By Jude Woodward
There are only two possible outcomes to the General Election in May this year. Either Cameron will be returned to Number 10 or he will be replaced by Ed Miliband as Labour Prime Minister.
For the left and all progressive people the choice is unequivocal: kick out the Tories and put Ed Miliband and Labour in Number 10.
However, Labour’s failure to take a stand against austerity among other issues and the fact it is going into the election pledged to continue with most of the Tory cuts is undermining its own support. In Scotland this is leading many voters to turn to the SNP, which led by Nicola Sturgeon looks like a left alternative. And south of the border increasing numbers of young voters in particular are turning to the Greens.
Rather than a majority Labour government – which from polling looked the most likely outcome until last September, since then Labour’s support has generally only been high enough to offer the prospect of it being the largest party.
Labour voters reject austerity
This is a self-inflicted wound.
Recent polling shows that Labour voters reject austerity, with all Labour voters wanting greater spending on public services by 43% to 19% against and this rises to 57% to 15% among swing voters.
But despite this, Labour is running into this election campaign pledged to maintain Tory cuts and continue the priority to ‘paying down the deficit’.
The ten point polling lead Labour held over the Tories (recorded by YouGov) for most of 2012 declined from 2013 onwards as it laid out its pro-austerity agenda. A partial recovery in support was achieved for a couple of months at the end of 2013 following the promise to cap energy prices and end the bedroom tax. But since then it has recycled the same few policy pledges, failing to galvanise its potential support.
Labour’s refusal to break with the Tories’ failed economic framework and present an anti-austerity alternative means all it can offer is some tinkering around the edges of the Tories’ policies. This is not inspiring or galvanising the electorate.
Nonetheless, despite Labour’s feeble response, as the imperative is to kick out the Tories, a Labour or Labour-led government is the best available outcome to the election in May.
However it is entirely understandable given its policy weakness and consequent lacklustre campaign that many natural Labour voters are being drawn to the available alternatives.
The SNP grabs Labour votes in Scotland
While there is a debate about what will be the future trajectory of the SNP, in Scotland those shifting from Labour to the SNP today are clearly looking for an alternative to the left.
The SNP is an amalgam of different class forces, held together by the demand for Scottish independence, which until now has been dominated by Scottish capital.
On the one hand the big surge in SNP’s membership since the referendum in September is a movement to the left, and it is now building a base in the most working class areas of Scotland, which have traditionally voted Labour. On the other hand it lacks any structural relationship with the trade union movement in Scotland, its origins lie in pro-European Scottish capital, and it is famously funded by the likes of Sir Brian Souter of Stagecoach.
At some point – either sooner or later, with either a bang or a whimper – there will be a parting of the ways that resolves whether the SNP is to remain a party of Scottish capital or become a party of the Scottish working class. But for the moment its trajectory is to the left and it is positioned well to the left of Labour on key issues like austerity, Trident, taxation and war.
This makes Labour’s traditional campaigning claim against the SNP that they are the “tartan Tories” out of date and ineffective. Labour’s current campaign against the SNP is that a vote for the SNP will keep Cameron in Number 10. This is also entirely unconvincing.
While the loss of a large number of seats to the SNP in Scotland – as looks likely – may well contribute to depriving Labour of an overall majority, it will not keep Cameron in Number 10. On the contrary if Labour wants to form a government it may well have to make significant concessions to the agenda of the SNP.
The Greens become a serious force to the left of Labour
The swing to the Greens south of the border is similarly a turn to the left albeit by a smaller section of the electorate than in Scotland, which is seeking an anti-austerity, progressive alternative to Labour.
With polling showing support for the Greens averaging at around 7% and sometimes pushing up towards 10%, sometimes ahead of the stricken Lib Dems, this constitutes the emergence of a significant national current to the left of Labour with some mass base in England, for the first time since 1945.
Of course the first past the post system means this will not translate into seats. Caroline Lucas will almost certainly retain her seat in Brighton, but the chances of the Greens winning other seats are slim. And indeed in Norwich South – which the Greens are targeting – it would it be sad indeed if progress for the Greens was at the expense of the very good Labour candidate Clive Lewis, who it is to be hoped wins the seat for Labour.
However, rather than learning the lessons of why it is losing some support to the Greens, Labour is pursuing a similar tack to that taken in Scotland. Sadiq Khan has been put in charge of a “smash the Greens” campaign, which has highlighted some of their allegedly “extremist” policies in an attempt to scare off potential Green voters. So for example Green leader Natalie Bennett was pilloried in the press for badly formulated statements suggesting it should not be illegal to simply have sympathy with Islamic State as opposed to actually doing anything about it. Under the pressure of the media campaign she clarified the Greens’ position. But more significantly the furore did not lead to any decline in support for the Greens. Voters shifting to the left to support the Greens are not going to be scared off by allegations on third-rate matters.
