Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On UK Elections 2015

Antara Ray Chaudhury


Europe has been in doldrums since the financial crisis of 2008 and various degrees and shades of recovery, bailouts and assault of austerity drives have meant the continent turning into a major cause of concern for the stability of global financial order. The economic troubles have naturally meant radical effects in political, social sphere across the continent and from Greece to Portugal and Spain; the underbelly of Europe is suddenly rising in revolt. While it is interesting to track the fortunes and trails of emerging progressive alternatives in Europe in general; it is more necessary to place these alternatives in the broader context of unprecedented might of finance capital. Only such historical, dialectic view will help sober the unprecedented and sometimes unreasonable expectations from the emerging alternatives and understand the gravity of the situation better. It is in this context that the assessment of UK elections results assumes critical importance.

At the outset, let me clarify one thing: Analysis and consumption of election results can be pleasantly self-deceiving. However, despite the sustained market driven efforts to turn it into another commodity suited to consumption cycles and trends; politics doesn’t get reduced to elections although electoral politics is certainly a major component of it. Hence, in this exercise, I will first take stock of overall results, then contextualizing them in the broader political economy and finally attempt to arrive at certain working conclusions.

The results:

The recently concluded general elections in UK not only proved to be a critical one but the results came as quite a shock. While hung parliament and a coalition government between Labour Party and Scottish National Party (SNP) was expected and a common prediction of the pollsters; the results were astounding, handing the Labor Party its worst defeat since 1983. Tories came back to Westminster with a clear majority this time. The Conservative Party led by David Cameron got 331 seats in a 650 seats Parliament while the Labour Party led by Ed Miliband could secure only 232 seats. The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg suffered massively and got only 8 seats. The big story was Scotland where the SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon swept entire Scottish vote by winning 56 seats out of 59 over there.

In terms of overall Britain-wide vote share the Conservatives got 36.8% of the total vote and the Labour got 30.4%, Liberal democrats got just 7.9% and SNP secured 4.7%. If we look at the statistics of the results in terms of vote share then while all parties have increased their respective vote shares, the Liberals Democrats have actually lost 15.2% of their vote share since 2010. However the real elephant in the room is UKIP, led by Nigel Farage. Although UKIP secured just one seat, with Nigel Farage himself losing to a Conservative candidate; they secured 12.6% of the total vote, up 9.5% from 2010 results.[1]


Contextualizing the results:

While it is tempting to conclude a general right-wing turn with Conservative majority as well as UKIP’s vote share significantly rising with 3rd largest popular vote; the picture is much more complicated. As a matter of fact, it is useful to recall that the rightward turn began with Thatcher era in 1980s which also marked a shift in capitalism from Fordism to era of post-Fordist financial capital. The retreat of the state and defeat of unions, the more memorable one involving the failed strike of coal mines in 1985; they altered the political equations suitably in favor of liberal, congenial policies of free movement of capital and de-industrialized growth of a service economy backed by metropolitan capital.

While Thatcher’s government followed a radical program of privatization and deregulation, reform of the trade unions, tax cuts and the introduction of market mechanisms into health and education with the aim to reduce the role of government, John Major took over the as PM in 1990 and oversaw the British involvement in the Gulf War, the economic recession was deepening and taxation, health care and immigration were the main issues building up to the 1992 elections (with which many have found parallels for the 2015 elections). The Labour Party, in 1992, led by Neil Kinnock was supposed to win the election after the 13 years rule of Tories primarily under Thatcher and then Major which changed the course of British politics in many ways. The Tories campaigned that floodgates of immigration from developing countries will opened up if Labor comes to power. Primarily the attack was on the social security and curbing the politics of Trade unions and playing with the rules of the market.  The Tories won that election under the leadership of John Major. Surprisingly the SNP ran a campaign at that time for freedom by ’93 and hoped to make a major breakthrough. However, they could get only 3 seats.

The defeat resulted in a conclusive departure on the part of the Labor Party with its later adoption of ‘New Labor’ policy of Tony Blair. New Labor was a clear break from the social-democratic and firmly working class, trade union politics roots of the Labor Party, in an attempt to project itself as a centrist party following a humane capitalism with social justice, and not socialism, as its end. New Labor with Tony Blair as prime minister; ruled from 1997-2007 with infamous role in war in Iraq and Afghanistan as subordinate ally of US imperialism. Gordon Brown took over till 2010. Although Brown rescued banks and financial institutions with liberal stimulus packages post-2008 financial crisis; his failure to rein in national budget deficit, unemployment, NHS cuts and worries over immigration resulted in a hung parliament in 2010 when the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition came to power. 

