A crisis has taken hold of the political establishment in Britain in recent months. Its latest episode was played out last week in the Rochester and Strood by-election, where the UK Independence Party emerged to claim their second parliamentary seat at the expense of the ruling Conservative Party. Ben Peck looks at the political fragmentation of the British establishment.
A crisis has taken hold of the political establishment in Britain in recent months. Its latest episode was played out last week in the Rochester and Strood by-election. The UK Independence Party emerged to claim their second parliamentary seat at the expense of the ruling Conservative Party.
Ex-Conservative MP Mark Reckless won with 16,887 votes. The Tories came second with 13,947. Labour’s vote was halved to 6,713 in a seat they had held in the Blair years. The Liberal Democrats, perhaps in a sign of things to come, recorded their lowest by-election vote in their party’s history, receiving 349 votes, less than 1% of the vote. It is the worst by-election result of a governing party.
This adds to the mounting pressure on David Cameron. The Prime Minister had demanded a full-blown assault to stem the rising UKIP tide in the weeks leading up to the by-election. He ordered all his MPs to visit the constituency at least three times. Despite orders to “throw the kitchen sink” at the by-election, the Tories have seen a 9,000 majority demolished. One exasperated Tory MP complained to the Financial Times that they were being treated by their party like “minimum wage leaflet deliverers because we haven’t got any activists.”
This was the crowning moment of a second defection from the Tories to UKIP since the summer. It follows on from Douglas Carswell, who won UKIP’s first ever seat in parliament at the beginning of October. At that by-election, both the Tory and Labour share of the vote was halved. The Lib-Dems were decimated to 1/10th of their last general election share.
Speculation has been rife in the past few days that the sinking Tory ship may spring further leaks. The spectacle of Tory MP Peter Bone, debating a motion at Cambridge University Union on Thursday that the emergence of UKIP had been ‘good for British politics’, has been seized upon by the media. Such open dissent is a further illustration of the discontent inside the Tory party. Paranoia at Tory HQ is feverish. MPs John Baron, Martin Vickers and Philip Hollobone are being touted as candidates to next jump ship.
Upon victory, Reckless declared that “If UKIP can win here, we can win across the country”. The constituency of Rochester and Strood was low down on UKIP’s list of priorities for the General Election, considered 271st in its list of targets.
Commentators traditionally say that protest votes are typical of by-elections, which should be taken with a pinch of salt when drawing broad conclusions. By-elections, and European elections, can often be a vehicle for protest against the party (or parties) in government. At the general election ‘normal service’ is resumed. However, we do not live in normal times. This result, the latest in a series of ‘convulsions’, is indicative of a new period in British politics.
The UKIP result is a protest. However, it is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a generalised process of deep and growing anger at the ruling British establishment.
It is in this respect that the vote for UKIP should be considered first and foremost. The personalities and policies of the party are secondary in explaining their recent success. They are subordinate to the fact that the onrush of the UKIP stream converges with a much bigger rising tide of generalised discontent throughout society. This tide is set to burst the banks of the traditional bourgeois machine, flooding the establishment.
Regime in crisis
A fragmentation is taking place in the traditional parliamentary system in Britain. What was relied upon in the past can no longer be taken for granted. The political structures, developed over hundreds of years to maintain the rule of capital with their system of checks and balances – which include the traditional parties – are unable to cope with the new situation. The Financial Times commented on this on October 24th:
“Britain is no stranger to political storms…. The British, as Margaret Thatcher impolitely told French president François Mitterrand at the bicentenary of the 1789 revolution, have been shy of unruly upheavals. The latest convulsions may turn out to fit the pattern of passing fevers. And yet there is something unnerving in the air: a premonition of social and political fragmentation that would overturn the ancien régime.”
The characterisation of Britain as a country where upheaval and revolution simply does not happen is no longer appropriate, as the ruling class are finding out. The “convulsions” that any system has to periodically absorb, and which are normally exceptions to the rule, are giving way to generalised convulsions that come from deep in society. Particularly since the Scottish referendum, the idea is gaining ground in Britain that political protest and voting against the establishment is no longer the exception, but can become the rule.
This has profound implications for the next general election, only six months away. It is impossible to say whether once normal service is resumed, the majority of people will vote for the traditional parties. UKIP and the Scottish National Party are now seen by broad layers as a credible alternative. The Greens have also seen a swell of support, with an influx of new – particularly younger – members who are looking for an alternative on the left. In 1950, 98% of the electorate voted either Tory or Labour. Today it is less than 60%.
