Friday, 13 February 2015

Peter Lawrence writes:

Some 35 years ago, I wrote a book chapter entitled ‘Is the Party Over?’[i] which was an attempt to critique the idea and relevance of the Leninist vanguard party. As the title implies, it argued for the demise of the vanguard party (the model for the then highly influential Communist Party to which I belonged, as well as for its various Trotskyist competitors on the Marxist-Leninist left), in favour of one which would coordinate socialist and other progressive activists involved across a range of struggles.  In so doing, it would provide a home for many who had hitherto felt excluded because of a lack of interest in the issues that concerned them. (One example I gave was the Ecology Party, the earlier name of the Green Party.)  A party which would be inclusive, coordinating and democratic in organisation might also, so I argued, lead to similar developments within the Labour Party which would begin to shed its suspicions of movements it did not dominate and turn it much more into a campaigning organisation to mobilise public support for sustained progressive change.  

Fast forward to 2015, and the Communist Party has morphed into a minor Stalinist sect, while the other ‘vanguard’ groupings such as the SWP, remain small and marginally influential.  The Green Party has grown in membership and influence, gained 1 MP and three MEPs and now threatens Labour.  It is both a campaigning and electoral party now having to come to terms with the diversity of its appeal, which gives it campaign strength, and a set of divergent policies which reflects its diverse appeal. In Scotland, the SNP threatens to wipe out Scottish Labour MPs while the Labour Party, on the other hand, remains an electoral organisation whose performance in government has differed marginally from that of the Tories, still its main competitor, and continues to shy away from becoming a campaigning party which seeks to mobilise popular support for progressive policies. 

Prior to 1966, voting Labour felt like a positive act in the cause of building a democratic socialist society. However timid the Labour governments were, the leadership spoke about planned economies, distribution of income and wealth and the importance of protecting workers against unscrupulous employers. Even when Labour came back to government in 1974, there was a sense such a government was a necessary if not sufficient condition for building democratic socialism. Even more so in 1997, after 18 years of Tory rule, there was no question about where a socialist would put the X on the ballot paper – vote Labour not least to get the Tories out, but also because this was the nearest we could get to a socialist government. In the intervening period socialists have found it increasingly difficult to put that X by the Labour candidate. Holding your nose and voting Labour for fear of something worse was the most positive thing that could be said in favour of such an action.  In 2015, the smell associated with the Labour Party is becoming so strong that holding your nose will not be enough. Labour has become another political career path to high office and then to co-option by the corporate sector with commensurate financial rewards. Yet still we will agonise until the last minute about whether to desert Labour and vote Green (the only realistic alternative) and risk another five years of a government dedicated to advancing the interests of the plutocracy and impoverishing a large proportion of the 99%, or whether to vote Labour to avoid the worst excesses of the Tories.

But will Labour in government, avoid the worst excesses of the Tories? Maybe. Labour, having bought the fiction that austerity is the only way out of the crisis, has already promised to cut public expenditure and eliminate the budget deficit, but not as fast as the Tories. So what would this mean in practice? Maybe the removal of the ‘bedroom tax’, maybe a slower rate of cuts, maybe a marginal reduction in unemployment, maybe some capital expenditure on infrastructure, though even the Tories plan the latter, possibly a higher rate of tax for the rich, possibly a version of the mansion tax that actually hits those who engage in property trading for speculation. Well, better than nothing, and for some people and families, critical, but still not addressing the key problem of British capitalism – its domination by large financial corporates, who effectively determine what governments can do.

The current fuss about whether Labour is pro or anti-business is a case in point. The current crisis was, at its root, caused by the Tory financial liberalisation of the 1980s. Financial corporates gambled away huge amounts of depositors’ money and took control over the non-financial sector. So what did the Labour government do but rescue these failed institutions and now they are back gambling with our deposits which if they lose the bets, are anyway guaranteed by the Government!  Miliband has talked about ‘predator capitalism’ which is certainly what it is, but he hasn’t said what he plans to do about it. Meanwhile the very business friendly shadow chancellor Balls has been heard to say at a private business function ‘You might hear anti-City sentiment from Ed Miliband but you’ll never hear it from me.’[ii] Yet it is the City itself that is and has always been the key problem for the UK economy and it is the activities of the banks and finance houses that populate the square mile and that Thatcher liberated with the Big Bang, over 30 years ago that caused the crisis.

