By Jane West
The results of the local elections were above all a devastating blow to the Tories.
But while they confirm Labour is on course for a win at the 2015 General Election, this at present is not due to a significant turn to the left in the population.
On the contrary, the success of UKIP – and the fact that the Tory and UKIP vote combined was significantly ahead of Labour – is testimony to the historic reserves of backwardness which still exists in British society. The response of significant sections of the population to the driving down of living standards accompanying austerity is not to turn against capital and the banks, but to continue to seeks refuge in the past – in memories of a global and national white supremacy that once were able to deliver high incomes to a significant sections of the population in Britain on the back of oppression across the globe.
For the Tories the elections were a disaster, from which they have no way out in the short term.
The Tory Party can only win through a strategy of adding to its natural base on the right by an appeal to the centre-ground in British politics. This strategy was at the heart of the success of Cameron in moving the Tories from being the ‘nasty party’ and 13 years in the political doldrums to its partial success in 2010.
But this tack to win the ‘centre-ground’ had already begun to meet ideological resistance on the right of the party, and is now fatally undermined by the desertion of a major part of the Tory electorate to UKIP.
But if Cameron – or an alternative Tory leadership – turns right to try to prevent the hemorrhage to UKIP, its substantially re-won support in the ‘centre’ will be lost to the Lib Dems or Labour. This path condemns the Tories to a future of reduced scope as the party of the ideological right. Not only will it lose support in the centre-ground of the electorate, but also of major sections of capital that do not see a ‘little England’ strategy serving their interests.
But if the Tories continue the Cameron strategy of appealing from the right to the ‘centre ground’ on Europe and social issues it will continue to lose to UKIP on its right.
All this is the working through of the next stage in the long-term decline of the Tory Party as the hegemonic party of British capital. The components of its base can no longer be held together in one political framework, as they could be in the past based on the profits of Empire and Britain’s historic economic and global advantages.
But for Labour and the working class the outcome of the elections should also be of concern.
Not primarily because Labour did not do better in elections mainly in the shires, where the right – Tories and UKIP – have their main support. Labour’s share of the vote at 29 per cent is quite respectable there compared to the Tories 25 per cent, UKIP’s 23 per cent and the LibDems 14 per cent. The indications appear to be that the Tories lost around 11 per cent and Labour gained around 10 per cent compared to the same elections in 2009. This sets Labour for a strong victory in 2015.
The overall results of these elections in the shires are being spun to suggest they are a poor result for Labour and that Miliband is not on course for 2015. But these ‘projections’ are based on highly unreliable statistics. The projections based solely on the areas where Labour could be expected to advance show much better results for Labour in line with current opinion polls.
In many ways the split in the right-wing vote between UKIP and the Tories helps Labour in a first past the post electoral system.
Nor should Labour be worried that UKIP is robbing Labour of votes in substantial numbers. This is simply not happening.
A YouGov poll conducted in February this year found that of those declaring an intention to support UKIP only 7 per cent – only one in fourteen UKIP supporters – had voted for Labour in 2010, while 60 per cent had voted Tory and 25 per cent voted LibDem.
A very large sample-base of 30,000 was used for a YouGov/Times poll on Friday 3rd May, and showed a similar result for Labour with only 4 per cent of 2010 Labour votes shifting to UKIP. The same poll showed 18 per cent of Tory votes and 8 per cent of the Lib Dem vote had gone to UKIP.
Put in the same terms as the February poll, this means that at most 11 per cent of UKIP votes came from Labour, 22 per cent from the Lib Dems and 66 per cent from the Tories.
Despite the evidence of polls and the actual share of votes in a set of elections that are inevitably the most unfavourable for Labour, the media coverage – led by the BBC – was insistent upon trying to set a false agenda that the UKIP result was a disaster for ‘all three major parties’.
Part of the reason for this is that ‘UKIP surges in seismic political shift’ is a better media story than ‘Tory voters shift right in protest vote’, which is closer to the truth.
But it also has an ideological purpose – to argue that all the major parties have to turn to the right in order to counter the UKIP threat.
This suits the general pressure that capital wants to keep on Labour as 2015 approaches. And an overall shift to the right eases the political squeeze on the Tories.
But such a shift to the right by Labour is not only unnecessary, but on UKIP’s big issues – immigration and Europe – or on welfare ‘scroungers’ and cuts could be damaging.
Labour stands to gain most by gathering up votes from disaffected Lib Dem voters, who are dismayed by the Lib Dems’ betrayal on student fees, on the ‘bedroom tax’, the assaults on universal benefits and the lurches to the right on immigration.
The same Times poll cited above found that 53 per cent of Lib Dem 2010 voters were deserting the party, with 64 per cent of Liberal deserters going to Labour (20 per cent to the Tories and 15 per cent to UKIP).
The ‘liberal’ centre-ground in British politics is precisely that layer of the population that, in proper Marxist terms, are better off workers, pay tax, are comfortably off, but see universal benefits and the NHS as not only their own reward for contributing to society but also a guarantee of social equilibrium in mixed and multicultural cities and suburbs.
This is precisely the layer that Thatcher alienated with her talk of ‘no such thing as society’. Tory policies of running down the inner cities, decaying public infrastructure, long-term unemployment, reduced benefits safety net, ending public housing programmes and stepped up police repression of excluded communities threatened not just the communities under attack, but the social peace that ensured general community safety.
That built the Lib Dem vote in the 1980s and 90s. The same process is shifting that vote from the Lib Dems to Labour today. Labour does not need to shift right to maintain this, it just needs to set a progressive alternative.
However, the reason Labour should be concerned about the rise in support for UKIP is that the combined strength of the Tories and UKIP show the continued hold of a right-wing populist response to the crisis in the mass of the population. UKIP’s regressive – and economically disastrous – claims that prosperity can be found through rejecting Europe, raising tariffs, closing the doors to immigration, replacing Trident and setting an aggressive foreign policy agenda – echoed by the Tory right and conceded to by Cameron – still have a grip on the imagination of significant sections of the population.
The potential for a very unpleasant growth of an explicitly racist, nationalist agenda in British politics clearly exists, and is a clear danger if Labour wins the election in 2015 but fails to deliver any real improvement in living standards.
The election in 2015 is only two years away, but the economy is still flat-lining. Any assumption by Labour that the economic problems will have resolved by 2015 and that they will be simply managing a new boom – as they did in 1997 – is entirely misplaced.
Instead they will face an economy still stuttering, living standards still falling, a continued squeeze on the public purse and a discontented population expecting change, which no amount of tinkering can deliver.
Labour should be worried about UKIP, not because they could rob them of the election in 2015. The Tories’ intractable crisis makes that reasonably assured, barring huge mistakes by Labour.
Labour should be worried about UKIP, because what it shows is that if Labour fails to deliver after 2015 it can create a whirlwind of reaction that turns UKIP or worse into more than just a protest vote, to become the agenda-setters for a disastrous turn to the right in British politics.
The left has to take on the responsibility of a serious struggle to prevent this outcome. This makes it even more important to regroup the left both inside and outside the Labour Party to begin to take on this task.