This rather elaborated account was necessary to highlight an entrenched position of a neo-liberal policy and subservience or allegiance of political parties, which is increasingly familiar to us in India as well. As I noted earlier, it is important to recognize the continuities and entrenched positions to realize the relative strength and possibilities attached to the ‘breaks’ and emerging alternatives. Let us first take stock of these continuities in detail:

1.                   Consensus over Austerity: Gordon Brown (Labor PM), at the time of financial meltdown, gave liberal stimulus packages to the banks like Barclays, RBS etc. which led to spurt in fiscal deficit while the economic recovery remained feeble in the wake of global recession and Tories came to the power under Cameron saying that the Labour has actually bankrupted the country. What is noteworthy is the sustained high pitch over the need to ‘balance the books’ i.e. carry out massive cuts in social welfare to rein in deficits. Although Labor and Liberal Democrats disagree over the degree and manner in which this program of austerity is being carried out by the Conservatives, they have no fundamental differences with the underlying logic of austerity as such. What is noteworthy is how quickly a crisis, engulfing the capitalist system as such and especially eroding the claims of a post-Cold War Utopia, could result in creating fertile ground for further assaults on public welfare. As Fredric Jameson had remarked, it is easier to imagine an end of the world than the end of the capitalism. It is also instructive that the large bailouts didn’t take the logical form of a nationalization program for alternative development. The campaign against austerity certainly enjoys popular support in Scotland and Northern parts of Britain, however, the symbol of welfare state post WW-II i.e. NHS (National Health System) facing austerity cuts and plans of its privatization seems to go ahead, despite general public protests and opposition.

2.                  Anti immigration: The entrenched position of a right-wing polity is not just over economic issues of free market and neo-liberalism. It also means an increasing xenophobia about immigrants and racism, provincialism of all sorts enjoying hegemonic position. Immigration has always remained a very contentious issue in UK. The cheap labor made available from Eastern Europe after the demise of Soviet bloc and their entry into EU as well as migrants from Asian countries led to high rates of migration during mid-2000s. However, a simultaneous decline in public healthcare and employment and the leading parties firmly wedded to the free market neo-liberal recipes unwilling to chart an economic course independent of whammies of international finance despite the fallout of financial crisis opened field for UKIP (UK Independence Party, which is far-Right party arguing against immigration and calls for UK’s exit from EU) which articulated effectively that migration is the real cause of Briton’s troubles- economic as well as social. On this issue of immigration, all the major parties are on the same page. The most ironical sight of this election in fact was the anti-immigration mugs used for campaign of Labor Party.

It is also important to remember that UKIP has not just increased its vote share to 12.6%, but also it has finished 2nd in 90 of overall 650 constituencies. With pressure for electoral reforms and proportionate representation building up, it is just a matter of time that it may become the 3rd largest force in the parliament as well. With a likelihood of referendum of EU by 2017 as promised by Conservatives, the anti-immigration campaign is set to grow. This is not a situation where a debtor state like Greece ridden with heavy debt burden is deciding to leave the EU and its financial bullying. Here, state like UK with one of the stronger economies in the region is turning its back on the region’s working population with

3.                  Scotland: Scotland has perhaps been the most widely discussed and highlighted factor in the UK elections. Despite the recent refusal for independence in the referendum few months back (where major Westminster parties including Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labor campaigned on common platform for a ‘No’ vote to Scottish independence), Scotland rallied behind SNP, (which wants an independent Scotland) and its social-democratic policies of anti-austerity and rendering a thumping defeat to Labor in Scotland thereby igniting an intense debate over what won- nationalism or social welfare. What is however apparent is the consensus of the main parties over the devolution/ independence of Scotland.

