The exhaustion of British politics
It's no use looking to the patterns of the past to understand what happened
in the election and what comes next. Frank Richards takes issue with the
terms of the post-election debate
Was it the issue of tax? Did Neil Kinnock's personality turn off the voters?
Or has the British electorate become irredeemably conservative? Post-election
speculation about the success of a poorly prepared and weakly led Conservative
Party remains imprisoned within the vocabulary of postwar politics. As could
be expected, right-wing commentators have gloated about the inbred common
sense of the ordinary Brit. By contrast, left-wing observers blame the influence
of the media rather than the ineptitude of Labour.
What unites the different strands of analysis is the attempt to use the
patterns of the past as a guide to assessing contemporary events. Yet the
events of the past few years, culminating in the general election, indicate
that we have entered a political era in which the assumptions of postwar
British politics make little sense.
There is more at issue here than the fourth defeat of Labour by a relatively
unpopular Conservative Party. The election result itself is far less significant
than the collapse of political debate which was so well illustrated during
the campaign. British political culture seems too exhausted to keep up even
a pretence of controversy. When the war over Jennifer's ear represents the
high-point of a national election debate, the absence of conflicting alternatives
becomes unavoidably obvious.
One clear symptom of the new political era has not received the consideration
it deserves. According to the parliamentary tradition of modern times, the
post of Speaker of the House of Commons alternates between Conservative
and Labour MPs. As a consequence, since 1951 each new Speaker has been 'elected'
to his job unopposed. With the post-election retirement of Speaker Bernard
Weatherill, it was Labour's turn to offer a candidate. However, this time
many Conservative MPs refused to go along with the tradition of uncontested
These Tories argued that, after four successive electoral defeats, Labour
could no longer be considered as a party comparable to their own. They put
forward several Conservative candidates for Speaker in a bid to keep out
the Labour nominee, Betty Boothroyd. In the end, enough traditionalist Tories
voted with Boothroyd to ensure that she got the job. But the very fact that
such an issue could be publicly raised, and a parliamentary convention openly
challenged, indicates that the rules of the game have changed.
No more consensus
Some commentators have tried to interpret the election of a Major government
as the end of the conflictual Thatcher era, and a return to the political
consensus of postwar Britain. In fact, the shifts in the political climate
indicate that there is no going back. The demise of old-fashioned party
politics, and the consolidation of a one-party state, with a one-party culture
and a one-party media, has no precedent in Britain.
Throughout this century, governing parties, even when they possessed large
majorities, faced some sort of coherent alternative. There were bitter political
conflicts and something substantial to argue about. The political period
today is distinguished not merely by the absence of alternatives, but by
the fact that no party, not even the one in government, can engage the electorate
with so much as a semblance of a political programme.
In all the confusion and the mayhem concerning the internal squabbling of
Labour, it is easy to remain oblivious to the far more significant development
in British politics; the incoherence of contemporary Conservatism.
Left-wing commentators in particular have the irritating, if predictable,
habit of explaining away Labour's defeats by reference to some special power
which the Tories possess. This was the content of the wearisome Thatcherism
thesis of the eighties. Today, similar arguments are rehashed to suggest
that John Major has tapped into some deep and traditional popular instinct.
Thus left historian Raphael Samuel writes of John Major's 'instinctive feel
for tradition', suggesting that the man from Brixton possessed a special
rapport with ordinary people (Guardian, 18 April 1992). In endowing
Major with popular appeal, Samuel shows just how out of touch he is from
Nevertheless, like the Thatcherism thesis, the left's belief in 'Majorism'
serves a purpose. It invites Labour to accommodate further to conservatism,
on the grounds that this is the only way to find popular resonance in Britain.
In reality, Major and his party look plausible only in relation to their
opponents. As for Major's popular touch...a casual conversation with the
punters in just about any public bar should disabuse the left intellectuals
of this prejudice.
