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Chris Ford: The UK election result - a shocking night for the English left but not for the Scottish or Welsh left

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Yesterday, I took some time off work to watch the United Kingdom election results. When I saw the first exit poll, which confounded all previous polls, my heart sank. I realised (as few did) that the exit poll probably was closer to the actual result. Subsequently, I prepared myself for the worst.

Thursday's UK election, though, was a repeat of 1992 but, this time, the English left did badly (with the exception of the Greens and Plaid Cyrmu who recorded increases in their vote) while the Scottish left (through the Scottish National Party) did spectacularly well.

When the election is looked at across the UK as a whole, the picture for the left gets even bleaker. When the votes of all of the right-aligned parties (Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, and Ulster Unionist parties) are added together, the Right scored just a little over 50 percent of the vote while the left-leaning parties (Labour, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cyrmu, etc) scored 40 percent. This replicates almost the New Zealand 2014 election result which saw the right and left blocs polling similar figures.

However, when electoral stats are broken down across the four main nations of the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) it seems that there is a clear preference for the Conservatives in England while in Scotland the left parties (SNP, Greens and Labour plus other smaller left parties) polled well over 70 percent and in Wales, the main left parties there (Labour, Plaid Cyrmu, and Greens) polled just over 51 percent of the vote. In Northern Ireland, which has its own sectarian brand of politics, the left-leaning republican/nationalist parties there (Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic Labour Party) were almost neck-in-neck with the more right-aligned Unionist parties.

Therefore, the Tories gained their stunning, unexpected mandate to rule through winning over large swathes of English voters and this movement trended across England (except in the North-East) while the colonised nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland largely resisted the right-wing surge. An incredible outcome whichever way you look at it.

From the viewpoint of this progressive left blogger, I have to say that there are a number of reasons why the left failed, particularly in England. There are a number of reasons that have already been hinted at by political commentators and observers. I will repeat some of the main themes here but will add some observations of my own:

1.) The Tories successfully deployed the 'SNP factor' to scare wavering English voters off from voting Labour or UKIP: this largely explains why the Tory surge that had gone un-detected in the polls and which revealed itself only on polling day came to be. David Cameron and the Tories, aided and abetted by the right-wing press and his notorious, devious but extremely effective strategist, the Australian Lynton Crosby, saw the opening afforded by the fear that a minority Labour Government could have to do deals with the even more left-wing Scottish Nationalists to survive. Crosby, especially, likely advised the Tories to engage in the round of wedge politics (which they did) to break away sections of more conservatively inclined Labour and UKIP voters from their preferred parties to vote Tory. This late breakaway probably served the Tories by stopping UKIP from taking more votes away from them and also denying Labour traction in some of the key marginals it aimed to take off the Conservatives. Strike one.

2.) Mixed messaging from Ed Miliband and Labour: the party appears to be stuck between an ideological rock and a hard place. I really question people who think that Labour's defeat was down to it being 'too left wing.' I don't call a continuing adherence to much of the Thatcherite/Blairite mantra of spending cuts, contracting out and welfare reform 'too left wing' at all. If anything, these sentiments merely reinforce the fact that the political pendulum has swung so far to the right since the Thatcher era that even any admittedly moderate shift away from Thatcherism/Blairism (which in some respects Labour signalled) is feared and smeared by the media and corporate elites. This need to attempt to appeal to both Blairites in Middle England and its working class and poorer electoral base saw it offer a muddled programme which, on the one hand, continued to extol the mantras of Thatcherism/Blairism and, on the other, attempt to move away from it even minorly by, for example, offering some form of greater workplace democracy and shareholding. For these reasons, the upcoming leadership contest will provide a platform for a debate which could finally initiate a damaging schism between traditional left-wing sections of the party (represented by some of the unions and internal campaigning groups like Red Labour) and its Blairite wing (represented by factions such as the Blairite 'Progress' organisation). This schism could initiate the final break up of the Labour Party into a left-wing, more social democratic/democratic socialist party and a Blairite party which could align itself more with the Tories and the remnants of the Lib Dems.

