Fragmentation shrinks the mainstream
Rochester shows that everything is up in the air. The outcome of the next general election is impossible to predict, writes Eddie Ford
Last week the inevitable happened and Mark Reckless of the United Kingdom Independence Party won the Rochester and Strood by-election on an unspectacular 50.6% turnout. A Tory sitting MP who defected to Ukip in September, he secured a comfortable 42.1% (16,867) of the vote - though his share was actually down from the 49.2% he received in 2010 general election, when he secured a 9,953 majority. This time round he got a 2,920 majority over the Tory candidate who came second on 34.8%, representing a 14.4% reduction in the Conservative vote. Labour’s tally was nearly halved on 16.8% (6,713 votes).
As for the Liberal Democrats, they were humiliated. They polled a miserable record low of 0.9% or 349 votes and the worst by-election result of any governing party in history. They were beaten into fifth place by the Greens on 4.2% (their best vote since 2010) and only picked up a few hundred more votes than Charlotte Rose, a dominatrix and former winner of the British Erotic Award for sex worker of the year standing on a platform of “sexual freedom”.1 Nick Long of People Before Profit came a plucky eighth on 60 votes (0.2%), beating the Patriotic Socialist Party candidate on 33 votes. Interestingly, the Royal Mail refused to distribute leaflets on behalf of Britain First (56 votes), judging them to be in breach of laws regarding the “sending of threatening mail”.2
Quite incredibly, it seems that Labour only a put a token effort into the by-election. According to various party sources, Labour could not raise the funds required to conduct a half-decent campaign in Rochester - spending about £25,000, barely one quarter of the legally permitted £100,000.3 If true, that shows the extraordinarily unambitious nature of Ed Miliband (though it is stretching conspiracy theories just a bit too far to suggest Labour did not actually want to win Rochester, because to do so would rely on Ukip taking thousands of votes away from the Tories, thus reinforcing the Conservative line that a vote for Ukip is a vote for Ed Miliband).
This was clearly a very bad result for the Tories, especially when you consider that at the beginning David Cameron promised to throw the “kitchen sink” at the campaign in a bid to stop Reckless getting his “fat arse” back onto the green benches of the Commons. True, the Tories - unlike the wretched Lib Dems - were not absolutely humiliated on the night; indeed, to some extent their vote held up. However, this was mainly because a significant number of people who normally support Labour or Lib Dem voted Tory in an attempt to keep Ukip out. Perhaps they were influenced by the Socialist Worker Party’s pathetic front organisation, Stand Up To Ukip, that urged “people of goodwill” to come together and say no to Ukip “regardless of our differing views on Europe or other political issues”.4
Regardless of the SWP’s wishes, Ukip now has the wind in its sails - even if Farage does not expect any “immediate” defections to his party this side of Christmas.
White van Dan
In other words, the Tory vote haemorrhaged in a constituency that was ranked by a major academic study this year as the 271st seat most likely to fall to Nigel Farage’s merry band, unlike Clacton which came top.5 But then again, Rochester demonstrated that Ukip can potentially impact on Labour’s vote in various ways too - whether from corrosive anti-Ukip ‘tactical’ voting or alternatively a straightforward switch to Ukip in order to register a protest against the British establishment. Labour is vulnerable on both fronts, especially in certain marginal constituencies.
As we all know, Labour had a terrible night in a different way, thanks to Emily Thornbury’s now legendary tweet of an image of a house decked with three St George flags and with a white van in the driveway, entitled ‘Images from Rochester’.6 The implication was that the shadow attorney general was expressing snobbish disdain for the working class or, as Nick Clegg put it, she was being “drippingly patronising” and “jaw-droppingly condescending” - though, he suggested, “maybe it is what happens when you become MP for Islington”.7
Weekly Worker journalists naturally have no more idea than anybody else exactly what was in Thornbury’s mind when she made that tweet. To some degree, she probably fell victim to the modern habit of compulsively tweeting, texting, blogging, Facebooking, etc purely for the sake of it - the inevitable consequence being that you end up talking shite a lot of the time. However, there was no way on earth that ‘one nation’ Ed Miliband was going to tolerate anything which gave the impression that the Labour front bench was out of touch with ‘ordinary voters’ - already a widespread feeling, and one assiduously promoted by that ‘ordinary bloke’ down the pub, Nigel Farage (actually educated at the prestigious private school, Dulwich College and a former commodity broker at the London Metal Exchange).
Therefore Thornbury jumped before she was pushed. Skin-crawlingly, Miliband issued a statement the day after the by-election in which he said that Labour was “founded for working people” and he felt “respect” for voters who displayed English flags and drove white vans. But his words cut no ice with Farage, who denounced Labour for being “anti-English” - rather ironic in some ways, given that only a few months ago Jeremy Hunt, the Tory health secretary, described comments by one former Ukip candidate for Enfield council, William Henwood, as “very unBritish”.
The ‘white van’ fiasco does point to the broader question of how the media portrays the working class. We are constantly reminded that it is the working class, with or without white vans, which is turning to Ukip, the implication being that the working class is inherently problematic - a phenomenon partly explained by Owen Jones in his useful book, Chavs. After all, just like US politicians, Ed Miliband never uses the term ‘working class’ - only ‘working people’, who of course are always ‘hard-working’. The only class that is openly acknowledged to exist by the likes of Miliband is the middle class, which needs to be expanded, as it is naturally the state or condition that we all aspire to - leaving behind our white vans for something far more upmarket. The end result being that Miliband’s Labour Party is now a party for “all” people, not the property of the working class or labour movement - let alone a vehicle for radical social transformation.
