Notes on the British General Election

Richard Abernethy

An unexpected, narrow majority for the Conservatives; a phenomenal success for the Scottish National Party (SNP); the collapse of the Liberal Democrats; the Labour Party squeezed between right and left; the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) on the right and the Greens on the left severely under-represented by the electoral system, holding just one seat each; some of the complex, contradictory outcomes of the British general election of May 2015.

Polling_station_6_may_2010David Cameron’s second term, this time with an outright Tory majority, no longer in coalition with the Lib Dems, is a bitter disappointment. The polls were predicting a hung parliament in which no party would have an overall majority. There was reasonable hope of a Labour government supported (probably not in formal coalition) by the other left-of-centre parties: the SNP, Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) and the Greens. This would at least have mitigated austerity – instead of the aggravation we must now expect.

The Tories – the classic party of the bourgeoisie – campaigned as the party of economic competence. Their line was that not only Britain’s fiscal problems, the debt and the deficit, but the recession itself was the result of overspending, mainly on welfare, by the preceding Labour government. Labour failed to defend itself strongly against this charge, which it might have done by recalling that Gordon Brown had disbursed huge sums of money to bail out the banks. The reason, I suspect, was that Labour was so determined not to appear critical of the capitalist system that it ultimately preferred to take the blame for the crisis itself. Better to be judged incompetent than anti-capitalist.

The Tories had feared that a loss of votes to Ukip on their right might inadvertently deliver a Labour victory (or, worse in their view, a minority Labour government dependent on SNP support). They and their allies in the press played upon this fear to woo voters back from Ukip.

In Scotland the SNP swept the board, winning 56 out of 59 seats, leaving Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems with just one each. Already the governing party in Scotland’s devolved parliament, the SNP is now the third largest party in the UK. Its political fortunes have not suffered from losing the referendum on independence last year. Rather, its support has continued to grow. On most issues it is left of Labour. While Labour offers a milder austerity, the SNP opposes austerity and defends public services. The SNP opposes renewal of Trident (Britain’s submarine-launched nuclear missile system), which Labour supports. Alongside Plaid Cymru, its sister party in Wales, the SNP combines nationalism with a social-democratic programme largely jettisoned by Labour.

For the Liberal Democrats this was a disastrous election. Nothing they said or did in the last five years could stop them being punished for Nick Clegg’s decision back in 2010 to go into coalition with Cameron, which was unpopular with the party’s own members and voters, and for Clegg’s breaking his 2010 election promise to oppose a rise in student tuition fees. (He later apologised, not for raising the fees, but for making the pledge in the first place). The credit the Lib Dems acquired by opposing the Iraq War of 2003 has now been dissipated.

Labour offered some modest redistributive measures and a cautious easing of austerity, though anyone who took seriously the screaming headlines of the right-wing press would have thought that red revolution was imminent. Ed Miliband, who has stated his belief in “responsible capitalism”, was ludicrously nicknamed “Red Ed”.

In the televised debate between seven party leaders, Miliband was uneasily caught in the middle, outflanked on the left by Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and Natalie Bennett (Green Party).

Now voices from the Blairites (the wing of the Labour Party who model themselves on former prime minister Tony Blair) are calling for the party to be more “pro-business” and supportive of “enterprise” and “aspiration” (in this context, code words for capitalism). This is supposedly the only way for Labour to become electable.

There are glaring objections to this argument. On the whole, Labour did not lose seats to the Conservatives, Ukip or Lib Dems to its right. It lost them to the SNP on its left. The Lib Dems, classic party of the “centre ground” fared far worse than Labour. This is not to say that Labour would necessarily have won in England if it had adopted socio-economic policies corresponding to those of the SNP. Scotland has a different political culture and the moment was favourable to the SNP. Even so, the fact remains that the SNP, on an anti-austerity and pro-welfare state platform, was by far the most successful party in this election.

The old parliamentary Labour Left has declined further, to a group of 15 or so, though some union leaders, such as Len McCluskey of Unite (my own union) still hope to shift Labour to the left.

The politics of England and Scotland are now very different. How much difference will this make to life, work and society, given that both countries operate within the same capitalist system? Where and how soon will reformism reach its limits? And when this happens, will people lose hope, or press for more radical change? These questions are on the horizon – and our own project of articulating an alternative to capitalism must be part of the answer.

Even the parties to the left of Labour (which I consider the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens to be) are looking to manage capitalism in a more humane way. To criticise, abolish and replace this system in its entirety remains as vital and as difficult as ever.

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