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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 appointments.

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.

New Majorism?

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 everyday life.

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.

Escape clauses

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 press.

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.
  • Lack of choice
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 governing policies.

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.
  • End of left-right distinctions
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.

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 left-wing.

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.
  • Premature ageing
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.
  • No protest vote
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.

Internal collapse

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

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