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Who's to blame ?

Many have concluded that the Tory election victory reflects the conservatism of the British people. Eddie Veale thinks it says a lot more about the conservatism of the Labour Party

'Britain is, above all, a conservative country. That is the verdict of the people....The shape of John Major's victory makes a strong case against the possibility of radical change of any kind.'

Hugo Young, Guardian, 11 April 1992

These conclusions, drawn by the top columnist from the pro-Labour Guardian, were widely echoed among other pundits and politicians, including Labour Party frontbenchers themselves. They all agreed that the 1992 election result reflected the deep-seated conservatism of the British people.

The Labour Party is always trying to find such external, 'objective' explanations for its defeats. After they were routed in the 1987 election, Labour spokesmen pointed to a north-south divide, and blamed greedy southerners who were benefiting from the Tory boom for betraying the rest of Britain. Even then the argument was tenuous; now it is unsustainable.

Hardest hit

The south-east of England has been hardest hit in the current recession, yet Labour made no serious inroads there in the April election. The notion of a solidly pro-Labour north was also undermined by the party's failure to break through in the marginal seats of the north-west, and its loss of impetus in Scotland.

Faced with these results, many Labour spokesmen now suggest that, in fact, the external barrier they face is much bigger than they thought; it's not just that southerners are greedy, it's that most of the British nation is naturally conservative-minded.

What all of these arguments have in common is the attempt to blame the British people (and working class people in particular) for the failures of the Labour Party.

The election result was partly a consequence of conservatism. But not the allegedly 'natural' conservatism of people who live in Britain. It was a product of the conservative political agenda endorsed by every mainstream British party today.

Hugo Young's conclusion about the rejection of 'radical change' is based upon the media-hyped assumption that radical change was on offer in the election campaign. But it never was. The electorate was offered a choice of dull and distinctly unradical political programmes, almost indistinguishable from one another.

In a contest between such conservative parties, the true Conservative Party always had an in-built advantage.

Narrow ground

The blame for this state of affairs rests with the Labour Party. Labour has long put itself forward as the party of radical change. Yet it was responsible for ensuring that what little election debate there was took place within a narrow range of issues and arguments, most of them on the Tories' home ground.

Under Neil Kinnock's leadership since 1983, the Labour Party has been transformed into an openly pro-capitalist centre party. It has dropped old-fashioned Labourist policies like nationalisation or unilateral nuclear disarmament. In their place, Labour has publicly embraced the principles beloved of the British establishment, such as market economics, tight state spending controls, nuclear defence and so on.

The result of this process was that, when Labour launched its election manifesto in late March, even Paddy Ashdown was able to dismiss it as 'a conservative manifesto, a pretty pathetic wimpish affair'. Indeed, Labour policy had shifted so far into the centre that on many social issues the Liberal Democrats looked like the most left-wing parliamentary party. Labour's conversion into just another capitalist party appeared complete when it won the endorsement of the Financial Times in the election.

Which banker?

All of the experts agreed that Kinnock's reforms had 'made Labour electable' again. What they meant was that Kinnock had made Labour largely inoffensive to the establishment. But in electoral terms, Labour had played into the Tories' hands.

Labour's determination to appear respectable and financially responsible meant it could only raise the most uncontroversial issues in the most conservative terms. Typically, it got trapped in an ongoing, mind-numbingly narrow debate with the Tories about the fine points of taxation policy. As a result the election campaign, noted one hardbitten observer, sounded a bit like a three-week long interview with a bank manager.

After such a campaign there could only really be one winner. Whatever Labour's pretensions, and whatever the Tories' economic blunders, the Conservatives remain the premier party of British capitalism with the support of the establishment; polls showed more than 90 per cent of business leaders backed the Tories. People asked to vote on who would make the best bank manager were always much more likely to choose Major than Kinnock. Labour's election results confirmed what you can expect when you try to be more conservative than the Conservatives.

Of course, the media and Labour leaders like Bryan Gould drew very different conclusions. They said that the British people were too moderate to vote Labour - which is another way of arguing that the Labour Party is still too radical to win. Whoever becomes the next Labour leader, the party is set to move further still into the dead centre of conservative politics.

The rump of the old Labour left has seized on the failure of Kinnock's moderate election campaign to argue the opposite case; that Labour should return to the traditional policies on which it won past elections. This might sound like a radical alternative; but in its own way it is equally conservative, since it is an attempt to turn back the clock and recreate the conditions of 1945, fifty years on. Such arguments can only strengthen the already powerful feeling among many people that the left belongs to the past. And that is another factor which works in the Tory Party's favour.

A better life

Those who blame the conservatism of the British people for Labour's failures effectively deny the possibility of challenging capitalism. They are attempting to turn their own (entirely justified) pessimism about the Labour Party's future prospects into an argument against trying anything radical.

The fact remains, however, that working class people in Britain want a better life than they can expect from this slump system. That alone should ensure that it is possible to put the case for changing the way society is run back on to the political agenda.

But it will not be possible by acting like penny-pinching accountants, or by wishing that things were what they used to be. As the Tories enter their fourth successive term, it is surely time to accept that neither variant of Labour conservatism can be of any use today.

How Living Marxism beat Mori

The embarrassed opinion pollsters of Mori, Gallop and the rest are trying to explain away their predictions of a Labour victory. If they had polled the opinion of Living Marxism over the months before the election, they could have avoided this unpleasantness.

For the benefit of these experts (and our own new readers), here is a reminder of what was said back in the October 1991 issue of Living Marxism, when the pre-election campaign was just beginning. It shows that a Marxist analysis of society provides a more reliable guide to politics than one or two hundred opinion polls.

'Whenever the general election is, one thing now seems certain; the Labour Party cannot win it.

'Traditional Labourism is dead, and Neil Kinnock's party has found nothing with which to replace it. In the search for respectability, Kinnock has turned Labour into a bland imitation of the Tory Party. But, as always seemed likely, when it comes closer to election time more people will plump for the real thing.

'Labour now has no distinctive policies, no radical appeal, nothing. Its problems illustrate the death of opposition politics in Britain.'

Living Marxism, October 1991
Remember where you read it first.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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