So here we have it. The coalition has provided Labour with an open goal which the party constantly misses. Is it because they are afraid to shoot for fear of alienating voters who are unlikely to vote for them anyway? Is it because they don’t want to shoot because they believe in a strong financial sector?  Or is it because they know that they need the financial sector onside because it can bring governments down and they don’t know how to mobilise popular support for a policy that would bring the City under control.  If there is a lesson from the past, it is that appeasing the City simply strengthens it, and getting the City out of trouble, as Labour did in the financial crisis, loses you elections because the City has plenty of opinion formers who can shift the blame onto the Government and get away with it.
Must Labour die or must it change in order to stay alive? If there is a lesson from what is happening in Greece and Spain, it is that it is possible for ‘left wing’ political formations of a new type to emerge from popular activity involving different groups and movements. In the case of Greece, it can win an election, and start to implement its policies, though the forces of financial rectitude opposed to it, led by the ECB, are trying to prevent this. But a governing party that remains a campaigning one can retain its popular support by doing what it said it would do and mobilising the population to ensure it is done. Labour could learn from this and start to do things differently, not be afraid to take sides with the unemployed, the working poor, the inadequately housed and the food bank dependent, and link up with progressive movements which seek systemic change. That would include the Greens. But for that to happen Labour would need to be a different party and I’m not optimistic, after all those years when it missed the chance, that it can become one now.

[i] Peter Lawrence, Is the Party Over? in (ed) Mike Prior, The Popular and the Political: Essays on socialism in the 1980s, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
[ii] Patrick Jenkins, Labour steps up charm offensive on City leaders, Financial Times, February 3, 2015

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Cutting loose: the only way for Scottish Labour

Cutting Loose: Scottish Labour and the SNP

David Purdy writes:

As recently as last September, a poll for the Scottish Mail on Sunday on Westminster voting intentions gave Scottish Labour a six-point lead over the SNP, with Labour on 39%, the SNP 33%, the Conservatives 18% and the Lib Dems 3%. Since the referendum, Labour has lost one third of its support in Scotland, while the SNP has climbed to 45-47%, a lead of around 20 points. On a uniform national swing, Scottish Labour would be annihilated, losing all but a handful of its 41 Westminster seats. Even if the party were to claw back to 35%, while the SNP slipped to 38%, Labour and the SNP would each win 28 seats, an outcome that could still put paid to Labour’s chances of forming the next UK government.

 So far, despite the best efforts of its newly elected leader, Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour has yet to reach base camp. A seat-by-seat survey of 16,000 Scottish voters conducted by Michael Ashcroft’s polling organisation and reported in the press on 5th February confirmed the bad news for Labour. The poll, covering 16 constituencies – 14 held by Labour, two by the Lib Dems and all areas where there was strong support for Yes in the independence referendum – showed an average 21-point swing from Labour to the SNP. If these results were replicated across Scotland, Labour would lose 35 of its seats. Among voters under 44, support for the SNP is nearly double that of Labour. Indeed, the SNP leads across all age groups, except among those aged 65 and over. Even allowing that the swing against Labour might be lower in areas where the Yes vote was lower, the party’s prospects look bleak.

In what follows, after tracing the forward march of the SNP from protest to power, I examine the impact of the referendum and its aftermath on Scotland’s political landscape, explore the implications for May’s election and suggest that Scottish Labour’s best – and perhaps only – hope of recovering from defeat is to cut loose from its sister parties south of the border, embrace the cause of Home Rule and challenge the SNP’s lingering attachment to neo-liberal “common sense”.

