SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 223 November 2018

Common rage, different outlets

The End of British Party Politics?

By Roger Awan-Scully

Biteback Publishing, 2018, £12.99

Reviewed by Matt Dobson

The central observation put forward by Roger Awan-Scully, professor of political science at Cardiff University, is that "British politics has been hollowed out", with voters "choosing different alternatives in each of the four UK nations". In the 2017 general election, the Tories came first in England, Labour in Wales, the Scottish National Party in Scotland, while the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin both increased their vote share in Northern Ireland. Awan-Scully argues that this may point to "the end of the British state" unless solutions are found to reinvigorate it.

He correctly states that this is partly an expression of the world economic crisis of 2008. Politics has become volatile, more polarised, with a decline in the social base of traditional parties – socialists would argue for both the capitalists and the working class. However, Awan-Scully leaves this point to the concluding chapter. Moreover, his methodology lacks historical context and an understanding of how mass movements have a more profound impact on politics – in contrast to events in parliament and media influence.

He focuses on elections, with some useful empirical data presented on the shifts in vote share over the last 40 years confirming some of the trends mentioned above. However, Awan-Scully either does not understand or disagrees that the working class is potentially the most powerful social force in society, and that its shifts in consciousness can be responsible for the electoral volatility in Britain. Electoral behaviour, of course, is only a snapshot of the real undercurrents in society.

This is especially true in areas where the working class has particular social weight, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Awan-Scully’s approach leads to significant mistakes. Socialist Party Wales, in its post-2017 general election analysis, pointed out that Awan-Scully predicted that the Tories would win in Wales. This was in a Spectator magazine article, on the basis of studying polling data. In fact, Labour won with a 6% swing, larger than elsewhere in the UK.

Awan-Scully attempts to explain this away – at length – by saying that Welsh Labour’s campaign under right-winger Carwyn Jones was key in this result, by emphasising ‘Welshness’ and freezing out Jeremy Corbyn. In reality, however, Labour won in Wales despite Jones and Welsh Labour, which has been responsible for passing on Tory austerity. The Welsh Labour manifesto even raised the need for NHS cuts!

By contrast, Corbyn’s left-wing manifesto chimed with voters, particularly in the working-class valleys. The vote for his policies in the June 2017 general election in places like Merthyr went up. Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) lost votes to Labour in these areas. However, because of local Labour council cut-backs, the Labour Party had lost control of the administration to independents in the council elections in May of that year.

Of course, Awan-Scully makes valid points about the impact of devolution in Wales. At times, Plaid’s support has increased, winning seats by posing to the left of New Labour in the valleys while maintaining a conservative rural base. There is also frustration at the Welsh assembly’s ineffectiveness against austerity. Nonetheless, Neil Kinnock’s praise of the book, and its conclusion that Jones’s ‘Welshness’ was key to the general election victory, shows that the right wing in Labour will attempt to use it against Corbyn and the left.

Awan-Scully also presents the 2017 Scotland result in a one-sided manner. It is correct to say that the national question was a major factor in the Scottish Tories winning seats from the Scottish National Party in rural areas, with its leader Ruth Davidson campaigning heavily on defending the British Isles ‘union’. But class anger was also a major factor in why the SNP, after its surge following the 2014 independence referendum, saw its vote fall in working-class areas as well.

Awan-Scully avoids this. After campaigning as an anti-austerity party in 2015, the SNP faced a backlash for implementing Tory cuts in Holyrood and in councils. Mostly, the figures show SNP voters from 2015 not turning out – up to 200,000 in predominantly working-class areas – staying away in disillusionment.

One reason was Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP leadership campaigning forcefully against Brexit, when over 300,000 mainly working-class independence supporters voted leave. Labour was also able to recover slightly, picking up a seat in Glasgow, as Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies had a certain impact.

Reading this book could give the impression that nationalism is now to the fore and class politics have faded away. Awan-Scully does not understand that the re-emergence of the national question in Scotland – a reflection of Britain’s decline as a capitalist power – is actually an expression of class anger. The British ruling class tried to deal with it by creating devolved governments under Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s.

The post-devolution experience, however, has not seen a profound, positive change for working-class people. Compounded by the disillusionment with New Labour’s pro-big-business agenda, it only reinforced the national question in Scotland. This has been boosted by the austerity overdrive after 2008.

Awan-Scully describes the historic shifts in Scottish politics. These include the decline of the once powerful Tories and Liberals, and the brief emergence of the SNP as an electoral force in the mid-1970s – followed by its decline and resurgence in the late 1980s until now. The loss of Labour’s historical mass base, further decline when it shifted to the right, and the catastrophic collaboration with the Tories in the 2014 independence referendum, represent another seismic shift.

What Awan-Scully leaves out is why the consciousness of working-class people shifted. The colossal impact of deindustrialisation under Margaret Thatcher, which still influences support for independence today, is barely mentioned. Awan-Scully does make the valid point that, as well as a decline in ‘British’ politics, voters are no longer loyal to parties. Socialists, however, would say the biggest vacuum of all is the lack of representation for the working class, radicalised youth and sections of the impoverished middle class against the ravages of capitalist crisis.

This has varied expressions. The current mass membership of the SNP will be temporary. It came from an anti-establishment radicalisation which the SNP leadership will disappoint - it is already. Even during the surge after the 2014 referendum, Socialist Party Scotland pointed out that a space existed to the left of the SNP that could have seen the creation of a substantial anti-austerity socialist force. Mistakenly, leading left-wing, pro-independence figures like Tommy Sheridan failed to take this opportunity, tail-ending and facilitating the surge into the SNP. The space to the left of the SNP is now even greater; it would be a mistake to empirically view its current support as permanent.

The surge into Labour to support Jeremy Corbyn’s left-radical policies is also a reflection of the political vacuum. A civil war is ongoing, with Labour effectively two parties in one, the pro-capitalist Blairites fighting to undermine Corbyn and the left.

Awan-Scully does not touch on another key factor in the dissolution of Britain-wide politics he describes: the Labour left’s wrong approach to the national question. In Scotland, the failure of Jeremy Corbyn to defend self-determination and the democratic right to a second referendum is a fundamental reason why Labour has not been able to recover against the SNP.

Even the Tories’ current crisis shows that their social base among the middle class is disappearing. The ‘hollowing out’ described by Roger Awan-Scully is really part of a crisis of legitimacy of capitalist parties and institutions worldwide.

Socialists stand for the creation of a mass workers’ party that fights on anti-austerity policies. The civil war in Labour and the radicalisation for independence will feed into this process. Part of the struggle for socialist transformation will need to be a correct approach on the national question in defence of democratic rights.

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