By Jane West
No one should underestimate the depth of the crisis now confronting the Tory Party, which has snow-balled from the moment in January that Cameron conceded to the Eurosceptic wing of his party and made a pledge for an in-out referendum on Europe if the Tories won in 2015.
This was an enormous miscalculation, undoing all the work that Cameron had done in turning the Tory Party towards the centreground in British politics with his mantra that ‘banging on’ about Europe had alienated the voters.
Putting the EU discussion firmly off the agenda had allowed him to unite the reluctant and recalcitrant Euro-sceptic right with the Tory modernisers – like himself. This wing is tied to the interests of big UK capital, including finance, which lie in Europe not out. On this basis the Tory Party oriented to adding the centreground in politics to its own right-wing base. This strategy took the Tory Party from the rightist fringes under a series of failed right-wing leaders – Hague, Duncan-Smith, Howard – to be the largest party in 2010, repositioned as a party of the centre-right.
However, as the Tories’ electoral troubles grew – from early last year – resulting from the impact of austerity policies, the anti-Europe voices on Cameron’s right grew more shrill and insistent. With the aim of shutting them up Cameron made the concession on the post-2015 referendum. This was a terrible misjudgment, letting the Euro-genie out of the Tory bottle where it had been fairly firmly stoppered since 2005.
Cameron’s problems have simply gathered pace since then.
First, conceding on an in-out referendum meant Cameron himself put Europe on the agenda. Having drawn the cork himself, the tides of pent-up Tory anti-Euromania have been unleashed. Rather than appeasing the Tory right on Europe, the opening has just made them more insistent. Their renewed vigour and confidence is leading to confrontation across the board – most recently on same-sex marriage. The fault-line in the Tory Party between Eurosceptic, socially reactionary right and ‘modernising’ rather pro-Europe centre is emerging in multiple visible cracks and fissures.
Secondly, it has placed the first really serious strain on the coalition with the Lib-Dems. Scenting blood on Europe, a kamikaze wing of the Eurosceptic flank of the Tories has come close to being prepared to finish off the coalition agreement – despite the inevitable consequences of an early election, lost seats and out of government. For this wing, being in government is subordinate to the Holy Grail of an early referendum on Europe. Moreover it genuinely believes that only such a sharp turn to the right will prevent electoral melt-down to UKIP – when in fact it will just lead to the shedding of votes in the centreground and falling credibility with big business.
It is also ratcheting up tensions within the Coalition because while the Lib Dems, and spineless Clegg, will concede on most of what they claim are core issues – student fees, welfare benefits, immigration, PR, military spending – they cannot back down on Europe. The Lib Dems only have a raison d’etre as the main and most reliably pro-Europe party in Britain. For the coalition to work, Europe has to remain off the agenda.
Thirdly, conceding to the Eurosceptics on an in-out referendum is seen as an extremely dangerous tactics by the most powerful sections of British capital, whose globalized scale of operations are based on their position in a European-wide not a purely British market. The idle claim by the Eurosceptics, that the rise of the BRICS – China in particular – has rendered Europe redundant, is just that. Big UK companies – like Virgin, Tesco, HSBC, Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline, WPP – do want to expand in the BRICS, but not as an alternative to their existing strength in Europe. Europe is their base for greater globalisation, not an obstacle. And China is interested in Britain for inward investment as a springboard to European expansion, not because of the attractions of the tiny British market.
That is why business leaders like Branson and others are joining with the CBI in warning Cameron of the dangers of his tactics on Europe. Unspoken is the threat that they could back Labour in 2015 – as much of British capital did in 1997 – which would ensure an even more wounding defeat for the Tories.
Finally, it has been a disaster as alongside strengthening the radical anti-Europe right in his own party, the placing of Europe centre-stage gave a much needed boost to UKIP which it has relentlessly exploited. Until Cameron’s January announcement on a Euro-referendum, Farage was looking like the mildly ridiculous voice of a Europe-obsessed fringe. Once Cameron put Europe on the agenda, Farage was able to position himself and UKIP as the most determined exponents of a policy espoused across the spectrum of the mainstream right, contributing significantly to its recent electoral success.
For Cameron, the concession to the Eurosceptic right has reinforced the demands of the right within the Tory Party, legitimised the policies of UKIP, helped create an independent electoral challenge and pressure to the right of the party, and raised a real threat that the demands of the Tory right could do such damage to the Coalition that it could disintegrate before reaching the end of the Parliamentary term.
