First published: July 1997
The 1 May general election did not simply close 18 years of Conservative government. It brought to an end an entire era in British politics – a 111 year-long political party system based on the dominance of the Conservative Party.
This assertion may cut against the grain of the media coverage – which has been mesmerised by the scale of Labour’s majority in parliament – but it nonetheless corresponds to the facts.
On 1 May Labour won its biggest parliamentary majority in history – an overall majority of 179 seats. But it did so with a share of the UK vote, at 43.2 per cent, which does not remotely qualify as record-breaking. The party won a larger proportion of the vote in 1945, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1964 and 1966 – that is, in every single general election between 1945 and 1966. That included three elections which it lost and Harold Wilson’s 44.1 per cent in 1964 which gave him a majority of just four seats.
What explains the disparity between Labour’s relatively modest share of the vote and its enormous majority of MPs is the melt-down of the Conservative Party. That was the event of truly historic significance which occurred on 1 May. The Tories were reduced to 165 MPs, their lowest tally since 1906 – less than the margin of Labour’s overall majority. But even more significant was the Tories’ share of the vote. At 30.7 per cent, the Conservatives were reduced to their smallest total since 1832. The fact that it was the collapse of the Tory Party, not Labour’s share of the vote, which gave Labour its record number of seats, means the result cannot be attributed to Tony Blair’s policy – it would have won as easily under John Smith or even Bryan Gould. That it was not enthusiasm for New Labour which produced the landslide in seats is further confirmed by the turnout – overall the smallest since 1935 with nine out of ten of the lowest turnouts in safe Labour seats.
The Tories’ electoral collapse was on a scale which simply could not be a one-off event — it marked the end point of an immense long-term political process – the 140-year rise and then decline of the modern Conservative Party.
The modern Conservative Party came into existence in 1859 following the split over repeal of the Corn Laws. Its starting point was a landlord core based in the English countryside. Successive layers of every reactionary and archaic force in British society were then added to create an utterly reactionary political party designed to confront the two biggest threats British capitalism faced right up to the First World War – the first working class in the world and mass opposition to its rule in Ireland.
Starting from the southern English countryside, the Conservative Party conquered the rest of the country bit by bit – achieving total dominance in the north-west and London by the end of the nineteenth century, breaking through into the West Midlands with the split of the Liberal Party over Irish Home rule in 1886 and winning its first majority of Scottish seats in the Boer War election of 1900. Its vote peaked at 55 per cent in 1931.
After 1931 the Tory Party’s share of the vote declined inexorably in what became virtually a mirror image of the curve of its ascent. First, the Tories were driven out of the non-English parts of the United Kingdom. The Conservatives’ lowest votes on 1 May were in Northern Ireland with 1.2 per cent, Scotland with 17.5 per cent and Wales with 19.6 per cent – compared to 33.7 per cent of the vote in England.
The Conservative and Unionist Party had lost its base in Northern Ireland by February 1974 with the split away of the Ulster Unionists.
On 1 May this year, for the first time in its history the Conservatives did not win a single seat in Scotland and, for only the second time, was also thrown out of every seat in Wales.
Within England, the Tories have been comprehensively defeated in the major cities — leaving them today once again reduced to a party of the English countryside and suburbs.
By 1979 the Tories had lost every seat in Liverpool. They were driven out of Glasgow in 1983, Manchester in 1987 and Leicester and Nottingham by 1992. On 1 May the Tories lost every seat in Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol, Coventry, Newcastle, Plymouth and Wolverhampton. They are left with just one seat in Birmingham and 11 out of 74 in London.
In this historical perspective, Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of the GLC and the Metropolitan counties can be seen as nothing more than a King Canute-style attempt to stall – by abolishing disagreeable elections – an inexorable historical process of decline.
In terms of the English regions the same process is clear. Today the Tories are the largest party in just three out of the nine standard English regions – the south-east (excluding Greater London), the south-west and, by a margin of just 0.4 per cent, East Anglia.
The material basis of this curve of the rise and fall of the Conservative Party was the rise and then decline of classical British imperialism, based on overseas expansion and an income from overseas investment sufficient to ameliorate many of the contradictions within British society – the real basis of ‘one nation’ Conservatism. This reached its peak on the eve of the First World War and has been eroded ever since.
During and after the Second World War, having lost its position as the leading world power, British imperialism attempted to shore up its imperial orientation by sheltering as a junior partner under the wing of the United States. But the role of the US in pulling the plug on the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956 showed that the fundamental goal of the US was to replace, not prop up, the European colonial empires.
After Suez, British imperialism began its most fundamental strategic reorientation in a century – towards integration into the emerging west European capitalist bloc which has become the European Union. That has inevitably provoked a crisis of the political party which had risen to dominance on the basis of Britain’s previous world imperialist role – the Tory Party. It has proven impossible to carry through a fundamental strategic re-orientation of British imperialism without a total upheaval in the political party system which accompanied it.
