Willie Thompson writes:
In the week of the general election the New Scientist journal, which is published on Saturdays, had an accidentally appropriate headline on its front cover (referring to the danger of mutant bugs} it reads,
‘THE NEW PLAGUE’
Which would likewise do very well for the political situation we find ourselves in now. The cover also advertises another of the articles inside, ‘No person, no vote: How health inequalities distort democracy’. That article links differential health outcomes with social class, showing how lower-income electoral strength is consequently weakened.
It was an exceptionally important election with a remarkable as well as an exceptionally calamitous outcome – and also an exceptionally dirty one. The Tories invoked near-racist prejudice against Scottish voters and attempted, with some success, to fasten on the SNP the scary role that the communists used to occupy in British right-wing imagination. The Labour Party rhetoric did little to challenge this caricature or emphasise that the SNP had evolved into a mildly left-wing social democratic force which had a record of devolved government very much in accordance with British social values as they used to be in the days before Thatcher. They simply tried their hardest to dissociate themselves.
To be sure the Labour campaign had plenty of weaknesses and shortcomings. Not that a boldly left-wing one would have enhanced the chances of victory; it might even have weakened it given the nature of the southern English political climate. What it might have done but failed to do was to present a coherent and convincing programme of progressive change that would have addressed the various issues hurting the public throughout the country. For example, alongside the protection of the NHS from market rapacity and introducing controls on private renting, it could have proposed returning the railways first of all to public control via regulation and then to public ownership – not by immediate outright renationalisation, which would have incurred enormous expense, but by resuming the various franchises as they expired.
Instead what the Miliband team did was to staple on a few socially progressive items to what remained an overall acceptance of a society governed by neoliberal values, exemplified in Ed Balls’ economic strategy, which needed a magnifying glass to distinguish from George Osborne’s. Moreover, while not advocating it, EU withdrawal should not have been excluded as an option in all circumstances if its bureaucracy insisted in blocking socially progressive measures. Moreover Labour should, in particular, have promised to have nothing to do with TTIP; instead that was viewed with some approval.
In addition the Labour Party should have denounced the sort of political rhetoric favoured by our elites, emphasising that, ‘Hard Decisions’ and Tough Choices’ are not hard and tough for the people who make them in their well-cushioned comfort, but for the citizens who have to endure them. Labour was accused of being anti-business, to which it responded only with weak denials. What it should have proclaimed loudly and emphatically was along the lines of ‘What we’re in favour of are businesses which give their workforce a fair deal, which are attentive to the needs of their customers, which pay their taxes willingly and are alert to their environmental responsibilities. These we’ll applaud, listen to and support; what we’re against are ones who do the opposite, all too prevalent in the present-day neoliberal climate’. That’s not a socialist programme, but is one which the evidence of the recent past suggests would have found a public response even in ‘middle England’.
The Labour campaign was too left-wing, we’re informed. Like in Scotland? And what happened to the Lib Dems, who were surely ‘aspirational’ enough? Back in 2010 after the coalition was formed one of their MPs complained that he hadn’t been elected to make poor people even poorer. That is exactly what his party did and for their treachery they got their just deserts, which regrettably was not to the public advantage.
Now in the aftermath, while Tories and their stuffed-wallet backers gloat and plan their next assault upon the common good, another weasel word is intruding into the vocabulary as the heirs of the Blair-Mandelson gang (plus Blair and Mandelson themselves) crawl out of their political slime to try to recapture what remains of the party for their catastrophic project of being indistinguishable from the Tories – or even worse if that were possible. That word is ‘aspirational’, a code term in this context for the active encouragement of greed and irresponsibility. It’s otherwise known as ‘I’m all right Jack.’
Were Labour to go down this toxic route, as it may well do, the likely inheritor in the absence of other considerations, might even be UKIP, who, in spite of their election disappointments polled strongly, especially in Labour heartlands like North East England. We face the possible nightmare scenario in five years time of UKIP doing in these places what the SNP has done to Scottish Labour and Lib Dems. One of these other considerations however is the Green Party, which will be striving to prevent any such outcome. Its electoral successes on May 7-8 were modest, but they provide a strong base on which to build and expand.
In the event of the Blairites triumphing, a possible response would be for those on the Labour left together with other honest members and MPs to split away and form a loose coalition with other progressive political forces such as the SNP and the Greens. Tony Benn in one of his last public meetings, in South Shields, argued that the Labour and Green parties should work together, and in Scotland the Greens there act in co-operation with the SNP and relations are friendly.We will have to see, but without any doubt whatever we are on the point of experiencing interesting times – in the Chinese sense.