End of an era
'Nothing changes.' That is what a lot of people will conclude from the general
election, in which the Tories won a fourth victory with the same 42 per
cent share of the vote as they had in 1987. But those bare facts disguise
the big changes taking place beneath the surface of British politics.
Across Europe, a spate of recent election results have marked the end of
a political era. In Germany, France and Italy, the old parties of left and
right have all suffered a loss of coherence and support. The closing of
the age of Cold War politics which gave birth to them is coinciding with
the arrival of capitalist slump. Under these combined pressures, the parties
of the postwar order in Europe are coming apart at the seams.
After the Conservative victory on 9 April, things in Britain might appear
to be more stable. And there are indeed distinctive national characteristics.
Yet the underlying British trend does fit into a European pattern of the
old order unravelling.
The crisis of European politics is starkest among the old parties of the
left. The end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union has destroyed the Stalinist
movement in the West. It has also accelerated the decline of European social
democracy by further discrediting the politics of state intervention.
The socialists and social democrats have tried to respond by turning themselves
into alternative capitalist parties. The result has been to leave them devoid
of any distinctive identity or credibility. In recent elections, the left
in government has suffered serious setbacks through being linked with the
recession. Elsewhere, the left in opposition has proved unable to exploit
the economic difficulties afflicting the ruling parties of the right.
In the March regional elections in France, the Socialist government saw
its vote collapse to 18 per cent. The once-powerful French Communist Party
fared even worse. In Italy's general election in April, support for the
Party of the Democratic Left (formerly the Com-munists) slumped from 27
to 16 per cent. The Italian Socialists, involved in the coalition government,
also lost ground. And in the German regional polls, the opposition Social
Democratic Party did badly even in its strongholds.
Set the British Labour Party's performance in this Continent-wide context,
and the depth of its problem is revealed. The 'modernisation' process through
which Labour has abandoned its traditional policies has left it with no
clear identity or dynamic. Like its European counterparts, Labour now stands
for nothing; nothing, that is, except a pragmatic commitment to managing
This is a major reason why Labour could not mobilise the support it needed
to beat the unpopular Tories in April. Labour may have improved on its dismal
showings of 1983 and 1987. But leaving those two routs aside, the 35 per
cent of votes which Labour got this time still represents its worst performance
since the 1930s.
Those who now claim that with 'one more push' Labour can win next time underestimate
what has happened. The Labour Party has already lost everything. Far from
going on to better things, it is likely to slide into the sort of crisis
now fragmenting and consuming European social democracy.
The established parties of the European right are also in a state of crisis.
For more than 40 years, Cold War politics held each of them together in
an anti-Soviet bloc. The collapse of the old enemy has removed that ideological
cement, and robbed the traditional right of its most potent political symbols,
at the moment when capitalist slump is exposing the holes in its economic
So in Italy, the decline of the Christian Democratic Party parallels that
of its main protagonist, the Communist Party. The 29 per cent which the
Christian Democrats polled in April was their lowest vote since the Second
World War. In Germany, the recent elections left the ruling Christian Democrats
in a weaker position in the regional parliaments than any government since
the war. In France, even the collapse of Socialist support could not prevent
the vote for the mainstream conservative parties slipping back. And in all
three countries, the parties of the 'respectable' right lost ground to far-right
groups standing on openly racist platforms.
The consistency of the Tory vote may seem to set British politics apart
from trends in the rest of Europe. Yet the Tories too are suffering the
consequences of the demise of Cold War politics.
The Conservative Party has enjoyed a long history as the unrivalled political
machine of the British establishment, while the European right has often
appeared weak and divided. The Tory Party's legacy of stability and flexibility
has helped it to minimise the electoral impact of the economic crisis so
far. For instance, while the race issue has been used by the far right to
draw votes away from Continental Christian Democracy, the Conservatives
were able to exploit racism to their own advantage on 9 April (see
However, behind the comparatively healthy electoral statistics, the Tory
Party shares most of the political problems of the rest of the old European
right. It has lost its past identity, its sense of purpose and its political
coherence. This explains the problems which the Conservatives encountered
in the run-up to the election. It also means that, despite the post-election
euphoria, they are about to run into serious difficulties.
On paper the Tories' share of the vote may have been unchanged, but in political
terms their 1992 election victory does not compare to 1987. Back then, the
Thatcherites galvanised an enthusiastic Tory constituency behind the banner
of popular capitalism. This time, with the government beset by economic
slump and having long since run out of ideas, John Major's soap-box and
Citizen's Charter failed to enthuse anybody. The fact that the Tories finally
dragged out an anti-Labour vote cannot disguise the lack of a political
dynamic behind them, so well illustrated by their incompetent and deeply
Many commentators have been puzzled by the gap between the campaign opinion
polls and the final election result. Part of the explanation is probably
that a lot people felt too guilty about voting Tory to admit it beforehand,
too begrudging in their support for Major to declare it publicly. That is
a far cry from the bullish 'Ten more years! Tomorrow belongs to me!' mood
of Thatcher's 1987 high tide.
Just as those who fail to situate the British election in the wider context
of post-Cold War politics can underestimate the extent of Labour's collapse,
so too they can overestimate the Tories' strength.
There has been a lot of worried discussion about Britain becoming a one-party
state, like Japan. This misses the point about the recent past. Britain
has effectively been a one-party state for a decade, and certainly for the
past five years, when almost every big political debate has taken place,
not between Labour and the Tories, but within the ranks of the Conservative
Party itself. The one-party state debate misses an even bigger point about
what has changed today. Far from suddenly emerging as an unchallengeable
monolith, the Tory Party has a less secure grip on events than at any time
in its 13-year rule.
Japan provides a useful example of a one-party state in which the one party
concerned is now in a perpetual state of crisis. The Liberal Democratic
Party holds a monopoly on power there. But that has not prevented the government
being badly damaged by a series of corruption scandals and other problems
that reveal its political weakness. These difficulties look set to get worse
as the Japanese economy dips into recession. And if that can happen in the
economically powerful one-party state of Japan, there are far worse times
ahead for the one-party rulers of bankrupt Britain.
The new Major government has to manage a historic capitalist slump without
any policies of substance or any sense of where it is going. The Citizen's
Charter (now to be promoted by the charismatic William Waldegrave) is unlikely
to afford the Tories much protection. The parallels between their true position
and the crisis of the traditional European right are likely to become much
clearer before too long.
Like the rest of Europe, politics in Britain has come to the end of an era.
As the old arrangements unravel, the prospects for putting forward a new
polit-ical alternative should be far better than many suppose. One problem
is that the left, which would traditionally have been seen as the source
of such an alternative, now seems intent on going down with the old order.
The fragments of the old hard left spent the election campaign pursuing
the ever-more fantastic dream of a socialist Labour government. Meanwhile
others, like Robin Blackburn of the New Left Review, proposed tactical
voting for the Liberal Democrats. If this is the best 'alternative' that
the left can come up with, the ruling elites will survive their political
crisis one way or another - and capitalism can survive its slump at our expense.
Living Marxism supported the electoral intervention of the Revolutionary
Communist Party. In terms of votes, the RCP candidates did badly, all losing
their deposits. But the campaign achieved what it set out to do; to win
new supporters to the ideas of anti-capitalism, and so put down a marker
for the politics of revolution on the changing map of Europe.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992