The rise and rise of the SNP

Table 1 UK election results in Scotland 1970-2010

                                                            % vote

Con                 Lab                  Liberal/            SNP                 Other

                                                                        Lib Dem

1970                38.0                 44.5                   5.5                 11.4                 0.6

1974 (Feb)       32.9                 36.6                   7.9                 21.9                 0.6

1974 (Oct)       24.7                 36.3                   8.3                 30.4                 0.3

1979                31.4                 41.5                   9.0                 17.3                 0.8

1983                28.4                 35.1                 24.5                 11.8                 0.3

1987                24.0                 42.4                 19.2                 14.0                 0.3

1992                25.6                 39.0                 13.1                 21.5                 0.8

1997                17.5                 45.6                 13.0                 22.1                 1.9

2001                15.6                 43.3                 16.3                 20.1                 4.7

2005                15.8                 38.9                 22.6                 17.7                 5.1

2010                16.7                 42.0                 18.9                 19.9                 2.0

The SNP’s initial electoral breakthrough came at the Hamilton by-election in 1967. Thereafter it fielded candidates in more or less every Scottish constituency in UK general elections. The party’s share of the vote peaked at 30% in the October 1974 election, when it pushed the Conservatives into third place, yet it won only 11 (15%) of the 71 Scottish seats then in existence. After a lean spell in the 1980s, the SNP averaged around 20% of the votes, but even its best result, in 1997, yielded only 6 seats.

 This discrepancy between votes and seats is easily explained: the SNP’s support is spread evenly across Scotland, both geographically and socially. Unless a party is in the lead across the piece, an even geographical spread is always a disadvantage under first-past-the-post elections. And the SNP’s vote varies little by occupational class or type of housing tenure, making it difficult to break into Labour’s heartlands in the Central Belt, where most of the population lives.

Thus, prior to devolution, the SNP struggled to make headway in Westminster elections. With the new Scottish parliament, however, came a new electoral system. Under the Additional Member System (AMS), the 72 existing first-past-the-post constituencies (with Orkney and Shetland divided into two) were supplemented by 56 party list seats, allocated within each of eight regions so as to ensure that the overall distribution of seats in each region, both constituency and list, would reflect, as closely as possible, the division of votes among parties. This system, agreed after protracted negotiation between Labour and the Lib Dems, the senior partners within the Scottish Constitutional Convention that campaigned for devolution during the 1990s, offered a compromise between the Lib Dems’ preference for PR and Labour’s need for reassurance that should the SNP start coming first in votes, it would still fail to achieve an overall majority of seats.

As can be seen from Table 2 below, until 2011 the SNP found it difficult to win constituency seats and depended for its heft within the Scottish Parliament on the top-up regional list seats. Even in 2007 when, for the first time, the party won the largest share of the constituency vote, Labour still had a majority of constituency seats (37 out of 73) as against 21 for the SNP. Nevertheless, because the allocation of list seats gave it one more than Labour overall, it won the election and went on to form a minority government, with the support of the Scottish Greens. In 2011, the SNP managed to achieve what AMS was designed to prevent: a single-party majority in the Scottish Parliament, coming first in 53 constituencies and winning 69 seats overall, compared with 15 and 37, respectively, for Labour.

 The referendum and after: how Scotland has changed

 There was now no parliamentary barrier to holding a referendum on independence, but the legal position was still unclear. After nine months of negotiation, in October 2012 a deal was struck: the UK government agreed to a temporary transfer of the requisite legal powers on condition that the referendum was confined to a single question offering a straight Yes-No choice. The Scottish government had been open to the possibility of two questions, offering voters three options – the status quo, “devo max” (or Home Rule within the Union) and full independence – but the pro-Union parties ruled this out, anticipating that a clear majority for remaining in the UK would “settle the issue for a generation.”