The Financial Times comment about “premonitions of social and political fragmentation” reveals the real concern and panic setting in among the serious representatives of capital. They are entering unchartered waters. Their mood is schizophrenic. They swing between a certain satisfied relief that the austerity measures have not yet led to outright rebellion on the part of the British people, yet more often they are prone to dark moods as the long night of capitalist crisis continues. This panic is reflected in the political fragmentation of the establishment.
Fiddling the figures
The Conservative party would like to go into next year’s campaign on what it believes are its strengths. Polling suggests that they are viewed as more “economically competent” than their rivals. This says more about the Labour Party leadership’s incompetence, than it does about the Tories. But it is UKIP that is setting the agenda, dragging the Labour and Tory leaders into debates on the European Union and immigration.
Economic competence is a tough sell, however, in a period of capitalist incompetence. In October they were called out for ‘fiddling the figures’. David Cameron, at the Tory Party conference, showed himself to be ‘economically competent with the truth’, when he claimed that cuts in the next parliament would only amount to £25bn, or 3% of annual spending.
Cameron was trying to paint the picture of the worst being behind us and talk up the so-called recovery. “It is a quarter of the savings we have found in this Parliament,” the Prime Minister said.
However, the PM was soon embarrassed as Paul Chote, chairman of the Office of Budget Responsibility, stated that a squeeze on day-to-day services has yet to be delivered. Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, echoed this saying: “On a consistent basis, it is clear that the cuts to public service spending required or planned are at least as big in the next parliament as those that have already happened.”
In reality, Osborne’s targets for austerity for the next term are likely to be closer to £50bn. This means deeper cuts to the army, police, courts, local councils and services, welfare etc. If the government continues to ring-fence health, education and “overseas aid”, non-protected departments will receive a further 33% cut to the 21% cut they received in the first parliament. In an article on November 10th the Financial Times had this to say:
“In a recent conference speech, David Cameron, the prime minister, misleadingly claimed that the government was four-fifths of the way to its goal of achieving fiscal balance, leaving scope for a costly middle class tax cut. Financial Times analysis, alongside that of think-tanks such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, suggests instead that Britain is less than half way towards Mr Cameron’s fiscal surplus …the government’s spending watchdog forecasts departmental spending to fall beneath 17 per cent of GDP. This is less than in any year since 1948. It can only be sufficient if a future government either cut welfare to an unprecedented degree, let capital spending collapse or withdrew from whole areas of public spending.”
In the run-up to the elections, the PM is desperate to lie his way to another term in office, talking up economic “successes” and playing down the enormous austerity cuts they have planned.
Before the 2010 elections, the then Chancellor-in-waiting Osborne stated that his plans for spending cuts could plunge Britain into social unrest and put his Conservative Party out of power for many years.
Today, many bourgeois commentators crow about the fact that this has not happened. The economic consequences of austerity, such as declining tax receipts, have had an adverse effect on reducing the deficit. But the real reason why the reduction of the deficit is behind schedule is because of the government’s very real fear of provoking such a rebellion. That is due to the power of the working class that they recognise (even if the Labour leaders do not) and fear to unleash.
On the Sunday leading up to the Rochester by-election, the PM attempted to change tack after his failed attempt at lying about the economy. In an attempt to ape the anti-foreigner demagogy of UKIP, he warned of troubles going on in foreign climes that could be brought to British shores by “global economic headwinds”.
This was in contrast to his Autumn conference speech, where he boasted about the “fastest-growing major advanced economy in the world”. Now the focus was on the fact that “…the eurozone was teetering on the brink of a third recession….” and that “…red warning lights are once again flashing on the dashboard of the global economy”. All of which is correct. It can be seen in slow-downs in China, falling global oil prices, capital flights from Russia and stagnation in the Eurozone and Japan. Demand in Europe remains at less than 4% of its pre-crisis levels. All of these developments will have their impact in Britain, as they will on all countries, none of which can escape the global contradictions of capitalism.
However, it is no coincidence that this change of tone from the PM came ahead of what is predicted to be a very dismal Autumn budget statement by the Chancellor due on December 3rd.
That will reveal that falling tax revenues, slowing house prices, the lowest real wages since records began in 1848, among other factors, all the products of Tory austerity, have contributed to increasing the deficit. It means that Tory austerity plans have now been extended to 2019, meaning effectively an entire decade of austerity. This does not come from bad foreign capitalists, but the crisis of capitalism, which exists in Britain and internationally.
Accident plays a role in bringing out a deeper necessity. In October, Britain was ordered to pay 2bn euros to the European Union by December, after an adjustment in how Gross National Income is calculated.