Having said that, our ‘white van man’ (ie, Dan Ware) - his house made famous by the former shadow attorney general - seems to be enjoying his 15 minutes (or bit more) of fame. A used-car salesman, his ‘Danifesto’ for a “better Britain” that appeared in The Sun on November 22 bashes scroungers and lambasts immigrants.8 For instance, he thinks you should only be allowed to claims benefits if you have worked for four years after leaving school, and argues that we should “copy the Aussies” and send back migrants who have not been invited - not to mention advocating “better discipline” in schools, “tougher” sentences for murders, imprisonment for those who “burn the poppy”, etc.
Rochester underlines how incredibly uncertain the next general election is - “all bets are off”, as Nigel Farage correctly said. Almost everyone thinks they can potentially hold the balance of power next year: Ukip, Scottish National Party, Democratic Unionist Party - even the beleaguered Lib Dems. A Labour government possibly with SNP, Lib Dem and Green support, is more than imaginable. Equally, another Tory/Lib Dem, with the DUP support, is also far from impossible. Nor is a Tory/DUP/Ukip coalition totally off the cards (maybe without Cameron), though complicated by the fact that Clegg has said he would “never serve” in a coalition cabinet that included Nigel Farage - thus such a coalition might well have problems getting the numbers necessary to form a workable majority. Just about the only thing that seems totally unfeasible is a Labour/Ukip coalition. But the electoral and parliamentary permutations are enough to keep armies of psephologists happily employed over the next six months.
Lord Ashcroft’s extensive polling of Rochester and Strood, for example, found that more than a fifth of Ukip by-election voters said they would either vote Conservative at the general election or did not know what they would do - therefore it is not a dead cert that Reckless will retain his seat next May, though it does seem more likely than not.9 Meanwhile, what is notable about the very latest poll carried out by Ashcroft - apart from showing that Labour’s share is up two points since last week at 32% - is that the two main parties have achieved a combined share of just 59% for five out of the last six weeks. So British politics is fragmenting.
The previous wisdom, repeated ad nauseam by smug media pundits, is that general elections are fought and won on the centre ground. That is not the case anymore as shown by Labour’s ‘35% strategy’ - ie, the hope that its core vote plus some more is enough to secure a parliamentary majority.
Ukip and SWP
In this context it is worth mentioning the SWP’s post-Rochester ‘unity’ appeal, warning about the grave dangers of the “racist” Ukip and urging support for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in the general election - the left, apparently, “cannot afford to spend its time criticising one another and seeking petty advantage” in such a “time of turmoil”.10
We go on to read that, unless there is a “serious campaign” against Ukip, a “racist populist party” is going to establish itself as a “serious player” in parliament that could even form part of a coalition government - the Tories and Labour “prepared the ground” for Ukip’s rise by targeting immigrants, Labour leaders “seem to believe that the way to defeat Ukip is to match their vileness” and the Tories want to “end the right of free movement of workers” inside the European Union in order to “clear the way for yet harsher anti-immigration laws”. Such moves, thinks the SWP, “only gives credence to Ukip’s racism”. For all these reasons, naturally, the SWP will continue to “back initiatives” by Sutu - like leafleting that “exposes” Ukip’s “anti-working class agenda” and “its racism”.
Same old SWP nonsense. We in the CPGB reject the notion that Ukip’s aim of severely restricting European migration to the UK through some sort of points-based system means that it is racist. Reactionary - yes, but racist? In any case, how is this essentially any different from the schemes cooked up by the Tories or Labour? Rachel Reeves, the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, wants to limit legal EU migrants access to tax credits and prevent them claiming out-of-work benefits for two years. What about Cameron’s drafted and redrafted speech on immigration, which will obviously be yet another attempt to match Ukip? Yet the implication of the SWP’s Sutu campaign is that we should vote for almost anybody except Ukip - which presumably must include the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour, whose anti-migrant consensus must also be ‘racist’. Where is the joined-up thinking from the comrades?
For communists, singling out Ukip is not good enough. We need to locate why voters in Clacton, Rochester, and elsewhere are backing it - are we supposed to believe that they are racists? This is just not credible. People are increasingly looking to Ukip because, quite understandably, they want to give the establishment a good kicking and are also genuinely concerned about the decline in living standards - life is obviously getting harder and harder, with no respite in sight: both the Tories and Labour promise continued austerity. Like many people suffering from chronic insecurity, ‘white van Dan’ is struggling to keep his head above water.
It is obviously true that wages are being cut because of the surplus of labour, which can result from large-scale migration. But the crucial thing is, what do we do about it? Join with Ukip or those sections of the established political class that say the answer is to severely restrict immigration? No, we want to organise migrants and make them part of the labour movement - just as Irish migrants were in the 19th and 20th centuries. We should not treat Ukip voters as though they need an anti-racist awareness course - what they actually need is working class answers. Our communist programme aims to win over the entire working class, ‘white van Dans’ included.
5. R Ford, MJ Goodwin Revolt on the right: explaining support for the radical right in Britain Oxford 2014.
7. The Guardian November 24.
9. The Guardian November 23.