Table 2: Scottish Parliament election results in votes and seats, 1999-2011

% constituency vote (no of seats)
                            1999                2003                2007                2011

SNP                 28.7   (  7)        23.8   (  9)        32.9     (21)      45.4   (53)

Lab                  38.8   (53)        34.6   (46)        32.2     (37)      31.7   (15)

Cons                15.6   (  0)        16.6   (  3)        16.6     (  4)      13.9   (  3)

Lib Dem          14.2   (12)        15.4   (13)        16.2     (11)        7.9   (  2)

Greens                                   0.1   (  0)          0.1     (  0)               

SSP                   1.0   (  0)          6.2   (  0)          0.0     (  0)               

Others               1.7   (  1)          3.5   (  2)          2.0     (  0)        1.1   (  0)

% regional list vote (no of seats)

                            1999                2003                2007                2011


SNP                 27.3   (28)        20.9   (18)        31.0   (26)        44.0   (16)

Lab                  33.6   (  3)        29.3   (  4)        29.2   (  9)        26.3   (22)

Cons                15.4   (18)        15.5   (15)        13.9   (13)        12.4   (12)

Lib Dem          12.4   (  5)        11.8   (  4)        11.3   (  5)          5.2   (  3)

Greens               3.6   (  1)          6.9   (  7)          4.0   (  2)          5.2   (  2)

SSP                   2.0   (  1)          6.7   (  6)          0.6   (  0)          0.4   (  0)

Others               5.7   (  0)          8.9   (  2)        10.0   (  1)          6.5   (  1)

What they had not reckoned with was the transforming impact of a long referendum campaign. For the next two years, the SNP combined incumbency with insurgency, continuing to govern Scotland while holding out the vision of Scotland as a new self-governing nation. In a bid to quell voters’ anxieties about “separating” from the UK, the party limited its ambition to “independence lite”, offering assurances that in the event of a Yes vote, Scotland would cease to be represented at Westminster, but would retain a shared monarch as ceremonial head of state, along with the pound sterling, the Bank of England, membership of NATO and membership of the EU.
In the event, this attempt to secure the repeal the 1707 Act of Union, while preserving a common currency, crown and geo-political alignment, came to grief. Yet despite losing the referendum by a wider margin than polls taken in the last six weeks of the campaign had suggested, Yes Scotland did well to secure 45% of the vote (on a remarkable 85% turnout). 1.6 million Scots had voted to leave the UK, the highest level of support for independence ever recorded at the ballot box. According to polls conducted at the outset of the campaign, in a three-way choice between the status quo, more devolved powers and full independence, 35-36% of the Scottish public favoured more powers, while 32-33% supported each of the other options. With the referendum reduced to a binary choice, the rival camps had to win over the middle ground, now reclassified as undecided voters. On this reckoning, support for independence grew by 12-13 percentage points over the course of the campaign, though by the same arithmetic, two thirds of those who wanted more devolution short of independence ended up voting No.

What no one expected was the sequence of events that unfolded after the referendum. Within minutes of the result being announced, a relieved David Cameron issued a “Counter-Vow”: if returned to office at the next election, he declared, the Conservatives proposed to tackle the West Lothian question by amending the procedures of the House of Commons so as to secure “English Votes for English Laws”. In the weeks and months that followed, Scotland’s political landscape was transformed as supporters of other parties who had voted Yes in the referendum, together with some who had voted No, defected in droves to the SNP.

Hitherto, as a comparison of Tables 1 and 2 shows, the SNP had won a higher share of the constituency vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament than it achieved in the preceding Westminster election. Indeed, the gap widened from 4 percentage points in 2003 to 15 in 2007 and to 25 in 2011. In part, this pattern can be explained as a mid-term protest vote. But surveys suggest that, regardless of the state of the Westminster election cycle, voters were more willing back the SNP in elections to the Scottish Parliament than in elections to the UK House of Commons. In the former, people focus on who is best fitted to govern Scotland; in the latter, on who will provide good government for the UK as a whole. The SNP does not aspire to govern the UK, but it is a serious contender in Scotland, offering an attractive alternative to a dysfunctional Scottish Labour Party, which those who vote Labour or Lib Dem in Westminster elections can safely back for Holyrood.
Since the referendum, however, Holyrood voting intentions have been translated into Westminster voting intentions. According to the Ashcroft polls cited earlier, 35% of Scots who voted Labour in 2010 and almost half Scots who voted Lib Dem intend to back the SNP this time.  And two thirds of Labour voters who have switched to the SNP say they do not intend to switch back. Fear of letting the Tories back in has been overridden by the intense focus on Scottish politics that built up during the referendum and will almost certainly persist up to and beyond the next Holyrood election in May 2016 until a new constitutional settlement is reached, whether this involves some form of Home Rule or, indeed, another referendum on independence.