After 1964 the Tories were out of power for 11 of the ensuing 15 years. When the Labour governments elected in those years squandered their political support by wave after wave of pay restraint and finally IMF-inspired cuts in public spending, Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and made a last ditch attempt to stem the Tory decline. The historical balance-sheet is that she failed. North Sea oil revenues to the tune of £100bn allowed her to slow but not reverse her party’s decline – every election from 1979 to 1992 was won with a lower share of the vote than the previous one.
On 1 May this decline finally became an electoral rout. What turned quantitative decline into qualitative collapse was the depth of the recession caused by the Major government’s entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System. The impact on living standards was such that Kenneth Clarke’s efforts to stoke up a consumer boom over the last two years simply could not eradicate its political effects. Exit polls on 1 May showed that 38 per cent of voters thought their living standards had fallen over the previous five years, compared to just 25 per cent who thought they had risen.
The violence of the recriminations which immediately broke out within the Tory Party on the night of the vote simply reflected the scale of what had happened.
A long-term view of the political party system also makes clear why the Tories’ collapse did not produce an equivalent rise in Labour’s share of the vote, as opposed to seats in parliament, on 1 May.
British capital has not sat idly by while its chief political instrument – the Tory Party – has unravelled. It has started to put in place the elements of a new political party system to carry out the scale of attack on the British working class which will be necessary to make British capitalism competitive within the European Union without dismantling the economic distortions left over from the country’s imperial world role. John Major has already shown through the ERM debacle that the Tory Party alone is simply not socially powerful enough to do that.
The goal is to create a new political system in which the fundamental economic orientation demanded by the most powerful sections of British capital is insulated from disruption by any democratic process.
The first element has been to build up new political parties to ensure that the collapse of the Tory Party does not result in Labour becoming totally dominant. As figure 3 shows, since the middle of the 1950s a second directly capitalist party – the modern Liberal Party – has systematically built up its share of the vote, rising from just 2.6 per cent in 1951 to 16.8 per cent on 1 May. In addition, in Scotland, the SNP, which did not exist in 1951, took 22.1 per cent on 1 May.
The Liberals are not a ‘middle class’ party – as some in the labour movement fondly imagine – they are the party of big capital orientated most firmly to participation in European capitalist integration – the British equivalent of continental parties like the German Free Democrats. The SNP have precisely the same fundamental orientation to the EU.
The Liberal Democrats and SNP have been built up by slicing away chunks of the Labour Party’s support locally and nationally. The largest slice to date was the defection of the Social Democrats, which in 1983 gave the Liberal Democrats their largest share of the vote in 60 years. While they are in reality parties of big capital, the Liberal Democrats and even more so the SNP present themselves as to the left of Labour on issues like the NHS and taxation, in order to chop into Labour’s base of support. This will be a major threat to Labour’s vote under a government which betrays its voters’ expectations.
But what the experience of the SDP split also demonstrated was that, contrary to the media hype of the time, the Liberals do not have a social base powerful enough to replace the Labour Party.
Therefore the second element of the re-organisation of British politics is to attempt to transform the Labour Party itself into a social democratic party on the model of other west European social democratic parties – which means qualitatively reducing the influence of the rank and file and the trade unions over policy and the parliamentary party. This is the goal of the Labour into Power project. Its ultimate completion would require the state funding of political parties, ending the union vote within the party and the destruction of the Labour left. This is the battle which Tony Blair has started.
The third element of the new political system which capital is trying to force onto the agenda is the insulation of crucial areas of economic policy-making from any form of even parliamentary accountability – because policies so harsh are envisaged that any politician subject to democratic election would find them difficult to sustain. Gordon Brown’s surrender of the power to set interest rates to the Bank of England is a crucial step in this direction. Participation in European Monetary Union would take it still further.
Finally, the coping stone necessary to cement this emerging new political system in place would be proportional representation. PR would make it possible for the supporters of big European-oriented capital – in the Tory, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Scottish Nationalist parties – to concert their votes across party lines in parliament. Tony Blair’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on electoral reform gives him an option for hanging onto government office, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, by introducing PR when Gordon Brown and Frank Field’s policies produce the inevitable dénouement with the electorate. The Economist and the Financial Times have already joined the Guardian and Observer in advocating this course. But, inaugurating such a ‘European’ political system could also result in the possibility of parliamentary representation and increased political influence for the extreme right and for a party to the left of New Labour.
Having helped throw the Tory Party back 165 years, the British working class now faces political challenges on a level it has not confronted this century. The direction politics now takes will be enormously influenced by how rapidly the left wing of the labour movement re-orients to deal with the scale of political attack it will face with Tony Blair in government.