It is now universally predicted that the next parliament will have between 30 and 100 UKIP MPs. This is widely expected to cause a split in the Tory party. Some pundits are predicting a collapse into a five or six-party system that would lead to proportional representation. The old order is gone and will not be replaced, says Phil Hearse.
As predicted the 9 October by-election in Clacton resulted in a landslide victory for the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) Tory defector Douglas Carswell. More surprisingly in the by-election in Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester UKIP came close to winning against a previous Labour majority of 6000, reducing it to just 600; Labour got 41% against 39% for UKIP.
By any standards this represents an extraordinary turnaround in national politics, coming as it does after May’s European elections in which UKIP won 27.5 percent of the vote, and the local council elections in England where UKIP won 163 seats (up 161), with about 17 percent of the national vote. Mark Reckless, another Tory defector, will make a strong UKIP challenge in the Rochester by-election, likely in the next month.
Nigel Farage now says his party could get 60+ seats at the general election and hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. Such a horrific prospect, while unlikely, is not now merely bluster – although there is likely to be widespread tactical voting in the general election to keep UKIP out and most pundits put UKIP’s likely election outcome as being 10-20 seats.
But the stakes are bigger than just the number of seats UKIP gets. The revolt on the Tory right is at near insurrectionary levels. Dozens of Tory MPs are ready to jump ship after the general election and perhaps form a new party with UKIP. Many already see a split in the Tory party as inevitable, something which would seal the fate of David Cameron, but much more significantly start to re-cast the whole of the British political terrain.
Coming simultaneously with the 45% vote for independence in the Scottish referendum – a vote with a significant left tinge in the urban centres – the prospects for the two main parties are being rewritten. What is being played out is the result of 30 years of neoliberalism, Thatcherism followed by Blairism, that has sapped support from both Tories and Labour, putting the two-party system in question.
Why has this right wing surge happened now? Millions of voters are disillusioned and cynical (to put it mildly) about the main Westminster parties. This is especially the case six years after the financial crash which has deepened poverty among millions of working class people and after the parliamentary expenses scandal which peaked in 2009.
But the main opposition Labour Party, under the ‘Blairism Lite’ leadership of Ed Miliband and disastrous shadow chancellor Ed Balls, have shown themselves utterly incapable of presenting an attractive and inspiring alternative which promises anything very significant to working class people and can provide a narrative that explains the economic crisis and points the way out.
As Seumas Milne pointed out about Ed Miliband’s performance at the Labour conference:
“Sure, there were plenty of commitments welcome to most people across Britain, from a boost to the minimum wage and restoring the 50% top tax rate to scrapping the bedroom tax and clamping down on zero-hours contracts…. But there was little evidence of the determination to break with the past seen in his earlier Labour conferences, when Miliband denounced predatory capitalism and promised an energy price freeze and compulsory purchase of unused developers’ land banks. Instead, Ed Balls’ pledges of undying austerity and 1990s-style New Labour policy fixes set the tone. Eight months before the general election, the “shrink the offer” merchants are back in the ascendant.” (Guardian 24 September).
‘Shrink the offer’ basically says, ‘OK an £8 an hour national minimum wage, but we give absolutely no pledges on government spending because we don’t know what the text take will be’ – ie we can’t promise anything very much.
But why exactly has Labour’s abject failure benefitted UKIP in such a spectacular way?
As I explained in a previous article; “UKIP’s breakthrough has to be seen as part of a wider process in British politics, and not just down to the actions of Farage and UKIP, although they are the cutting edge of this process. UKIP as a realistic challenger for Westminster seats, with even the possibility of holding the balance of power at the 2015 election, is the culmination of a prolonged campaign waged by the Tory right-wing, key sections of the media like the Mail and the Telegraph, former Tories in smaller right-wing parties and right-wing TV commentators to make another decisive shift in British politics to the right.
“Not content with the anti-working class reforms of the Thatcher-era such as privatisation, the anti-union laws and the sell-off of council houses, the über-Thatcherites want to dump Cameron and the coalition government, deepen the counter-revolution of the Thatcher years and even further weaken the forces of the labour movement and social progress, further dismantling the welfare state and victimising immigrants.