 Parliamentary arithmetic, constitutional reform and political renewal
“Red Nats” sense the prospect of a landslide victory that leaves the SNP holding the balance of power at Westminster, possibly as the third-largest party. This, they hope, will enable it to conclude a parliamentary pact with a minority Labour government whereby in return for confidence and supply support, the SNP secures concessions ranging from Home Rule with full fiscal autonomy to the cancellation of Trident and the removal of nuclear weapons from the Clyde.

The trouble is that in a situation where neither Labour nor the Tories are likely to achieve an overall majority, every seat that Labour loses in Scotland makes it more likely that the Tories will end up as the largest party at Westminster. At the very least, that would give the Tories first shot at forming a government, though of course, whether they succeed depends on the parliamentary arithmetic, and more specifically on the number of seats won by the DUP, UKIP and, perhaps, the Lib Dems. If the numbers stack up, the Tories will move heaven and earth to stay in office. And even if they fail, there is no guarantee that the numbers will stack up for Labour or that if they do, Labour will accede to the demands of the SNP, whether acting alone or in concert with Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Other outcomes are possible: there could, for example, be a second election and if that failed to resolve the deadlock, Labour and the Conservatives could form a grand coalition to take charge of constitutional reform, starting with a reform of the voting system.
At present it looks as if, whatever happens, the SNP cannot lose. If it routs Labour in Scotland without letting the Tories back in, a minority Labour government at Westminster would have to pay a price to win its backing. If the Tories form a minority government and, with Lib Dem support, proceed to give English and – on matters not devolved to Cardiff – Welsh MPs a veto over legislation that does not apply to Scotland, pressure would mount north of the border for a second referendum, especially if the Tories simultaneously refuse to countenance a “Celtic” veto in any referendum on UK membership of the EU. And even the hint of a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories would make Labour even more unpopular in Scotland than it already is, confirming the nationalist argument that the two establishment parties are essentially interchangeable and will do anything to preserve the Union.

If Scottish Labour suffers a heavy defeat in May, its condition, already critical, could become terminal. If it is to avoid internal strife, stop haemorrhaging support, mount a credible electoral challenge to the SNP in 2016 and, in the longer term, prevent its old rival from becoming Scotland’s Fianna Fail, its best hope is to sever organisational ties with its sister parties in England and Wales, rename itself the Independent Scottish Labour Party and embrace the cause of Home Rule, an aspiration shared by both Labour and the Liberals in the early twentieth century before two world wars, the Great Depression and the post-war Labour Government turned the UK into one of the most centralised states in Europe.
Undoubtedly, cutting loose would be painful. But by splitting along the line of the border rather than along a left-right axis, as happened when the ILP broke away in 1932 and the SDP was formed in 1981, Labour would be better placed to adapt to an era of multi-party politics that takes different forms in different parts of the UK. In Scotland, the SNP needs to be challenged from the left. For far too long it has been allowed to get away with advocating Scandinavian social policies on the basis of US tax levels. With a fresh lease of life and a new sense of purpose, an Independent Scottish Labour Party could put the SNP under pressure to jettison its neo-liberal baggage and sign up to the project of working towards a new social settlement and a better kind of capitalism within the framework of a federal state.

Monday, 9 February 2015

View from the Sidelines

Dorothy Margot writes

I am no academic, and I have made no study of the Politics of my country. Nevertheless, I have been a keen observer of the political scene since I first proudly walked into a polling booth, to vote for the first time, thanks to the  Representation of the People Act, 1969, which gave me the vote at 18 years old. 