As in Scotland there has also been scaremongering that a high vote for the Greens may deprive Labour of sufficient seats to keep the Tories in government. Some of the evidence for this is highly contentious, not based directly on how people say they intend to vote but on estimations of ‘tendency’ to vote, drawn from analysis of the social and economic composition of a range of seats in different parts of the country. The aim of such doom-laden analysis is to deter progressive voters from supporting the Greens out of fear of the Tories and steer Labour away from an anti-austerity agenda. But the hard evidence suggests that only in a tiny handful of seats could a high Green vote let in a Tory.
Rather than letting the Tories in, a high vote for the Greens would exercise left pressure on Labour and the next government. As it would if George Galloway were able to retain his Bradford seat.
UKIP is a threat to the Tories not to Labour
Both these trends – to the SNP in Scotland and the Greens elsewhere – give the lie to those who have claimed that the real threat to Labour lies to its right, and it should make concessions to UKIP’s Little Englander, anti-immigrant agenda to prevent leakage of Labour’s support from the “traditional” working class.
The threat from UKIP is not to Labour but to the Tories. The Tories’ vote is dividing between its pro-European, business and metropolitan base on the one hand and its backward, inward looking electorate in the Tory shires on the other. It is the latter that is driving support for UKIP.
Of course the Tories also have always had a substantial base in the, particularly English, working class – it had already almost been eliminated in Scotland and Wales. Without this mass base in the English working class the Tories could never have been elected as the majority party. Since the introduction of universal suffrage the capitalist class and the petty bourgeoisie have never constituted a sufficiently large social block to win a majority without working class support.
An illusory past where the entire British working class voted en bloc for Labour never existed. That a section of the working class – especially in the context of austerity and falling living standards – can be captured by a radical right wing party already enjoying a surge in support, as UKIP has done, is not very surprising.
But it is not the main threat to Labour. And indeed if Labour listens to the siren voices of the right seeking to persuade it to adapt to backward, UKIP-style rhetoric and policies it will just speed up the leaching of support from Labour to the left. Labour’s pandering to the UKIP anti-immigration campaign has not gained it any votes, on the contrary it coincided with the fall for Labour in the polls.
The threat from UKIP is to the Tories, and is a prime reason why Cameron cannot win the election in May. But although the form of the problem for the Tories is new – the emergence of a right-wing populist party with mass support – this is just the latest twist in the long-term disintegration of the one nation Tory electoral bloc that meant almost continuous Conservative governments throughout the 20th century.
As has been thoroughly analysed elsewhere, at every election that the Tories have won since 1955 it has been on a lower share of the vote than the previous win. On the basis of this long-term trend, the Tories can only anticipate gaining around 30.3% if they lose and 34.6% if they were to win..
This means that unless Labour is completely incompetent – which is sadly not ruled out – it will almost inevitably emerge as the largest party from the 7 May election.
Labour must break from austerity
The structural threat to Labour lies on its left, not on its right. Across Europe anti-austerity parties are arising to the left of the traditional Social Democratic parties that are drawing off chunks of their vote. In the weaker economies of southern Europe and Ireland such parties are moving towards a grasp on power, as has already occurred in Greece.
In Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland politics is polarising between the pro-austerity parties of the right and these new anti-austerity political forces. Between these two alternatives there is no space for the ‘austerity-lite’ programmes of the likes of PASOK or PSOE.
In Britain the economic problems are not so deep, and the political polarisation is not so developed. But Labour is already losing some support to its left in Scotland and to the Greens, and this will accelerate if a Labour-led government fails to deliver tangible improvements to people’s lives.
For a Labour or Labour-led government
Despite the weaknesses of Ed Miliband’s Labour, faced with the choice between Cameron and the Tories returning to Number 10 versus a Labour or Labour-led government there is no debate about which is preferable. That means in the great majority of constituencies and in most parts of the country progressive people will make the correct choice: to vote Labour and do everything possible to kick out the Tories.
But in this election, unlike others in recent years, in not every constituency is it a choice between Labour on the one hand and the Tories or LibDems on the other. In Brighton Pavilion returning Caroline Lucas will ensure there is a Green voice in Parliament and make no difference to whether Labour can form a government. Indeed it would not help the Tories if the Greens were to win a couple more seats. And if George Galloway were returned in Bradford it would ensure a strong voice against imperialism and war was maintained in Parliament.
And of course finally, beyond Britain, in the north of Ireland a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote against austerity and for the British state to get out of Ireland. All those campaigning against austerity and imperialism get a boost from a high vote for Sinn Fein.
The election on 7 May has only two possible outcomes from the point of view of which party forms the next government – either the Tories or Labour. That choice is clear: kick out the Tories and vote to ensure Ed Miliband is returned to Number 10.