fade like snow in summer sunshine. In any event, what we are likely to see is not any transitory alliance leading a quick return to the polls. This was the politics of the 1960s and 70s when minority governments and small majorities were the rule and when there were two dominant parties with clear ideological differences with the other. (In 1970, there were just 12 M.P.s outside the big two leaving aside Northern Ireland which has never conformed to the main British pattern). The situation now is quite different for four reasons.
The first is that the two-party system has slowly loosened if not collapsed. In 2005, there were 74 British M.P.s outside it with the Lib Dems just at the threshold of becoming the party which disrupts the two-party headlock. The second is that the fabric of the British state has also begun to fray with a slow-motion secession by Scotland and Northern Ireland and a loosening of ties with Wales. Just how far this process will go is hard to predict but it does mean that the single line of cleavage which has been the basis of British politics for many years has been augmented by a national as well as, for want of a better description, the old class split. The third reason is that the two main parties are now virtually indistinguishable in their policies and underlying ideology even though they continue to fight like snakes in a sack over largely invented differences. Fourth — and this is where it becomes complicated — we are approaching the depths of a painful and protracted recession.
Economic recession can often produce political consequences which seem divergent to its causes. In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher almost gloried in creating the economic policies which produced mass unemployment and the destruction of much British industry. It was, she asserted, the necessary pain to assuage years of compromise with organised labour. And, assisted by splits in the Labour opposition, she managed to achieve continuing electoral success that, whilst never wholly convincing in terms of a popular vote, gave her safe parliamentary majorities. On the other hand, in 1931, the hapless Labour party was almost eliminated from Parliament when the country turned towards a government of ‘national unity’ — effectively the Conservative Party plus a small splinter of the Labour party but one led by the sitting Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald.
The next election may well prove to be a bit ‘wild’, that is it may throw up a number of unusual victories. The Green Party might snatch a seat in the mildly eccentric constituency that is Brighton. Ominously, the BNP might come close to victory, if not actually over the top, in some places. One or two Labour independents could hold on whilst in Scotland and Wales, the nationalists could creep closer to dominance. Of course, the main story will be the size of the Conservative majority and whether the Lib Dems manage to at least hold their own. However, this underlying ‘wildness’, a symptom of a widespread disillusion with a sclerotic political symptom, could produce other results than a few maverick MPs. The tempting prospect for the Conservatives might well be the opportunity to create a new ‘national crisis’ government, one based firmly around the Conservative party but with enough of a leavening of Labour parliamentarians, preferably ex-ministers, to give the appearance of a national coalition.
One factor in this is the existence of a ready-made department of state whose team of assorted lords and ladies will continue to sit in Parliament for the rest of their lives (or at least until democratic reform) regardless of general election results. (It is a sign of just how much the House of Lords runs the absurdly named Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform that its senior elected minister, Pat McFadden, is named as Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, that is keeping the unions under control and privatising the Post Office. Heaven forefend, that a real job such as Minister for Economic Competitiveness (Lady Vadera) or Minister for Trade and Investment (Lord Davies) should be given to a commoner with no banking experience). The overlord of this bunch, Lord Mandelson, is unlikely to want to give up his long-lasting dance with the rich and famous and it would be surprising if a few discrete feelers were not already going round the streets close to his Notting Hill villa. If one adds to this some of those Labour ministers who already seem indistinguishable from Conservatives then one can see the outlines of a dream ticket ─ a cross-party coalition based upon English MPs which could claim to be responding to a national economic crisis and which could rule without reliance upon Celtic votes.
It is also likely that a striking sign of the general disillusion with the political process will come from falling turnout. Already in the low 40 per cents in the Labour strongholds of North and Central Manchester where I live, it would be surprising if battered Labour voters were to do other than turn away entirely from the electoral process.
However, in this mix of disillusion and wildness, one factor is missing ─ any kind of effective leftwing challenge to the present hegemony of essentially neoliberal politics. In many ways, this is the most obvious political difference between now and the previous periods when the industrial economies were battered by deep recessions, the early 1980s and during the depression of the 1930s. Of course, in the latter time, both communism and fascism were real and ominous threats to the capitalist system whilst in the 1980s, the apparent challenge of socialism was essentially a house of cards. But the challenge, nevertheless, was present in the political process. In spending some hours recently in tracking through the many websites maintained by various components of the British (or at least English) left, the absence of any such voice became drearily apparent.
Essentially, one can split the politics of the left into three parts. The first comprises those in the Labour Party who still see themselves as the ‘left’ of that organisation grouped into the Labour Representation Committee and the Compass group (which may be a pressure group, a think-tank or a political fraction depending upon sources). Both look to an individual MP (McDonnell or Cruddas) to bring light to the Labour party whilst omitting any significant discussion of any possible political process whereby this might come about. The large number, seemingly a dozen or more, of groups descended from the Communist and Trotskyist parties of the 1970s, rely heavily upon that old favourite, the rising consciousness of the working class, whilst spending much of their energies on denouncing the particular characterisation of that elusive phenomenon by their rivals. Thirdly, the Green Party (of which I am a member), which is basically the thinking-person’s social democracy, relies upon a slow-motion electoralism picking up council seats in the hope that one day this will translate into higher things.
Am I being too critical? I really don’t think so. After all, in a parallel diary, John Nicholson, someone very conversant with and committed to left politics, has described its recent history as a modern-day Life of Brian. The one common feature of all these perspectives is a lack of any desire to engage with other fractions of the left to discuss just how they could work together in some way to take any kind of role in the national political drama currently being unfolded. This is despite a very large measure of agreement on the policies, big and small, needed in national government. Nationalise the banks? Save the Post Office from privatisation? Support the Palestinians? Raise basic benefits? Get rid of nuclear weapons? Yes, yes and yes again. But effective dialogue let alone cooperation?
Such a situation is even more dispiriting given the fact that in other European countries, the most notable being Germany, Italy and France, the left has come through a couple of decades of battering and has started to try and come together in some kind of united coalition. The fruits of these endeavours have, so far, been small but the efforts have been made and could come to something.
One small and flickering light in this gloom is the Convention of the Left held in Manchester in September, parallel to the Labour Party conference, and followed up in January by a one-day gathering. This attempts to bring together all parts of the self-defined left including both those organised into political groupings and activists belonging to no group. It is unclear where the Convention is going and it is not without its sectarian squabbles. Even so, to bring together 200 people from around Manchester not to hear speeches delivered from any platform by left ‘notables’, indeed lacking any notable speakers at all, but just to discuss how the left can advance is an important achievement.
Overall, however, a realistic pessimism must reign with regard to the possibilities of any significant left intervention in the next election. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that there will be enough initiatives along the lines of the Convention to provide the base to allow for some coordinated response to what happens after it.