 I voted Liberal. Frankly, it was to hack off my RAF father, and all he believed in, but I also thought Jeremy Thorpe was more convincing than the sexually ambiguous, Edward Heath. (Oh the irony). I doubt if I could have told you a single policy, from any party. I voted for the man who seemed most sincere.

If you Google Ed Miliband, you will note the second most popular search is 'Ed Miliband bacon sandwich'; if you Google David Cameron, the next most popular search is 'David Cameron, Twitter'. People actually want to know what Cameron is saying, whereas Miliband is good for a laugh.

In the days when the Labour party could field a man of the calibre of the late Labour Leader, John Smith, they stood a chance of sweeping the Tory party away. Who, amongst the ranks of the faithful, consider the unprepossessing and uninspiring Miliband any threat to Cameron? Cameron acts out the part of the statesman and family man to good effect, irrespective of what he is actually saying.

Political pundits rather downplay the influence that mere personality exerts on the voters' minds. That might be a simplistic summation, but Arnold Schwarzenegger garnered 4,206,384 Republican votes in 2003 on the back of having a good physique and a few quotable one-liners. It would be wrong to imagine the British voter has more savvy and is not swayed by celebrity and charisma, witness the Farage Effect!  My father was persuaded by the personable Blair to vote Labour after a lifetime of Daily Mail-informed conservatism, but during recent local elections, he voted UKIP, because he admires Nigel Farage, for 'talking sense'.

To quote Chesterton: ''The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything".

Have you read your papers recently?:

Comedian Al Murray has announced he plans to stand against Nigel Farage in the seat of South Thanet in May’s general election.

He will stand as his comedy alter ego “the Pub Landlord” for the Free United Kingdom Party, or FUKP. In a video posted to YouTube launching his bid for parliament, he says: “It seems to me that the UK is ready for a bloke waving a pint around offering common sense solutions.” 

The first of his pledges is to make pints of beer cost 1p and to brick up the channel tunnel"

Frances Perraudin, The Guardian January 14, 2015

Politics is dying on its feet, when a stand-up comedian, mocking UKIP, warrants column inches in all the press. The next election seems set to fragment politics even further, to devalue it and to fail to offer the country a radical leader/thinker of the likes of Greece's Alexis Tsipras, who ensured he was always seen, without a tie! Political stagecraft, and it got International press coverage of the 'this man means business' variety.

In June 2013 the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire Labour Party, had the opportunity to adopt an outstanding female Labour councillor, Jenny Lynn as their next election candidate. She has worked tirelessly for the party and her community and much more besides; she was the first woman to represent her ward in over 30 years.

 She is an openly practicing Christian, and I have witnessed the great respect she gets from the local Muslim community, (no mean feat), by her leadership of the Halifax Friends of Palestine and her support of asylum seekers. She is eloquent, her voice is easy on the ear, she has a 'common touch' and a good sense of humour, and she is passionate about her politics. So whom did her party choose, when she was proposed as a candidate, and stood against 3 other hopefuls? A fresh faced, anodyne London-based 'local' lad who has yet to serve his community, Josh Fenton-Glynn.  Yes, let's not select a fiery, single, middle aged woman, let's have a safe smiley Mili - Bland clone. Well, good luck with that choice.

Josh twittered on 7 Feb 2015:

"We are 'likes' away from 500 on the 'Josh For Calder Valley' Facebook page, let's see if we can get there by Monday". Inspiring, isn't it?

 So, finally, to answer the question. By choosing, post-Kinnock, yet another albatross leader to hang around their necks, the Labour party is indeed already dying, by slow suicide


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Well, must it still die?