“So in reality the decisive move to force the Conservatives even further to the right has come in the form of a party outside the mainstream three party system. But UKIP pulling off this as the vanguard of the whole of the hard right in British politics has been made possible by a significant shift in the party’s profile and politics in the last five years (ie towards emphasising immigration over the EU and the main campaign issue).” (Socialist Resistance 3/9/14)
In other words UKIP is the vanguard of the hard right movement for a further deepening of the über-Thatcherite project. One that makes a more definitive break with the post-war settlement, wrecking the welfare state as well as the mixed economy (already gone). A government that imposed this vision (Tory, UKIP or a coalition of both) would usher in a highly authoritarian Britain, with many more people in prison, nationalism and xenophobia at rampant levels, Britain probably out of the EU, the NHS and social services slashed to ribbons, trade unions being further crushed and civil liberties and human rights in the garbage bin.
It has to be said that this type of social order is not – in the main – in the objective interests of big business or the capitalist class as a whole. In fact the Tesco profits crisis shows that prolonged deflationary austerity is not in the interests of significant sections of the bourgeoisie, although ironically companies like Tesco that operate on the basis of minimum wage labour are helping to sustain the deflation that is wrecking their business. It is not in the interests of British manufacturing or finance capital to be outside the EU. The politicians who represent the mainstream of bourgeois politics are probably appalled by the implied homophobia and open racism of UKIP.
But politics is not a ‘rational interest’ game in which the interests of the capitalist class are simply ranged against those of the working class. Things would be much simpler if this were the case. Politics is traversed by irrational and self-contradictory elements. Right wing Tory irrationalism stretches right into the heart of the cabinet (think Chris Grayling), because it stretches right into the heart of the Conservative Party more generally.
How did this right-wing trend in the Tory party start? Of course there have always been hard right, extreme reactionary trends in the Tory party, and Margaret Thatcher mobilised them superbly. The truth is the mainly petit bourgeois Conservative rank and file have generally been to the right of the leadership, or at least mainly were in the 1945-75 post-war boom period. Enoch Powell’s brand of racism in the 1970s was anathema to the Conservative leadership, but he was the darling of the ranks. The election of Thatcher as Tory leader in 1975 was masterminded by MP Robert Moss, (a former member of the security service) and a likeminded cabal of right-wing ultras.
The new Tory parliamentary levy from the 2005 and 2010 elections are the sons and daughters of Thatcher, steeled in neoliberalism and the nationalistic patriotism that is the ideological cornerstone of their party, and utterly hostile to the EU and especially the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Convention. The one nation Toryism of Harold MacMillan, Rab Butler and even Edward Heath has been buried by successive waves of Thatcherism and now ?ber-Thatcheris
Sections of the Tory hard right are quite prepared to seriously damage or even split the party. As Matthew Parris put it:
“Ukip and the Tory irreconcilables are perfectly relaxed about the possibility that Mr Cameron could lose the next election; they do not want the EU referendum that would follow his victory. They want the present Tory leadership to stumble and fall, and, from the internal battle that would follow, they see the emergence of a new kind of party led by a new kind of leader from the anti-European right.” (Times, 30 April)
Ian Martin goes further:
“Although there have been frequent crises in its affairs, for a remarkably long period it has been widely accepted that conservative-minded Britons cluster around the Conservatives. The party itself having been shaped by the splits and breakaways of the 19th century, its members and leaders came to understand that being a broad coalition of interests gave it enormous electoral clout. Suddenly, a significant chunk of conservative opinion is rejecting this historically successful approach. It is nothing like a majority, but it is a large proportion and it is starting to feel as though the split may be irrevocable.” (Telegraph 20 May 2013)
Martin also points out that if the present party system fragments into five of six parties with significant support, the likely outcome is that proportional representation will result:
“The implications are potentially enormous. If the trend for fragmentation is sustained, it will most likely mean the introduction of a new voting system: proportional representation. If Labour is the largest party, but short of a majority, after the next election, its logical next step is a deal to change the voting system in alliance with all the other parties, bar the Tories. It would get Ed Miliband into power and probably lead to further splits on the Right as all manner of factions – the tiny band of Tory Europhiles, for example – struck out on their own, confident under PR of picking up a few seats and bartering their way to a slice of power.”
There are however significant strains even inside the hardest of the hard right Tory neoliberals. This is evident in the new levy of über-Thatcherites who came into the Commons in 20120 who unlike UKIP and the traditional Tory right are socially liberal.
