Between Labour and a Hard Place

Between Labour and a Hard Place

The ideological gap between Labour and the Tories is larger today than at any time in the past twenty years. But will the popularity of Labour’s social-democratic program prevail over lukewarm support for its leader—and the rise of the far right?

Ed Miliband presenting Labour’s manifesto in Manchester, April 13, 2015 (Labour Party / Flickr)

British politics is more polarized today than it has been at any time during the past twenty years. Not since 1992, under the doomed leadership of Neil Kinnock, has the Labour party gone into a general election on a ticket as ostensibly social democratic as this one. Labour wants to introduce higher taxes on the wealthy, crack down on zero-hours contracts, and axe the rules governing “non-domicile” status, which currently allow wealthy individuals to live in Britain without paying tax on their foreign earnings. Meanwhile, the Conservatives plan cuts to benefits even steeper than those enacted by parliament. They have also pledged to curb already weak trade union power by introducing a minimum 40 percent voter support threshold for strikes in public services.

Should Labour win a majority in May (or, as is more likely, should Labour form some sort of loose coalition with the Scottish National Party), one can expect the squealing of the British establishment to audibly increase: the privileged will be hit in the pocket, at least a little, under an Ed Miliband–led government.

This may not sound like a particularly exceptional observation, but the fact is that this comes after years of “triangulation” and grovelling to big business by the Labour party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Right-wing newspapers have of course responded to the prospect of a new Labour government by pumping out pure anti-Labour propaganda and indulging in daily character assassinations of Miliband from the first of January on. This week the focus has been on Ed “stabbing his brother in the back.” So far he has been criticized for everything from how he eats a bacon sandwich to the style of his kitchen.

Despite running on a centrist ticket back in 2010, the Conservatives have leaned rightwards ever since and are likely to continue in that direction should they win the upcoming election. Since coming to office, the present Conservative-led coalition has hobbled the National Health Service (NHS waiting times are at their worst in a decade), spurred large-scale privatization, and introduced a draconian welfare-to-work program modelled on President Bill Clinton’s 1990s welfare reforms. This has lent a certain ideological purpose to the Tory backbenches but has sullied Prime Minister David Cameron in the eyes of mainstream voters, who seem to grasp that austerity is driven not by financial expediency but by an ideological desire to shrink the state. Had Cameron persevered with the feted “modernization” of the party that won him the Tory leadership back in 2005, Labour would almost certainly be facing electoral defeat.

As it is, due to the deep unpopularity of the coalition, Labour ought to have a substantial lead in the polls. The fact that it does not can be blamed largely on the public’s refusal to warm to Labour leader Ed Miliband. A recent poll showed that voters had more confidence in his brother (David Miliband ran against Ed in the 2010 leadership contest and was expected to win) as the Labour candidate for prime minister. There is probably very little that Ed Miliband can do about this beyond completely effacing his own personality; at present he is viewed as a school prefect type who talks in obsequious tones and probably has a handshake like a wet fish. Were Labour to have a genuinely popular leader, there is little doubt the party would win the election.

In one sense, this provides grounds for optimism: there is evidently substantial public support for Labour’s left-leaning “program” (despite its leader’s lack of popularity, the party commands a slight lead over the Conservatives in the polls). But it is also dispiriting: if Miliband fails to form the next government, the right wing of the Labour party will take it as vindication of the Blairite line that only half-baked centrism wins elections.

The Liberal Democrats meanwhile are finished as a political movement and appear to know it. For five years they have behaved like the child in the playground who stands aside as the bully lands blows on his hapless victim, only to reappear after the assault proffering sympathy for the aggrieved. The British people can see through the party rhetoric about “keeping the Tories in check” and the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg may even lose his own seat to Labour.

Recent years have been characterized by the growth of smaller parties, reflected in the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) on the right, the Greens on the left, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the north. Looking at these in reverse order, the SNP has seen its membership jump to over 100,000 on the back of last year’s independence referendum. One in fifty Scots now belong to the party and the SNP looks set to reduce Labour to a handful of Scottish seats at the general election. The SNP’s rise can be partly attributed to last year’s independence referendum and how the party has lined up in that contest. Because Labour politicians shared platforms with Tory politicians to campaign for a No vote, Labour is now tainted by the strong anti-conservative sentiment that exists in Scotland. Miliband is viewed by many Scottish voters as an only slightly more tolerable version of David Cameron, as was demonstrated by a recent poll, which found that 55 percent of people in Scotland believe the SNP is strongly in favour of equality, compared to just 14 percent who believe the same of Labour.

