The End of Labour

Yesterday's British election was about the collapse of the Labour Party — and where we go from here.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband during the Scottish independence referendum. Ben Stanstall / AFP

This is not 1992.  In a way, it’s far worse than that. Imagine this: Labour has given the Conservatives their “Portillo moment,” with Ed Balls losing his seat in Morley and Outwood, not from incumbency but from opposition.

The perspective gets even worse when you look at the figures. Overall, the Tory vote has barely shifted from 36.1 percent to (on present counts) 36.8 percent.  That is, the Tories have a bit more than a third of the vote, and fractionally more than the total with which they failed to win a parliamentary majority in 2010. This is not, chiefly, a Tory surge. In previous elections, historically, a vote share of this scale would have left the Tories on the opposition benches.

But Labour’s vote also flatlined, currently about 30.6 percent, compared to 29 percent in 2010 — which was its worst share of the vote since 1918. In key marginals, like Nuneaton, it barely made a dent. In some relatively safe Tory seats where it should have had a swing, like North Swindon (a safe Tory area since 2010 boundary changes), the Tories actually gained.

National turnout looks like it was about 66 percent, which is fractionally above the turnout in 2010, and most of that increase will have been in Scotland and certain UKIP hot spots like Thanet South.  So, Labour has mobilized almost no one who hadn’t previously voted Labour during its worst election defeat since 1918.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are in the middle of a long-term crisis, neither has done anything to reverse that, and the question in this election was: whose crisis is worse?

Unsurprisingly, and highly satisfactorily, the Liberal Democrats have been crushed, with their share of the vote falling from 23 percent to 7.7 percent. Indeed, this is the big shift in the 2015 election: the collapse of the Liberals and the rise of the smaller parties.

I want to point out something of great importance regarding the Liberals. I said before that the reason their leadership didn’t care about getting mauled in the elections was because they were preparing themselves to act as kingmakers in future coalitions, as exercisers of “responsible” political authority, detached from their base but integrated into the machinery of government. This, let us be honest, is where they’d rather be.

And in the last few days, we’ve had their leader, Nick Clegg, saying that a government without the Liberal Democrats involved would lack legitimacy. Even knowing that his party would be hammered into fourth place, he still saw a central role for his wheelers and dealers. In effect, the Liberal leadership chose, with the Orange Book coup, to turn their party into a mandarin, de facto apparatus of an increasingly post-democratic state.

The obverse of the Liberals in this election is the Scottish National Party (SNP).  Every tendency in advanced post-democracy is being reversed in Scotland, where working-class electoral participation and party membership is rising, not falling.

The SNP took fifty-six seats, up from six in 2010. The tsunami-like proportions of this wipe-out may be exaggerated by the electoral system, but the swing is huge and signifies something far deeper than a shift in voter identifications or, god help us, a “protest vote.” Old right-wing Labour stalwarts like Tom Harris vaguely understand that since the referendum for Scottish independence, something at the deepest strata of Scottish working-class consciousness shifted. But he doesn’t get what shifted, or why.

The reality is that the referendum’s No coalition signified everything that was wrong with Westminster politics: all the main parties in it together, on the side of militarism and the multinationals. Despite Gordon Brown’s absurd “big beast” posturing, despite all the talk of the “UK pension” and the “UK NHS,” Labour attacked independence from the Right, from a position of loyalty to the state, to the war machine, and to the neoliberal doctrines of the civil service.

Miliband, during the election campaign, tried to reassure middle-class voters that Labour utterly ruled out any SNP influence on policies like austerity or the Trident nuclear system. And while the Labour Party tailed the Tories on austerity, while they imitated Tory language on welfare, while they copied the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on immigration, the SNP defended a simple, civilized position: no austerity, stop demonizing people on welfare, and welcome immigrants.

In England, Labour aping the Right just leads to its base abstaining, as they have done in growing numbers since 2001. But in Scotland, working-class voters had a tried and tested reformist alternative, with an optimistic political identity linked to a profound socio-demographic shift, and were able to rally to it.

And now, with England cleaving broadly to the right and Scotland shifting left, it’s hard to see how the current constitutional arrangements are sustainable. Scotland will simply not assent to being governed by the Tories, and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will be under huge pressure to deliver another referendum.

There will be more to say, on the other side of the political spectrum, about the farraginous hordes that are banging at Prime Minister David Cameron’s door, but for now it’s worth pointing out how many of them there are: almost four million in this election. Only the perversities of the electoral system prevented UKIP from gaining the fifty or sixty seats they would have got if their vote was more geographically concentrated.

As it is, Douglas Carswell, the least UKIP of UKIPers, is the only one of them to have held onto a seat. What is particularly absurd about this is that the distribution of UKIP’s votes points to its political strength. That is, it managed to eat into Labour heartlands almost as much as Tory seats, making UKIP possibly Britain’s first truly successful, cross-class, populist formation. For example, in Sunderland it drew tens of thousands of voters, a surge first noticed during the city council elections last year when it took almost a quarter of the vote.

Of course, the party is still very fragile, its momentum may now dissipate, and it is much weaker now that Nigel Farage has resigned the leadership. But the basis upon which they won these votes was ideologically hardcore, with Farage using the televised debates not to broaden his support but to consolidate his base. If the dominant parties are forced to accept proportional representation, as seems increasingly likely, this signifies a major realignment on the Right.

Finally, a word or two about the Greens. They did well with 3.7 percent of the vote, about as well as they could reasonably have expected. It looks as though in addition to keeping Brighton Pavilion, where they increased their margin with a 10 percent swing in their favor, they also gave Labour a run for their money in Bristol West, where the sitting Liberal was overturned, and came a good third in a number of constituencies, such as Norwich South, or Holborn and St Pancras, where Natalie Bennett got over 7,000 votes.

I think this represents something more than a protest vote. Once more, if we get anything like proportional representation, the game is up: in those circumstances, the Green vote will easily surge past 5 percent toward the double figures, and the Pasokification of Labour will take another lurch forward.

This election has been about the collapse of the Labour Party and of labor movement politics: precisely as I warned.