Although this was later delayed under protest, the political timing could not have been worse for Cameron in the run up to a contest with the anti-EU UKIP. Clearly the automatic workings of the EU bureaucracy had not taken into account the political considerations of the Prime Minister.
Cameron’s response was to act indignant, huff and puff, but ultimately do nothing. However, it squeezed him into a tighter corner in relation to his Tory eurosceptic right-wing. As if they weren’t worked up enough, on November 9th the government then maneuvered to stop rebel Tories voting against the European Arrest Warrant, exacerbating tensions that exist between Cameron and his UKIP-sympathetic backbenchers.
The decline of British capitalism
At the core of UKIP is a Thatcherite current that rose to prominence inside the Conservative Party in the 1980s. Epitomised by their leader Nigel Farage, they represent the upstart arrogance of the stock-market floor traders, combined with the narrow outlook of their countryside counterpart, the Queen-and-Country patriotic middle class.
For a period when British capitalism was stable and relatively prosperous, Thatcherism emerged and came to prominence in the same party as the traditional Tory grandees that represented big capital. The rise of the shopkeeper Little Englanders inside the Tory Party was a reflection of a new stage in the decline of British capitalism.
At this stage before the election, UKIP still do not have an electoral programme. Their natural inclination toward insulation, protectionism, and hostility to all things foreign, stems from their social base. Yet their guiding ideas occasionally come to the surface, such as when Reckless let slip on ITV recently that he was in favour of a policy of repatriation for immigrants (which incidentally would include leader Farage’s wife, who is German). Prior to that, Farage was reported by Guardian journalists to have been secretly recorded saying that he is in favour of the dismantling of the NHS and that it should be run by private insurance companies.
The Tories took the mantle off the Liberals as the preeminent representative of the British bourgeois following the First World War. They were the party of protectionism, as opposed to the Liberals who represented free trade. The emergence of a more protectionist bourgeois reflected Britain’s declining role on the world stage at that time.
The big bourgeois understand today that their interests lie in Europe. Over 40% of British trade is with the EU. The petit-bourgeoisie inclined to UKIP are also more likely to suffer from EU ‘red-tape’, which the big boys can withstand or circumnavigate, and are generally more defenceless in the face of foreign competition.
Hence the tensions and divergent interests among the British capitalists in its phase of decline. The crisis, which has put economic pressure on all these elements, has raised UKIP as a political expression of one element in this divergence.
Labour Party in crisis
The political crisis has not escaped other parts of the establishment. Rochester has damaged the Labour Party too. They initially took a cynical approach to the by-election, quoted in the FT by one anonymous Labour MP as a policy of “sitting back and watching them (Tories and UKIP) tear each other’s throats out”.
Astonishingly, the Labour leadership, which has developed the politics of cynicism into an art form in recent years, has ended up with egg on its face when all it had to do, apparently, was ‘sit back’. They ended up taking the heat off the Tories through the actions of shadow minister Emily Thornbery who, whilst out campaigning, posted a photo on Twitter of a house brandishing a St. George’s flag with a white van parked outside. The comment read “image of Rochester”, which was correctly interpreted by the press and public as the comments of a snobbishly political elite looking down her nose at the workers of Rochester.
Thornberry has since resigned her position in the shadow cabinet. The incident, however, compounds the prevalent feeling of many that the Labour Party representatives are completely out of touch.
It has also stoked anger within the party, with Labour Party leaders now ‘tearing each other’s throats out’. The Independent on Sunday quoted an anonymous ‘senior Labour MP’ as saying: “It just feels like we are trapped in this endless cycle of f***wittery.”
On November 12th, an Ipsos MORI poll gave the Tories a three-point lead on Labour, the largest in any poll conducted since 2010. This follows the calls for Labour leader Ed Miliband to step down at the beginning of November.
Those calls came to nothing, however. No-one in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) wished to mount a challenge for the poisoned chalice. From the reformist point of view held by the PLP, they can offer nothing more than the austerity policies already being carried out by the Tories. Any differences in policy can only be in form, not fundamental content.
The crisis of the Labour Party leadership mirrors the crisis of the Tories. Both parties suffer from a deep malaise based on their pro-austerity policies. Both Miliband and Cameron have managed to cling onto power, and not faced any serious challenge, only because the other is doing so badly. Both Miliband and Cameron rest on each other’s crisis in the general downward spiral of the establishment parties.
It need only be mentioned that Ed Miliband’s personal rating is now lower than Liberal leader Nick Clegg, a party that has the mark of Cain on it since joining the Coalition in 2010. The decline of the Liberal Democrats to the point where they may completely wiped out at the next election is dangerous for the ruling class. Since their decline as the number-one bourgeois party, they have nevertheless served as a useful sponge, soaking up disaffected Tory votes travelling in the direction of Labour. Now this useful lever in the Establishment’s machine is broken.
