The results of the December 12 (2019) UK elections came as a surprise to many and a shock to some. The collapse of the vote for the Labour Party was perhaps the most shocking as well, as the size of the Conservative majority. A blame game was quickly started within Labour as scapegoats were sought to explain the demise of this once powerful, contender for political power. However, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Labour Party history might have anticipated this kind of outcome would happen – sooner or later.
This dismal result by Labour is just the latest twist in the downward spiral of voter confidence in this British version of left reformist politics. The explanation for this decline as well as its post Second World War high point, is to be found in its practical and ideological foundations. The Labour Party was founded on the basis of a compromise between social democratic ex-liberal members, disgruntled conservatives and upwardly mobile, trade union leaders. Individuals from these three political backgrounds dominated its various founding committees and funding sources.
Their common ideology was of solid commitment to capitalistic forms of exploitation of working people, tempered by reforms to cushion the more severe effects of the struggle between capital and labour. The promise of reforms attracted working class activists and over time millions of working class and middle-class voters, particularly after the experiences of the Second World War (1939-45). The activation of the Beveridge Reforms (Health, Education, Social Care, Pensions, Housing and Nationalisations) by a post-war Labour Government cemented this loyalty for generations of working and middle-class people throughout the UK.
However, the Labour Party remained a middle-class, progressive, but fiercely pro-capitalist party in terms of who controlled it’s powerful committees and it’s ideological position. When the post-war boom period drew to a close and British company profits were squeezed, the Labour Party leadership moved to support their capitalists. They did so by imposing wage limits and productivity deals upon working people and restricting Trade Union bargaining. This was seen by working people as one of many betrayals by the Labour Party, betrayals which continued under Blair and Brown’s New Labour.
It should be remembered in the context of decline that Scotland once voted overwhelmingly for Labour and support by Scottish working people just disappeared as it has now done in the North of England. The commitment to Labour by working people has progressively decreased, whilst the commitment to Labour of sections of the progressive middle-class has been largely retained. This explains the retention of Labour seats in the affluent south and losses in the impoverished north. It also explains the divide between Leave and Remainers in the Brexit referendum. Exceptions aside, working class people mainly lost out during the EU years, whereas middle-class people mainly gained.
In the UK, northern working class people witnessed the EU principle of free movement of labour and capital in the form of unemployment, food banks, dwindling public services and low pay, whilst southern middle-class people saw in the same EU principle, low cost domestic cleaners, casual agricultural labour, EU job opportunities and EU holiday/retirement destinations. Furthermore, when northern workers voted out of Europe and witnessed the Parliamentary Labour Party ‘remainers’ effectively preventing getting out, that betrayal was obviously seen as one too many.
It has been said by some commentators that Corbyn’s anti-austerity plans were too radical for voters, but my guess is that wasn’t the case for most working class voters. It was more likely that given all the previous failed promises by Labour, they just didn’t believe these new promises would be implemented. Voting Conservative in Parliamentary seats held by Labour for several decades, can only be realistically seen as part protest and part wish to have their exit vote honoured. I doubt it was a desire for a Boris-led form of Thatcherism or a British version of Trumpism
We need to remember that both sides of the referendum vote were wishing things to get better – or at least not to get worse. The one side by getting out, the other by staying in. The desire for things not to get worse or even to get better is, I suggest, the default position of most people. How they viewed achieving this desire was largely determined by what they had so far experienced. So blaming ‘Leavers’ for wanting the same outcome as ‘Remainers’ and vica versa is at best short sighted – at worst, divisive.
My guess is that the next few years will demonstrate that getting out of EU will not improve things for the majority in the UK. Moreover, those countries which have stayed in the EU will experience a continuing deterioration for the working classes. It’s already happened in, Greece, Spain, Portugal and recently in France. This prediction is based upon the fact that countries in and out of the EU are already over-producing goods and services, all have severe debt liabilities, are experiencing decreasing tax revenues, and increasing demands for benefits/services.
Furthermore, competition from large mass-producing countries, will inhibit the creation of well paid jobs in small countries. The UK is no longer the ‘workshop of the world’ and is now largely dependent upon financial services and funding international ‘bound-to-burst’ speculative bubbles. If one adds to this scenario the costs of reversing climate change, air and sea pollution, increasing safe waste disposal, extra flood defences, health and end-of-life-care costs, the obvious question arises; who will bear these costs?
The pattern of working class desertion of social democratic reformist parties is international precisely because the crisis of capitalism is international and because social democratic politics internationally has favoured middle-class voters over working class ones. The pattern of working-class voters turning to representatives of the right-wing ruling elite, such as Trump and Johnson, can only be temporary, because these elites also represent the rich few over the interests of the increasingly poor working classes. Instead, working people must actually rebel against all forms of elite politics – or continue to suffer.
Roy Ratcliffe (December 2019)