The post-election squabbling inside the Labour Party is more than a response
to the experience of defeat. It indicates that this is now a party of cliques
and individuals rather than any sort of political movement. Labour's apparent
embarrassment over the vestiges of its trade union connections indicates
that the labour movement as such is extinct. The predictable calls for changing
the name from 'Labour' to something less offensive are unlikely to strengthen
the party. In the context of defeat, name changes suggest shame and an admission
of guilt. Recent experience shows that parties which change their names
in a bid to gain public acceptance merely accelerate their decline.
It is fashionable in liberal circles to blame the electorate for the prevailing
state of British politics. The images of selfish and greedy southerners,
of Essex Man, are contrasted with the lofty altruistic sentiments of the
Lib-Lab tradition. Others, like Neil Kinnock, blame the Tory media. But
it is essentially the same argument since, in blaming the media, the finger
is ultimately pointed at the gullible and stupid readers of the Tory tabloid
To get away from this self-serving discussion and clarify what is genuinely
at issue, it may prove useful to summarise the main distinctive features
in contemporary British politics.
It is difficult to recall a time when people were offered so little choice
during a British general election. The debate during the 1992 election was
confined to peripheral matters. Arguments about the percentage points of
taxation tended to obscure the fact that the parties had a common diagnosis
and a common cure for economic problems.
The character of the capitalist system of production was not in dispute.
All of the parties accepted the existing economic realities, including the
continuation of mass unemployment and austere controls on public spending.
The opposition parties promised to improve the provision of public services
only within the terms of these realities, conceding that making British
business profitable must come first.
There was no argument about defence, foreign affairs, law and order or racism.
Nor was there a clash between alternative visions of society. Probably the
most significant debates were over devolution for Scotland and other constitutional
reforms. However, the very concern of the opposition with these issues indicated
the lack of differences on matters of substance.
Devolution and constitutional reform are token attempts to make the existing
state more responsive. Such a debate is not about social change or an alternative
vision of life. It is about tinkering with the old institutions. Anyone
inspired by the wholly acceptable call for proportional representation ought
to ask if anything would be different under that kind of a regime. Given
the absence of differences on fundamentals, an election organised under
proportional representation would still lead to the triumph of the same
The absence of political debate tends to add an element of instability to
party politics. It means that policy is developed on the hop. What is deemed
to be unpopular is quickly and quietly modified - as was the case with Labour's
timetable for the implementation of its tax plans.
The narrowing of party political debate has accelerated the erosion of the
meaning of 'left' and 'right' in mainstream politics. This was an election
of centre parties vying to occupy the same space. The word 'socialist' did
not appear in the Labour manifesto, nor did the word 'capitalist' feature
in the Tory programme. From time to time during the campaign somebody might
use such language, but not with any great conviction.
- End of left-right distinctions
The Thatcherite Tory Party won the 1987 election with an ideologically charged
campaign. This time around, the Tory Party became far more guarded in its
pronouncements. It is no less the party of big business than before; but
having lost the ability to galvanise their audience, Major's men were concerned
to widen their appeal by offending nobody.
As for the left, what does it mean now? The term is used so promiscuously
that even a man like Bryan Gould, a creation of the Labour Party machine,
can today be identified as the candidate of the left in the party's leadership
election! On this criterion, former Labour right stalwarts like Denis Healey
or even James Callaghan would today be described as men of the left.
In the context of British party politics the term left simply has no meaning.
What are the distinctive left-wing policies on offer? A bit more tax? An
end to opting out in the NHS? Without even a pretence of offering major
social reform or a serious redistribution of wealth, none of the parties
deserves to be identified with anything that can remotely be construed as
The lack of meaning now attached to the term left-wing was shown during
the election campaign, when it was difficult to decide which of the main
parties was the least conservative. Indeed, on many occasions it appeared
that the Liberal Democrats were more radical than Labour. In this confused
climate, many probably concluded that this party of the dead centre offered
the most systematic challenge to the status quo.