Nine years ago I wrote a piece called 'Labour Must Die!' which made a minor splash in various places, most oddly on the website of the 'liberal-interventionist' Euston Manifesto, where it can still be found as well as here. My Gramscian critique of New Labour sat rather uncomfortably alongside arguments for extending 'western democracy' to ever more remote and dusty parts of a generally unreceptive world. A lot's happened in the meantime: the 2008 crash and subsequent slump, the decay of the Blair/Brown project and the electoral defeat of New Labour in 2010, the neo-Thatcherite induced austerity  of the Con/Lib coalition, the Eurozone crisis etcetera. On a personal level I finished the PhD of which my article was a snapshot, and got it published as a book 'The Politics of New Labour' (2011) which has sold moderately well and played some small part in the post-mortem. My first novel 'Gramsci in Love', which offers an account of my intellectual hero's tortured love-life, is about to be published. I am even less engaged in the sterile routines of party politics than back then.

So, nine years on, must Labour still die? Well, on a simply existential basis, the Labour Party survives to fight yet more elections and chase more headlines, so obviously it hasn't quite died yet. But on any objective measure it's not exactly thriving either. Membership briefly rose post-Blair/Brown but has since levelled off. Most local Labour organisations are 'hollowed-out' or moribund, and heavily reliant on elected councillors or paid officials with a vested financial interest in their 'political' activity. Joining the Labour Party is now a pretty strange thing to do, even in the conditions of opposition when indignant leftists historically 'return to the fold'. Performance in elections, by-elections and opinion polls is pretty lacklustre, to the extent that 'the Labour vote' is less responsive to the pull and push of the party machine than at any time in its 100 year-plus history. The ideology of Labourism, with its experiential base in the manual work which hardly anyone in this country does any more, and its organisational basis in the trades unionism which is now largely confined to the public services, looks increasingly shallow and ineffectual. It lives on in the ghostly 'cultural' forms of football, light entertainment and xenophobia, but struggles for clear political expression. The subaltern heartlands of northern England are palpably depressed and taciturn.

 But, to pose the question with which Labour has always stymied any challenge to its hold over class and electoral allegiance, what else is there? Personally I wish I could vote for Syriza, which is exactly the kind of 'broad democratic alliance' we Euro-communists yearned for in the 1970s, and whose Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is right now the coolest man on the planet, but our archaic electoral system won't allow anything of the sort. For most of us in England the choice this May is between the traditional 'hold your nose and vote Labour' or the rather less unsavoury but arguably more destructive 'vote Green'. I've had extensive dealings with the Green Party over the last ten years, and I can't say I'm hugely impressed. It's a strange amalgam of political geeks, with an obsessive focus on the electoral mechanics of 'getting out the vote' to match anything in Labour, and angry hippie dreamers who will gladly embrace any wacky cause that can't find a political home elsewhere. Their politics and organisation are simply not up to the historic opportunity presented by climate change and the decay of traditional party politics. The real Green 'breakthrough' was in 1989, with 15% of the vote in the European elections for a genuinely popular environmentalism, and they blew it. The current 'green surge' is causing a minor media flurry, with party membership over 50,000, but it will not translate into a double-figure vote-percentage let alone Westminster seats. Even Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion looks vulnerable to a focussed and very nasty Labour push. After May I would expect the Green Party to fall away as quickly as it did in the early '90s, when the 'anti-austerity' activists of the 'Green Left' take their pale Labour leftism elsewhere.

As for actual Labour, quite frankly I don't really care one way or another. It simply continues to slide into historical irrelevance, and  I don't see what the career prospects of a bunch of blustering, boring Oxford PPE graduates and ex-special advisers, led by a strange man who is both old before his time and stuck in perpetual adolescence, have to do with me and my life or even my country. If they want to spend their lives shouting at Tories and conspiring in corridors, that's up to them, but I cannot see what possible benefit the rest of us derive from such shenanigans. Labour makes even less of an impact on daily life out here in the real world than it ever did; increasingly what they do feels like make-believe. To sum up – it seems to me that my question of nine years ago has expanded way beyond its original focus. Any prospect of social transformation or even sustained economic recovery in Britain now requires the death of not just Labour but the whole of what constitutes 'politics' in our debased, exhausted, post-pretty-much-everything age. Quite what form the politics of post-politics will take is wholly unclear, and I don't think we should get too carried away with 'social media' and all the other techno-fixes of late capitalism, but one way or another it will always be about people getting together and taking action to improve their lives and prospects; something the Labour Party has signally and consistently failed to do.


