May 22: Reaction on the march
Good results for Ukip, and a lukewarm reception for Labour - Paul Demarty argues that the election results exemplify society’s rightward drift
With a three-day weekend comes the inevitable Monday morning hangover. As results from the May 22 European parliament elections trickled in on Sunday night, it became increasingly clear that - if not exactly causing the much-hyped political earthquake - the United Kingdom Independence Party was going to win its first election.
And so it has come to pass. Nigel Farage grins at us from every newspaper, tepid pint in hand, and he has every reason to do so - 27% of the vote, 24 seats and three embarrassed mainstream party leaders; on an abysmal turnout, to be sure, Ukip has won the day.
Progressive opinion had almost enough time to reassure itself. Yes, the local election results had the residual Blairites up to their usual Delphic carping - we on the far left are often accused of fighting yesterday’s wars, but what of these creatures, reliving the Blair-Brown anonymous briefing battles of the early 2000s? - but Labour’s showing was respectable. Hundreds of councillors and six councils passed into Labour control, including the Tory flagship, Hammersmith and Fulham; Ukip’s vote had dropped by 6%, and Nigel Farage’s party was unsuccessful, with a few exceptions, at making inroads into the Labour heartlands. It picked up votes, but not councillors; and overall, its vote was down on last year’s round of local polls.
No such misfortune in the European vote. Ukip’s success has plunged all bourgeois politics into soul-searching. Most shaken were the Liberal Democrats. While they held onto all but two of the councils they were defending on May 22, the only ‘good’ news for the Lib Dems’ European campaign was that they did not face a total wipe-out, clinging onto a single MEP in the South East. Catherine Bearder will cut a lonely figure in Brussels.
We have been mildly surprised, over the past four years, to see a relative dearth of challenges to Nick Clegg’s authority, given the strains of coalition government, the endless electoral calamities and the total demoralisation of Lib Dem cadre. There is now a more serious clamour for his resignation, which is nevertheless half-hearted, led by backbencher John Pugh - who wants Clegg to make way for Vince Cable (as if, somehow, the guy who actually wrote the policy on tripling tuition fees in flagrant contradiction to the Lib Dems’ manifesto is a safer bet). Clegg is not budging, but it may be immaterial: a leaked poll, commissioned by the Lib Dems themselves, suggests that Clegg is in real danger of losing his Commons seat next year.
The Tories, meanwhile, are being pretty stoical about the whole thing. They are certainly not in as abysmal a position as the Lib Dems - they lost hundreds of councillors, but pegged Labour very close in the popular vote in the local and European polls. At this point in the electoral cycle, it is generally open season on the government; in such a situation, it has to be said that Cameron is actually bearing up fairly well. On the one hand, we are now in some kind of economic recovery, fuelled though it may be by dubious fundamentals; on the other, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats remain, as Thursday’s votes show, a serviceable meat shield for popular rage.
Still, there are elements of disquiet. Coming third in the European elections, and behind a triumphant Ukip, will reinforce grumbling on the Tory backbenches, filled to a considerable degree with people whose political sympathies are with the Toryism Farage seeks to claim as his own. Hardly surprising, then, that there are murmurs among the Tory rank and file about seeking agreements at a local level with Ukip; and equally unsurprising that Cameron and Osborne are keen to rule any such deals out. It is an uncomfortable reminder of how deeply divided the Tory party is on Europe.
In the local elections, we saw glimpses of one uncomfortable possibility in 2015, with Ukip stealing enough Tory votes to throw a council or two Labour’s way - Croydon being the great example. Labour only secured 31% of the vote, two points more than the Tories; but that translated into 51% of the councils and 49.8% of the council seats up for grabs. Polling and analysis commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor and Svengali, suggests that Labour is on course to win its key marginals, and thus secure a small Westminster majority in 2015.
So the Tory hierarchy has two somewhat contradictory goals for the next year - to attack Labour and head off Ukip. The awkwardness of the situation is plain to see. Cameron has hired Lynton Crosby as his campaign consultant - you would expect this master of underhand tactics and ruthless hatchet jobs to play up all the reactionary prejudices he can muster; but such a strategy now runs the risk of sending Tory voters to Ukip, who (after all) have more convincing ‘answers’ to the immigration ‘problem’ than the Tories. Expect a lot more cheap and dirty economic stimulus measures, to follow Help to Buy and the pension reforms: Cameron’s best chance is that the economic recovery appears to bed in sufficiently well to produce a ‘feel-good factor’ among floating voters.