Probably the single most important statistic to emerge from the election
concerns the voting pattern of those aged between 18 and 24. Although many
of this generation voted for Labour, there was a surprisingly large shift
to the Conservatives. It appears that a larger percentage of young people
voted Tory than at any time since the war.
The voting pattern of the youth is not the result of the reinvigoration
of Conservatism. It is the product of a number of developments which are
mutually reinforcing. First of all, there is an absence of alternatives.
In particular, the lack of radical visions means that the potential idealism
of this generation is seldom realised, at least not in a political form.
Secondly, identifying with Labour no longer necessarily implies anything
radical. Indeed for many young people Labour is the most conservative or
old-fashioned of all the parties. The ease with which Tory media experts
are able to depict trade unions as dinosaurs with little purpose underlines
the evolving image of the labour movement as history. For many young people
there is nothing radical about voting for Labour.
There is, of course, also an element of deradicalisation in all of this.
In the absence of credible anti-capitalist policies, many young people experience
the present slump with anxiety and fear. They are only too aware that their
career options are minimal, and are ready to accept the view that their
interest is best served by the 'competent' management of a Tory government.
With nothing else on offer such a response becomes inevitable.
The ageing of youth and the absence of political alternatives has had the
effect of deactivating almost all sections of British society. Consequently
in Britain (unlike in other parts of Europe where the mainstream parties
are also losing their grip), there was a clear absence of a protest vote.
Even the lovable Greens, who recently appeared to be making some significant
gains, were all but annihilated in the election. In Scotland, where protest
enjoyed a degree of momentum, the Scottish National Party failed to make
the gains that it had expected.
The absence of a protest vote testifies to the stupefaction of British politics.
The extraordinary intellectual collapse of opposition forces has created
a situation of political stasis. Temporarily at least, a sense of fear overwhelms
the desire to act. Even hitherto politically active individuals have been
forced to retreat. Mind-numbing campaigns on electoral reform are about
as far as most old 'activists' are prepared to go.
The palpable exhaustion of British politics can easily distract the observer
from seeing its underlying fragility. British party political institutions
are in decay. Concern with the weak constituency base of the Conservative
Party is but one symptom of this process. More important is the public inertia
of the victors in the election. The Tory government is going through the
motions. It is fast running out of state industries to privatise. It has
scope for a few more laws against unions and potential immigrants - but not
much more. Its most visionary initiative, launching David Mellor as Secretary
for National Heritage, minister for celebrating Britain's past, has something
cheap and tawdry about it.
The new government's lack of political coherence means that it is unlikely
to emerge intact from the challenge of managing the capitalist slump. Without
any defined objectives or a sense of direction, every difficult decision
will help expose the government's political exhaustion. The only thing that
the Conservatives have in their favour is a uniquely flaccid and aimless
opposition party. But this advantage is no longer likely to compensate for
the internal corrosion of the Conservative Party.
It now seems that Labour will follow the fortunes of the turn-of-the-century
Liberal Party and cease to be a contender for governing Britain. This decline
of Labourism is to be welcomed. At the very least it clarifies the problem
of nobody posing an alternative to capitalist politics. The end of the Labourist
tradition ought to provide a stimulus to those concerned with the project
of human emancipation. It demonstrates that piecemeal criticisms of capitalism
and half-hearted reforms only discredit the cause of social change.
Boldness and vision
So what is the future for opposition politics in Britain? There seems little
point in prolonging the old political arrangements by arguing for constitutional
reforms or other proposals to democratise existing state institutions. Such
an orientation fails to address the more fundamental question of what kind
of society we need - and why capitalism cannot provide it.
What is required is boldness and vision. One lesson of Labour's demise is
that people will only move if there is something really big to fight for.
It may sound ultimatistic, but the fact is that no progressive argument
can make sense today unless it is based upon a rejection of society as it
is presently constituted. To breathe life back into opposition politics,
the narrow terms on which debate now takes place need to be challenged by
engaging in a battle of ideas.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992