However, mere anti-Tory feeling does not by itself explain the collapse in Labour’s fortunes in Scotland. There is also a feeling, as in many parts of England, that politics is something done to you by a particular class of southerner who went to an expensive public (in U.S. terms, private) school and who does not understand what life is like for the ordinary man and woman on the street. According to a recent poll, just 10 percent of British people think politicians want to do what is right for the country, while 48 percent believe politicians are “out for themselves” and a further 30 percent think they are in it for their party. In Scotland, the reaction against this state of affairs has come from the nationalist left; in England it has helped drive the growth of UKIP, which positions itself as the “anti-elitist” opposition to mainstream parties.

The rise of UKIP in England has been perhaps the defining political event of this parliament, culminating in the triumph of the party in the European elections last summer. Led by the roguish Nigel Farage, UKIP is characterised by flag-waving of the “keep the foreigners out” sort, harking back to a supposedly lost England of tripe shops and private gentlemen’s clubs free from women and uppity outsiders. Underneath the anti-elitist beer-and-fags veneer lies a party of the hard right. UKIP has campaigned against the teaching of climate change in schools, wants to scrap non-discrimination laws in the workplace, and aims to get rid of inheritance tax entirely, a move which would benefit just 6 percent of the population. The party’s economics spokesperson has even talked of privatizing the state pension.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss UKIP voters as merely disillusioned shire Tories. Farage’s party is picking up a high level of support from working-class voters who have traditionally voted Labour. The average UKIP voter is more likely to have finished education at sixteen or under than voters of the three main parties, and is less likely to be university educated or have an income over £40,000 (roughly $60,000). UKIP’s success has been built on—and has encouraged—the sort of anti-foreigner sentiment and racial discrimination that tends to increase following an economic downturn. UKIP’s support comes in large part from older working-class white men, but this sort of populism has also traditionally appealed to the lower middle classes. As Robert Ford and Matthew J. Goodwin, authors of Revolt on the Right argue, UKIP voters have been “left behind not just by wider trends, but the rise to dominance of a university-educated, professional middle-class elite whose priorities and outlook now define the mainstream.”

Predictably, the Conservative party has sought to assuage potential UKIP supporters by pandering to the lowest common denominator: vote for us because we will hit immigrants with a bigger stick than UKIP, and so on. To give Labour some credit, the party’s response to the emergence of UKIP has for the most part been quite sensible: Miliband has stressed the necessity of immigration to Britain while highlighting the importance of integration and combating economic insecurity (by building affordable housing, enforcing the minimum wage, and banning exploitative work practices). However, Labour has tended to veer erratically between either extolling the economic virtues of immigration or bashing it in speeches and policy announcements depending on which stance leads to electoral profit.

Also frustrating is the fact that there has been little attempt by middle-class activists to understand these fears in the context of economic uncertainty and the pace of demographic change in previously white working-class communities. Xenophobia plays its part, but there is also widespread discomfort at the sheer pace of change large-scale migration has brought with it. Some of these concerns are economic and some are not. Visit a council estate in Nottingham or a dilapidated seaside town in the southeast of England and you will encounter a widespread feeling that the ruling class is promoting migration in order to a) ensure a constant supply of cheap and pliable labor for big business, and b) impose on locals the sort of atomized environment—where new arrivals constantly come and go—that prevails in cities like London.

Notable in its absence during the election campaign has been any mention of how British foreign policy ought to look. This is not unrelated to the rise of UKIP, for the prevalent mood in England at present is isolationist. The growth in this attitude has been demonstrated by the disgraceful decision to let fewer than a hundred Syrian asylum seekers settle in Britain in recent years and the reluctance of the Labour party to challenge the government on it. Similarly, the Commons vote not to join military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back in 2013 had little to do with pacifism and was more a reflection of the prevalent British mood—a desire to “stay well out of it.” Britain is no longer the “aircraft carrier of the United States,” as the left-wing jibe has it, but instead resembles a retired colonel who wears the battered old uniform and recalls former glories, who now just wants to be left alone.

The ideological gap between Labour and the Tories is, as mentioned already, bigger today than at any time in the past twenty years. Yet grumbling about political parties being “the same” is common. This is not as absurd as it sounds. On the one hand, politics is increasingly dominated by a small section of privileged society, but since the 2008 financial crash there also appears to be growing recognition of the failures of capitalism and the sense that, whichever party is in the saddle, another calamity is around the corner as surely as the tide coming in. A 2014 poll found that 51 percent of the population expect another global financial crisis in the next twelve months. Thus both Labour and the Conservatives are “the same” because it will be ordinary folk who once again pick up the tab when it all goes to pieces, whichever party is in power. This is just common sense, but it makes for messy politics and an uncertain election.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward.