SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 179 June 2014

Elections in Britain:

Cracks in the establishment

The elections on 22 May marked a turning point. Although not the first time the right-wing populists of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have picked up a significant protest vote, this was of a different order. In the previous two European elections UKIP polled 16%. That collapsed to 2% and 3% in the subsequent general elections. No-one expects that to happen next year. HANNAH SELL assesses the implications.

For the first time since 1910 a party other than the Tories or Labour topped the poll in an all-Britain election. UKIP also won over 160 council seats where previously they had just two. At this stage, 51% of UKIP voters say they will vote for it in the general election. Even if fewer eventually do so, it is clear that UKIP will get a significant vote. Even if it fails to win MPs given Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, UKIP voters could still alter the outcome of the general election. It is not clear how sustained its growth will be, it is inherently highly unstable, but the danger is posed of a right-wing populist party becoming part of the political landscape, as in many other European countries.

The most important element of this election is what underlies UKIP’s success: the deep-rooted unpopularity of the major parties. In a poll just before the elections, 73% said that they are angry with all Westminster politicians. A section expressed their anger by voting UKIP. A majority did not vote at all. The 36% turnout is now a normal level in all but general elections, and even there turnouts are on a downward curve. In the 1951 general election, 82% of people voted and 97% of them supported the Tories or Labour. By 2010 turnout had fallen to 65%. This means that only 38% of the total electorate voted for the Tories or Lib Dems. Since then, support for the three major parties has been further eroded.

Ultimately, the social base of political parties is dependent on the system that they represent being able to offer the expectation of improving living standards, at least to a significant section of the population. Today, only 17% of people in Britain think their children will be better off than they were. The overwhelming mood is one of gloom at a future of zero-hour contracts, unaffordable housing and low pay. Clearly, this is undermining support for the parties in government. This process did not begin with the great recession. The share of wealth taken by the working class has been squeezed over four decades. Overall, if the share of wealth taken by wages had remained static since the end of the 1970s, workers in Britain would have taken home an extra £60 billion a year – £1,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

Over the same period, membership of, and support for, political parties have steadily shrunk. This process has accelerated for the Tories and Lib Dems over the last five years. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, less than a third of the population has a strong attachment to any political party, and less than 1% of the electorate is now a member of a political party. In 1953, the Tories had 2.8 million members and Labour one million. A Conservative Home survey of local party associations estimated there are 60,000 paid-up members, with an average age of 68. The Liberal Democrats’ membership has plummeted to 42,500, a 35% fall since 2010. Meanwhile, a House of Commons briefing (December 2012) reckons that the Labour Party has 193,000. It is certainly lower than that.

Economic misery

The deepest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s has resulted in a dramatic fall in living standards for the big majority of the working and middle classes. This did not appear immediately to have dire electoral consequences for the capitalist parties. For a time, particularly given the failure of the trade union leaders to carry out an effective struggle against austerity, the propaganda that ‘austerity is working’ and things will soon ‘go back to normal’ can have an impact. Given that there is no prospect of this for the majority, however, this will inevitably reach its limits, as 22 May demonstrated.

The Economist (Enjoy It While It Lasts, 31 May) questioned why so many had voted for UKIP, when Britain’s economy is growing at the same rate as Germany, according to official figures. It concludes: "After stripping out inflation, Britain’s performance over the past six years is behind even dreary France. From an individual voter’s perspective, the country’s economic momentum is on a par with crisis-ravaged Spain or Ireland, not with Germany. Across the country, Britons are poorer than they were seven years ago". The article points out that in North East Lincolnshire and Great Yarmouth, areas where UKIP did well, median pay is down 6% or more over the past year alone.

It is not inevitable that anger with the establishment parties will be reflected in votes for right-wing forces. As we have seen in Greece, Spain and Ireland, the left can harness popular outrage. This could have been the case in Britain, had a significant section of the trade union movement broken with Labour and launched a new mass workers’ party on a clear anti-austerity, socialist programme. Instead, the majority of union leaders persistently cling to Labour despite its repeated assurances that it will continue with austerity. Promising even more cuts, Labour’s shadow treasury spokesperson, Chris Leslie, stated bluntly: "Labour cannot afford to undo the coalition’s cuts in the next government and must expect to be unpopular".