Labour’s jitters are plain to see. Eds Miliband and Balls are attempting to look penitent about migration levels under the last Labour government - but such platitudes fail for the same reason as the Tories’: the Labour Party is committed to the European Union, and thus open borders for 500 million people.
Various New Labour ghouls have shambled into the broadsheets to offer their ‘advice’ - including, of course, the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, and Tony Blair himself, whose typically self-serving intervention on the May 27 Today programme contained the nonetheless correct point that “if [Labour] tries to follow Ukip either on its anti-European platform or, even worse frankly, on its anti-immigrant platform, all that will happen is that it will confuse its own supporters and will not draw any greater support”.
Miliband’s problem is that the capitalist class, and most especially the capitalist media, do not want Cameron out - an exception can be made for The Guardian, of course, and perhaps the intermittently Ukip-friendly Telegraph, but the latter a fortiori do not want a Miliband government. Yet he is unwilling to make more than feeble nudges in a populist direction - a platitude about migrants here, a frozen energy price there (perhaps this reticence is not unwise, given the hatred of the Socialists in France and the victory of the Front National in the European election there).
The bigger picture here is the total alienation of most people from the high-political game, always most clearly visible come a European election. Barely a third of eligible voters bothered to vote at all; of those that did, a good chunk voted for a party that has premised much of its appeal on hatred of the Westminster bubble. “So colourless, so dreary is this political elite,” writes left-Labour pin-up Owen Jones, “that Farage - a privately educated ex-City commodities trader who wants to cut taxes on the rich - ends up looking like an ordinary bloke down the pub, simply because he speaks like a vague approximation of a human being” (The Guardian May 27).
There has, for many years, been a trend towards declining rates of electoral participation. The ‘global’ cause is the constriction of political choices in the west since the endgame of the cold war. In Britain, there are many details which exacerbate this trend. There is the question of Europe itself - following, as Britain does, the exigencies of US global policy, the British must necessarily frustrate moves towards tighter European integration, which produces considerable resentment of the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ and the gluttony of MEPs.
The stakes are, if anything, even lower at the local level. In a sense, this is perverse - ‘all things being equal’, municipal government ought to have the most direct and immediate impact on people’s lives, and you would expect some level of engagement. But a major part of the Thatcher legacy is the decimation of local government: councils are now little more than opportunities for career advancement and petty corruption among the local politicians that staff them.
The left has often had a rather Pollyanna-ish view of such developments: ‘Look at all the millions of people who don’t feel they have a voice! Everyone I talk to hates politicians and bankers. Surely we could harness all this anger.’
It should be abundantly clear in the light of elections not just in Britain, but across Europe, that, if anything, the opposite is the truth - anti-political sentiment is rightwing by default. It is both a result of and a contributing factor to general atomisation, and so tends to look for a ‘man on horseback’ to ride into Westminster and ‘sort them all out’. Remember, for instance, the expenses scandal five years ago, and the calls at the time for the queen to dissolve parliament. Thus, when the left pursues apolitical populism (banker-bashing, etc), it is quite as likely to funnel people rightwards than in our direction. (A comrade reports to us a conversation with a Ukip activist - “Of course I’m not racist. I used to be in the SWP!”)
Indeed, if all the Westminster parties have been left wringing their hands over the success of Ukip, we might, on our side, take stock of where things stand with the left. We are now four years into a government which has hammered the working class with impunity throughout, which has driven the privatisation agenda into the heart of the national health service and schools with ill grace and the resentment of the general population. It has kicked us, and kicked us, and kicked us again.
Who has benefited from all this? Not the left - but Ukip, which subscribes to an even more vigorously reactionary Thatcherism than a Michael Gove. Across (northern, central and eastern) Europe, fascists, semi-fascists and far-right populists have gathered support; the left has languished. If Thursday’s elections have one lesson, it is this - British society is barrelling to the right, and will continue to do so until the left offers an alternative - not to austerity, but to capitalism l