What does this mean for Labour and for the left?
First is to be clear that the problems now confounding the Tory Party are not because of a mass uprising in the population against austerity. There is something of an upturn in struggle against the cuts and austerity, that we have noted before, but so far this is of a limited character and it is not what is driving the Tory crisis. The Tory crisis is being driven by a reorganisation of the right and the sharpening of its arguments against Europe and particularly against the free movement of labour within it – one of the features of the EU that is actually progressive.
Given that almost the entire pressure is coming from the right, the left should therefore be a little thoughtful before expressing unrestrained glee at the Tories’ woes. At present the Tories’ crisis is not feeding a growing debate about alternatives to austerity, but reinforcing a populist, xenophobic, anti-immigration aka racist, agenda, as was seen to emerge in robust form following the horrific events in Woolwich.
This turn to populist right-wing rhetoric, especially on race and immigration, is increasingly setting the terms of the debate across the political mainstream.
The split in the right between the Tories and UKIP should give Labour breathing space. The Tories will struggle to mend that split before an election as the division is of long formation with deep social roots. On the one hand the reactionary right, anti-Europe, Little Englander Tory shires – the old hang ‘em and shoot ‘em brigade – the small shop-keepers and family businesses plus the working class Tories mourning for the privileges of Empire. And on the other hand, the representatives of big capital, the City, administrative elites and their base in the wealthier and more cosmopolitan South-East. The two wings of the Tories previously held together as ‘One Nation’ are irretrievably diverging.
With the right fighting among themselves, Labour has a space to discuss alternatives to austerity, rehabilitate the idea of borrowing, and fight back against the Tory scape-goating of benefit ‘scroungers’ and immigrants, presenting itself as the real progressive and practical alternative to the Tories’ ‘nasty party’.
This would also feed into what should be Labour’s aim – to mop up the voters haemorrhaging from the Lib Dems, dismayed by the impact of austerity on the poorest, alienated by the harsh and derogatory language about benefit claimants, and feeling betrayed by Clegg’s embrace of every Tory twist and turn.
Instead, so far the indications are that the pressure on Miliband is coming from the right rather than the left. The policy review being led by Jon Cruddas started out by setting up the problem confronting Labour as how to overcome a reputation for alleged economic profligacy rather than what actually needs to be done to get the economy back on the move. It did not point out the reality that Brown’s stimulus in response to the 2008 financial crisis prevented the economy dipping into recession. The debt obsession, austerity, economic stagnation and feel-bad factor have all been the gift of the Tories.
Indications of what will come out of this review do not give great hope it will grasp the scale or type of response that is needed to get the economy growing again, without which either debt will continue to spiral or living standards will be made to fall so sharply that it makes the current situation look like a tea party.
According to John Harris, writing in the Guardian on 12 May, his discussions with people leading the review suggest no reversal of existing cuts, ‘brutal’ fiscal constraints, and a house-building programme – good – financed by a further round of massive cuts packaged as ‘a strong story about radically pruning central government, and pushing power downwards as never before’.
Not only does this miss the opportunity to propose borrowing at near zero interest rates and using the value of the acquired asset (houses) to balance the books, but ensures the stimulus implied by the house-building is counter-acted by a further contraction in other areas of the state.
The ‘localism’ is just a cover for ending things like government-led training or job-seeking programmes, cutting their budgets and saying this is now a ‘localised’ function. Whatever the limited value of such schemes to job-seekers, that will still mean contraction as the public sector workers or private companies now delivering them will find themselves out of a job.
Nothing coming out of the review so far suggests that Labour has grasped the scale of the economic problems it will face when it wins in 2015. These problems are only comparable to the situation in 1929, not even to 1945 when at least the economy was on an upward curve as it came out of the war. The failure of Labour then led to political disaster.
The danger is that Labour comes to government in 2015 and presides over a further attack on living standards and the welfare state in an environment where the populist right is already on the offensive. That would lead to a rapid meltdown in Labour support – as Hollande is facing in France – alongside a resurgent, populist, racist right both within the Tory Party and to its right.
At present the attention of the left should be focused on these dangers, not calling for a ‘UKIP of the left’. That means redoubling the efforts to build the anti-austerity pressure on Labour, immediately through building the Peoples’ Assembly Against Austerity on the broadest political basis. And it means reinforcing the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement to oppose UKIP, Islamophobia, and the scape-goating of the right through building Unite Against Fascism and anti-racist campaigns like One Society Many Cultures.