In the short term, the Labour Party are making up for this by doing the Liberal’s job themselves, so repellent are they to the public. In the long run, however, this marks the beginning of a period of more unstable, less reliable formations for the ruling class.
In 2010, former Bank of England governor Mervyn King said that the next government will have to introduce such painful cuts that their party will be out of power for a generation. The cynical complacency of the Labour leaders led them to believe that they could win the next election by default.
However, Labour has been tested during the term of this parliament on numerous occasions. It has not gone unnoticed by the working class. At the council level they have treacherously allied themselves with the Tories to implement the cuts.
This policy was adopted at the national level in the Scottish referendum. Their pro-union alliance with the Tories disgusted workers and youth. Such is the sense of unreality with the Labour Party. Miliband and co. show themselves to be completely out of touch at every turn. Outgoing Scottish Labour leader Johan Lamont accused the UK leaders of treating the Scottish party like a “branch office.”
Miliband’s preferred candidate, the Blairite Jim Murphy has dismissed the idea of Labour taking a turn to the left:
““Galloping off leftward” would play into the hands of an SNP that uses its nationalism to appeal across the ideological spectrum, from socialist Glasgow constituencies to prosperous communities in rural Aberdeenshire, he says. “The SNP would love it if we did that.”” (Financial Times, November 10th)
The policy of putting a negative where your enemy puts a positive is the politics of the playground, and shows that the Labour leaders have learnt nothing from the developments in Scotland. It is because the SNP have adopted traditional social democratic policies, not because of nationalism, that they have trebled in membership whilst Scottish Labour is in terminal decline and are referred to as “Red Tories.”
An Ipsos Mori poll showed at the end of November that twice as many would back the SNP as would back the Labour Party in next year’s election, 52 – 23%. This would mean the loss of all 41 Westminster seats won by Labour in Scotland in 2010 and represents a massive threat to the prospect of an outright Labour victory in 2015.
On this basis, the SNP could find themselves holding the balance of power after the General Election. It is likely that the SNP would support a Labour minority government from the outside, and use their position to defend Scotland and boost their popularity.
The tack to the right by Cameron, talking tougher on Europe under pressure from UKIP, has been seized on by new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who has called for a ‘Scottish veto’ on EU membership. It is one more example of the British bourgeois pulling itself apart. Cameron, as representative of the British bourgeois, can be likened to a man standing on either side of a fault line that is fast opening up into a ravine.
The latest developments do not represent a turn to the right in society. The phenomenon of crisis among the established political parties of the bourgeois – including the reformist leadership of the Labour Party and trade unions – is international in its scope, and expressed in various ways: PODEMOS in Spain; Syriza in Greece; the taking of the state presidency of Thuringia in Germany by Die Linke. We also see the growth of the Front National in France, and the Five-Star movement in Italy.
The common thread to all these movements is the sense of popular rage seething under the surface, which expressed itself in new – or what were previously minority – formations. People are desperately searching for a way out of the crisis. If a revolutionary socialist leadership existed in Britain that opposed austerity and called for the expropriation of the capitalists, the bankers, and the corrupt political establishment, and for the putting the wealth of society into the hands of the people who create it, such a party would immediately connect with wide layers. The huge movement behind PODEMOS gives an indication of this.
Where no such point of reference exists for such an expression, it will be kept beneath the surface until it finds even a partial reflection in parties such as UKIP, who at least represent a blow to the Establishment by those voting for them.
Trotsky wrote this about the limits of traditional bourgeois democracy in 1929:
“Democratic institutions have shown that they cannot withstand the pressure of present day contradictions, be they international or internal or, most frequently, both kinds combined. Whether this is good or bad, it is a fact.
“By analogy with electrical engineering, democracy might be defined as a system of safety switches and circuit breakers for protection against currents overloaded by the national or social struggle. No period of human history has been – even remotely – so overcharged with antagonisms as ours. The overloading of lines occurs more and more frequently at different points in the European power grid. Under the impact of the class and international contradictions that are too highly charged, the safety switches of democracy either burn out or explode.”
Today this statement is truer now than at the time than it was written. The institutions of traditional bourgeois democracy, which include its parties, are overloaded with the contradictions of capitalism, and are short-circuiting. The task of the Marxists is to build the revolutionary leadership that can channel the electric currents emerging amongst radicalised workers and youth in order to transform the whole of society.