In effect, Liberal Democrats in the government, and Labor, in opposition, were left to do a strange kind of tailing and catching up with Conservatives on all issues of importance: where they differed was the matter of degrees and not of different path. Labor, unable to evolve any feasible response to the Scottish nationalism as well as anti-austerity, kept ducking and presenting itself as a party incapable to take a firm stand on either. What is noteworthy is the clever use by Conservatives of the possibility of Labor-SNP coalition government, which they portrayed as a threat to British Union as well as frequent blackmailing by SNP leading to derailing of economy. There is also some reason to argue that Scottish nationalism fed into British provincialism and unionism benefitting Conservatives. Labor Party, under Ed Miliband tried to set its agenda in Social Democratic terms with call for freeze on energy prices, rescuing NHS, housing and sobering austerity cuts and introducing mansion Tax; however, despite the claims of a firm departure from Blairite path, Labor still retained faithfulness to its economic message. Despite the warnings that the majority the Conservatives now enjoy may be illusory and fissures may develop over politics over EU; the policies of austerity and anti-immigration remain strong.

It is in such bleak backdrop, I would like to put forth the emerging developments that hold promise:

1.                 Two-party structure in crisis: Like elsewhere in Europe, the two-party dominated parliamentary democracy is fast getting undermined in the wake of financial crisis and resultant austerity measures and migration politics. As much as the Far Right has evolved parties around anti-immigration movements such as UKIP in UK, the possibilities of Left wing politics around popular movements are also looking brighter: the SNP, as we have seen, has been the biggest beneficiary on the Left and has vowed to continue its battle against austerity in UK’s parliament as well. Apart from SNP, it is the Greens which have emerged surprisingly as a viable Left alternative anti-austerity party. Although Greens have only 1 seat in the parliament, their vote share went up to 3.8% with over 1 million votes (UKIP has over 3 million votes). The surge in Green support has been a very recent phenomenon with their membership numbers swelling. While their ability to break into the structures of power and shape national course remains limited, the undermining of credence once held by two major parties is going to be a more crucial factor over the period. 

2.                  Nationalism, (versus/ and) Social Welfare: SNP is a unique case in point in its ability to break through the classical dilemma of Left about ‘nationalism versus social welfare’. SNP successfully integrated both and built a progressive narrative around nationalism as a tool to defy the dogmas of UK about austerity. It is certainly contested that without Scotland, Britain will be more firmly in the throes of Conservatives; but it is equally a failure of Labor to build a credible alternative integrating nationalism and social welfare. Ed Miliband tried to rally around the slogan of ‘One Nation Labor’- but flip-flops on immigration and austerity meant that the party fell between the two stools. However, it certainly remains to be seen how successful SNP really is at warding off the pressures of finance capital, especially in the wake of difficulties faced by parties like Syriza. 


3.                  The strained link between the trade unions and Labor Party: Traditionally, both Communist and Social Democratic parties nurtured and valued their organic links with trade unions. In an effort to turn Labor into a centrist, mass party on the lines of Liberal Democrats, Labor Party took up inner-party electoral and funding reforms which meant that the members of trade unions would now have an option to become a member of Labor party and contribute to it and it would no longer be obligatory. This is a move to end the ‘vanguardism’ of the Party as well as end the role of unions in policies. Hence the process which began with New Labor finds a logical conclusion and is another consistency. Especially in the wake of defeat, the establishment in the Labor have rallied behind the calls to reinvent the Blairite policies to win over the middle England, the safe havens of Tories by once again riding the bandwagon of ‘aspirations’ and discarding the traces of class politics from its discourse and actions. Hence, as a reaction, there are increasing voices calling for trade unions to explore Left alternatives beyond the Labor if the latter chooses to follow a Blairite path. One wonders if such a move will materialize; however, parties like Greens becoming active with trade union politics seem possible.

The articulations of nationalism, anti- immigration, identity vis-à-vis class in the backdrop of austerity and recession remain a continuing concern- and these concerns are increasingly shared by politics around the world. Among them, UK is certainly going to be a key battleground. The success of neo-liberal framework presenting itself as the only viable alternative which dangerously feeds into xenophobic projects to keep the troublesome working classes at bay; is sobering while in spite of these, there are emerging popular movements successful at productively resolving the tension between the issues of identity and welfare like Scottish National Party are a cause for inspiration. That really is the takeaway of UK elections 2015.


The author is Research Scholar at JNU.





[1] For detailed UK election results, see http://www.bbc.com/news/election/2015/results

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