An important minority of trade unionists, including the RMT transport workers’ union, alongside the Socialist Party and others, have begun the important work of creating an independent electoral voice for the working class via the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). At this stage, however, the absence of a mass workers’ party has left a vacuum which UKIP has been able to step into partially. UKIP gained an echo by falsely blaming immigrants for the problems workers face. The majority of the working class feels that increased immigration over the last decade is a potential threat to their jobs, pay and to already over-stretched public services.

Punishing the main parties

The big majority are far from hardened racists. This mood was summed up by one voter in Newark: "I will always be a socialist, I will never desert socialist ideals and I will vote Labour in the general election. But I am considering voting UKIP to send a message. At certain stages in history you need people who are not necessarily very pleasant to give the establishment a prod. [UKIP leader] Nigel Farage is scaremongering a bit on immigration… but there are only so many jobs to go round". (Guardian, 30 May)

Central to UKIP’s vote was a desire to use it as a weapon to punish the main political parties. Most UKIP voters stand to the left not only of UKIP, but of all the establishment parties. One YouGov poll showed 78% of them support the renationalisation of the energy companies, 73% the renationalisation of the railways, and 57% want zero-hour contracts banned.

Farage is an ex-stockbroker and his party is largely funded by one ex-Tory multi-millionaire, Paul Sykes. However, in order to win more votes from workers, UKIP has to give its populist propaganda more of a left tinge. UKIP’s previous support for a flat-rate tax has been hastily dropped. When Margaret Thatcher died, Farage said he was the only politician, "keeping Thatcherism alive". Now he is attempting to distant himself from Thatcher’s legacy, which he has described as "divisive".

Only a workers’ party with a clear class programme could cut across the growth of UKIP. Such a party would have to deal with workers’ fears, explaining that the only way to prevent big business using immigrant workers to drive down wages is to build a powerful trade union and workers’ movement fighting for all workers to receive the ‘rate for the job’, a living wage for all, and the banning of zero-hour contracts.

Increasingly dysfunctional

In the absence of such a party, politics in Britain is increasingly dysfunctional. With their social base undermined, the capitalist parties are more inclined to try and find short-term and inherently unstable ways to shore up their support. Following UKIP’s success, this will include more anti-immigrant propaganda. All the parties are also becoming more fragile, with the potential to split. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader, has defeated one attempted coup against him but his future is far from secure. According to one poll, Clegg is now the most disliked political leader in modern British history, with an ‘approval rating’ of -65%!

Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal peer who has fallen on his sword and taken responsibility for the coup, was clearly acting with others at the top of the Lib Dems, not least business secretary, Vince Cable. In Cable’s memoir, A Taste of Leadership, he counts Oakeshott among "a close network of friends", saying they shared an "instinct for the aggressive approach". On this occasion that approach has backfired, but Clegg’s leadership remains in the balance as the party desperately searches for a way to avoid oblivion at the general election.

The Lib Dem meltdown has diverted attention from the huge problems facing the other major parties. The Tories also suffered a terrible defeat in the European elections, coming third in a national ballot for the first time in a century. David Cameron’s leadership is not under immediate threat, but only because there is no figure in the party who would improve the Tories’ general election chances.

Once, the Tory party was the most successful capitalist party in the world. Its sorry state today reflects the crisis of capitalism and Britain’s decline to a third rate power. The Tory party does not represent the collective views of the capitalist class to the degree it did in the past. It is increasingly reliant on the donations of a handful of individuals. From May 2010 to July 2013 one hedge fund manager, Michael Farmer, gave over £2 million to the Tory party, with property millionaire David Rowland close behind with £1.5 million.

Labour is also in crisis. Beaten by UKIP in the European elections, Labour’s performance in the locals was at best lacklustre. It won nearly 300 extra council seats, but its 31% share of the vote is only two points up from 2013, far below the level it needs to be confident of winning the general election. It is seven points below its score a year before Neil Kinnock lost the general election in 1992. We are entering a period of profound instability in British politics. If Labour manages to win the election it will quickly become extremely unpopular, just like the governing French Parti Socialiste. It is the most unpopular government in the history of the Fifth Republic, receiving an abysmal 14% in local elections.

Socialism Today has often described the ‘Americanisation’ of British politics: where working-class people increasingly do not vote because the choice is between different brands of big-business politics, or right-wing populists attempting to harness the anger. Today, in the US there is the beginning of a different kind of Americanisation: electoral support for working-class fighters standing on a clear socialist programme. This, in the form of a mass party of the working class, is also the future in Britain.

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