Andrew Pearmain is a historian and author of 'The Politics of New Labour' (2011) and 'Gramsci in Love' (2015)   


Monday, 2 February 2015

Trevor Fisher says No: It’s Labour or the Fourth Republic

Before the 2010 election, there was some discussion in the Chartist collective on whether Britain was taking the same route as the Weimar Republic in the twenties. The Blair-Brown years had seen the rise of the Far Right with street fighters like the EDL emerging and a serious electoral challenge from the BNP. Its leader Nick Griffin became an MEP and with the BNP winning council seats, the risk of a British Front Nationale succeeding was real.

Five years later the good news is the Fascist Right is retreating though not defeated. The bad news is it has been replaced by UKIP, and while this has split the Tory right, xenophobia also appeals to Labour voters.  In Scotland, the Nationalists threaten to deny Labour the seats it needs for government. Electorally the Lib Dems are taking a hammering across the UK and the Greens are providing an appeal for progressive Labour voters. With 7 parties in the TV debates, the election is beyond quick fixes. If Britain today looks less like Weimar before the Nazis, it increasingly looks like the French Fourth Republic – a Poujadist Party in UKIP, fragmentation and a future of coalition governments and instability.

Immediately there is an overwhelming case for a Tactical Voting campaign to stop the Green surge taking Labour seats. The threat of Farage in government should concentrate minds. A UKIP-Tory coalition could be the election outcome, with Cameron is ousted as Tory leader for a pro-UKIP leader. An alternative scenario, if Miliband does badly, is a threat to his position and a Grand Coalition of Tory and Labour for the still sizeable number of pro-European Tories. For Balls the chance to become Chancellor in a Grand Coalition, backed by the Blairite M Ps, cannot be underestimated. It is possibly the only way to save a career blighted by his embrace of austerity. A pro -Austerity, pro- Europe coalition would have appeal to the Orange Book Lib Dems, though whether Clegg holds his seat is problematical. If he loses and the Liberals split, then a Labour-Left Liberal alliance is possible. The Oakshott grant to the Labour-Liberal candidates he favours is a big straw in the wind,

The Greens would probably not win enough seats to hold a balance, but could stop Labour victories, while the SNP is a real beast in this jungle. As the Nats have picked up the social democratic/pro welfare state cloak that New Labour threw away, it would have an appeal to many Labour voters. It’s a poisoned chalice however, and in Scotland Labour supporters might prefer an alliance with Left Lib Dems. With no major party having a clear alternative to policies of fiscal orthodoxy, austerity and more cuts save the fringe parties, the possibility of unstable short term coalitions would be considerable - just like the French Fourth Republic – making a Grand Coalition more attractive, but hard to achieve, hence the French Fourth Republic could be the reality and if fixed parliaments are kept, changes might happen without any electoral mandate at all.

While YouGov polling at the end of January suggests support for radical policies amongst Labour and Swing voters, the message will be blanked by Labour. John Reid's comment on the Left Futures website to the news -”We tried this in 1983 and it failed” - shows the anachronism of New Labour. However Blairites remain in action, actively hostile to even Miliband's limited gestures.

In the last month both Blair himself and Alan Milburn have attacked Miliband, to the applause of the Tory press. It is possible a Miliband defeat would put them back on the political stage. Labour is internally divided and has spent the coalition period being studiously vague. It is unlikely this will change as Labour fears a 1992 repeat, though this is not 1992 and with the Greens attracting young Leftish voters, its present course is risky.

The immediate priority is to secure a Miliband premiership via tactical voting. This would also lay the basis for an Anti Austerity Alliance. While the People's Assembly is marginal. It could be strengthened by a strong tactical voting network for May 8th. In the immediate post-election period, repealing the fixed parliament Act would be an essential first step. A coalition may be the outcome if there is no majority, but not for another 5 years. It has to be brought to an end when circumstances change, for another election to seek a majority. Otherwise we really will have the French Fourth Republic in the UK, with disastrous consequences.