3.) The collapse of the Lib Dems: the Tory desire to drive their coalition partners out of office was amazing, given that the Lib Dems had been loyal, almost subservient, to the Tories for five years. Besides, Tory voters didn't care much for the fact that the Lib Dems had actually frustrated few of the Conservatives more radical plans such as welfare reform or 'free' (i.e. charter) schools. Hardline traditional Tories just saw them as an obstacle to making further progress on repealing, for example, the Human Rights Act which they now appear to be on the brink of doing. Furthermore, many Lib Dem seats had been taken by them and its predecessor, the Liberal-Social Democrat Alliance, from the mid-1980s onwards in a series of elections and by-elections from both Labour and the Tories. More crucially, a greater proportion of Lib Dem seats were Tory-facing than Labour-facing, hence, many simply returned to their traditional political folds on Thursday more than anything else, thereby advantaging the Tories more than Labour. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote also aided the Tories more than Labour by enabling the Tories to maintain their 2010 share of the vote nationwide and this halted any advance by Labour on key Tory marginals as well.

4.) The Thatcherisation of Britain: ultimately this election marked the culmination of how Thatcherism and its key tenets of neo-liberalism and reactionism has infiltrated much of British society over the last 35 years. Thatcherism has, in particular, taken off in many areas of England (with the exception of parts of London and the North) where working class and middle class voters have tended to be guided to turn upon their neighbours, whether they be welfare recipients, immigrants or other so-called 'undesirables' who won't (supposedly) put in a hard day's work. This is why the Tories have been able to successfully use labels such as 'strivers and scroungers' to divide, for example, the working poor and welfare recipients, thereby producing a wedge between members of the working class who might otherwise solidly have voted Labour in the past. Besides (as is the case in New Zealand and elsewhere) many workers who would once have been employed in mass manufacturing or as tradespeople by large or medium-sized employers 30 years ago have now  become largely self-employed contractors/small businesspeople thereby producing a sub-class of skilled workers to whom the Tory Party and Blair's Labour Party have been able to successfully appeal to. Meanwhile, long-term welfare recipients and the poorest of the poor have come to rely on voting Labour or for other left-wing or even reactionary parties like UKIP - that's if they remain active participants in electoral politics given that turnout has fallen from highs of between 70 percent and 80 percent in the 1960s and 1970s to around the mid 50 to 60 percent point now.

5.) And speaking of political turnout the missing millions could have been a factor too: as in the last New Zealand election, those who didn't vote may well have influenced a better outcome for the Left. Admittedly, voter turnout in Scotland was high and this is thanks in large part to the Scottish National Party's campaign and get-out-the-vote efforts especially in working class and poorer communities. The SNP's success there shows why Labour should have taken a genuinely left wing tack in this election and actively engaged with the millions of voters who have become socially and economically marginalised over the last 30 or so years. Therefore, instead of Labour attempting to search for the electoral holy grail through another lurch towards Blairism, it might be better for the party to begin targeting its efforts (if it wants to survive in a much smaller UK Parliament if and when Scotland leaves) at these voters and then building a progressive coalition that reaches out to middle class voters. This might involve genuinely jettisoning some of the remaining Blairite Third Way policy positions it has clung to which haven't, I might point, served it well in 2010 or 2015. The SNP can show the way to Labour here too by having a clearer, ideologically and philosophically consistent message that appeals to this group and to the millions of middle class voters scared of losing their local schools and National Health Service services. If Labour is genuine about re-seeking power as a unified party, it has to have a powerful narrative which seeks to talk about and address the poverty and income insufficiency that affects many poorer and even middle class families. Labour, by appealing to these alienated groups, might bring some back into the fold as it might be useless (for now) to try and win back the reasonably well paid, highly skilled working class who have been voting Tory and Blairite Labour for years. Otherwise, if Blairite forces continue to resist such attempts, then Labour (as I pointed out earlier) might be better to split in preparation for life in a smaller UK.

These and other factors explain, in my view, the English left's tragic defeat on Thursday night/Friday morning. The Scottish and Welsh left, though, do have a future due to their comparatively better performances and if both countries chose independence and/or even greater autonomy, they could sit outside of the Little England that will likely sustain the Tories for the forseeable future. This is not the outcome I and others had hoped for on the progressive left going into Friday morning but one that has been delivered, nevertheless, due to all of the above factors.







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