Five of them, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, have published a book Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, which is dripping with vicious right-wing class hatred and a demand to finally end the post-war political settlement which gave workers a welfare state and employment rights. Among its propositions are the idea that: “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
The Guardian interviewed Dominic Raab, whose key argument was for employment law to be radically altered to enable workers to be easily sacked, thus imposing a much harsher work regime on workers already suffering from stagnant pay, zero hours contracts and harshly restrictive trade union laws. And of course the British in fact work the longest hours in Europe.
This kind of vehement class hatred permeates the Tory right and is grist to the mill of UKIP. The objective role of UKIP at this stage is to push the whole political discourse nationally to the right, especially by pushing the Conservative party to the right. At a later stage – maybe – UKIP can link up with the Tory right, either by forming a new party together with Tory right wingers, or by building its own significant parliamentary representation in the hope of the government being formed by coalition with the Tories, adopting much of UKIP’s programme. However there remain contradictions in the hard right, because the Britannia Unchained team and those who think like them will go along with the Eurosceptic right in vicious class warfare, but are much less keen on the racist and homophobic dimension of much of the Tory right and of course UKIP.
Of course it is the success of UKIP that has put the wind in right-wing Tory sails and vindicated the extreme Eurosceptics like Bill Cash and John Redwood, who only 20 years ago were seen even by fellow Tory MPs as eccentrics.
Many commentators have picked up on the fact that UKIP has appealed to a section of mainly older, and mainly poor white, working class voters disillusioned with Labour. Racism is widespread in this part of the community as it is in older sections of society as a whole. But in general the tactic of appealing to this constituency on the basis of racism has been enabled by the pathetic inability of Ed Miliband’s Blairism lite to connect with the disposed white working class.
This is not exactly rocket science. If Miliband just promised a national minimum wage at £10 an hour (not exactly luxury), the banning of zero hour contracts, inflation level pay increases for public sector wages, enforcement of this minimum wage for all workers including immigrant workers, a major programme of house building and a massive extensions of social housing at affordable rents, a wealth tax, significant increases in pensions and welfare benefits for single parents and a national child care system – with just this small basket of proposals a major left crusade against the Tories could be started. This is absolutely not enough and way below the demands of the militant left, but even this would swing huge numbers behind the prospect of a Labour government.
Ed Miliband’s failure is compounded by his grovelling to the reactionary right over ‘tightening’ his immigration policy.
The Miliband-Balls debacle is just a consequence of the failure of the party leadership to break from the fundamentals of Blairite neoliberalism and propose a significant alternative to the Tories and UKIP.
But the failure of the ‘left’ is wider. Why is there no left wing analogue of UKIP? Why no left wing formation that can rival the pull of the hard right? Part of the reason is objective. While UKIP and the right will always get onto the TV and in the papers, it is always going to be more difficult for the left, who are bitterly opposed by the mass media and traditional politicians. In Britain there is something near to a boycott on television and in the press of left-of-Labour organisations and radical campaigns.
But an even bigger reason for the absence of a left equivalent to UKIP lies in the failures of the left-of-Labour forces themselves. The Morning Star and CPB has stood umbilically tied Labour, immobile and incapable of change.
Since the 1970s/early 1980s the so-called revolutionary left in Britain has numerically declined and politically degenerated. The crisis of the SWP and a split from Workers Power has produced a series of groups, none of whom – with the signal exception of RS21 – shows much sign of being able to create anything other than new and tiny sects. Worse nearly all the small sects have come into Left Unity, mainly it should be said on the basis of not agreeing with the project at all, or even wanting to wreck it.
The British left needs to create a strong and militant united political party that can pose a national political alternative. The potential for a radical alternative is massive. This is going to be shown for the huge turnout expected for the cinema showings of Russell Brand being interviewed by Owen Jones. In this debate Jones will have the drop on Russell Brand because at least he has some sort of electoral tactic to propose. Brand is good at critique but has nothing serious by way of a coherent national alternative to propose.
Widespread radicalism and opposition to the reactionary right means absolutely nothing if it is not articulated by a mass party project. It will go nowhere unless and until all the campaigns, demonstrations, coalitions and conferences get focused on building a unified Left Party.