Britain’s no-choice election

April 2, 2010

British socialist and author Mike Marqusee looks at the upcoming British elections--and why the left won't make a better showing.

WHILE THE outcome of Britain's general election may be in doubt, the insubstantial nature of the political frenzy preceding it is entirely predictable.

The ping-pong of buzzwords and soundbites, the hunt for gaffes, the formulaic promises to "listen," the gurgle of briefings and punditry: the dismal spectacle has become familiar. For all its democratic claims, the election campaign serves mainly to obscure the truths about our unequal, unsustainable society. Its salient feature is the absence of real choice. Everything else flows from that.

On perpetuating the war in Afghanistan and the need for cuts in public spending--arguably the two major issues facing the country--the major parties are as one. And whatever the election's outcome, the next government will pursue, like the last one, a foreign policy of junior partnership with the U.S., with its concomitant support for Israel and belligerence towards Iran.

It will intensify attempts to discipline the poor (through welfare "reform") and undermine rights at work. It will extend privatization. It will do nothing for people in social housing. It will not make a significant investment in green jobs. It will bring no relief to asylum seekers and immigrants and do nothing to stem the Islamophobic tide.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Labour's principal appeal is the promise that it will cut less savagely than the Tories. That may prove to be the case, but at this juncture no one can say for sure precisely how Labour cuts will differ from Tory cuts. Both parties are committed to reducing the fiscal deficit by the same total over four years. Both parties pledge to protect the National Health Service, but the NHS is already feeling the squeeze. Cuts are underway and private sector intrusions grow by the week.

It's not that there is no difference between Labour and the Tories. But is there enough of a difference? The lesser evil does have a claim, but lesser evilism is itself a subtle and insidious menace. A lesser evil remains an evil. And in practice, lesser evilism moves the center of gravity ever further to the right. It ends up reinforcing the consensus that denies meaning to the election.

The generation-long transformation of the Labour Party has resulted, as Tony Benn warned it would, in a "crisis of representation." Labour's ideology and policies are now significantly to the right of most center-left parties in Europe. More importantly, its structures and social composition have changed radically, as has the nature of its link with Labour voters.

Similar shifts have been seen in social democratic, socialist and Communist parties elsewhere, so the problem goes way beyond Blair and his legacy. Labour campaigners can take all the lessons from Obama's people they like but they will not and cannot replicate his central appeal--that he offered Americans a major change in governmental direction.

WHATEVER HAPPENS in the coming weeks the left's failure in this election is already an established fact. Although there will be left candidates and groups on the ballot in many constituencies, there will be no single widely recognized nationwide left alternative. That is a tragedy from which no one can take comfort.

Electoral politics is not an end in itself; to the true democrat it's only part of a larger, multi-faceted process. But it remains an indispensable exercise. In the long run, abstaining from the electoral arena is not an option for anyone serious about effecting radical change. Is it imaginable we'll ever get even close to such change in Britain without the left at some stage demonstrating its strength at the ballot box?

Even in the short run, the left misses out by not being a player. For better or worse, general elections are among the few occasions that large numbers of people consider their political choices. To the extent that a left-wing alternative is not visible and credible, it's omitted from the ensuing discussion.

In addition, we miss out on the discipline of door-to-door canvassing, a healthy reality check for any political campaigner. Here you're confronted with popular political consciousness in all its diversity and contradiction. For many years I went out canvassing for the Labour party, and always returned with reasons to hope, as well as to despair.

Door-to-door canvassing is of course increasingly a thing of the past. In the post-modern politics of the era of globalization, parties are no longer vehicles for participation, electorates are atomized and every part of the process is media-saturated. Increasingly the election becomes about itself. Democracy is hollowed out, and the power of the rich enhanced.

There's a case for voting Labour in constituencies where there's a strong lef-twing MP or a tight contest between Labour and Tory. But there's little case for voting Labour in constituencies where it is either sure to win or sure to lose or where there is a significant left wing alternative.

Victories for Respect's Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham and the Green Party's Caroline Lucas in Brighton would be invaluable breakthroughs. Besides providing two new radical voices in Parliament, such victories would make the left appear a more-credible alternative in future elections.

PROGRAMMATICALLY, THE Green Party is far superior to its mainstream rivals. But its record in office, and its nature as a party, is mixed. In Leeds its councillors sustained a Tory-Lib Dem coalition and gave no support to last year's successful bin strike. On the London Assembly, Jenny Jones has acted as an apologist for the Met. The Party failed to take a leading role in the antiwar movement and seems to have little interest in mass campaigning of any kind. Many Green cadre are hostile to the left and the unions and wedded to their own form of middle-class managerialism. I've seen Green Party leaflets that in their soft soap and political evasiveness were indistinguishable from New Labour's. For this I don't need to turn to a minor party.

The left lacuna in British politics is not mirrored elsewhere in Western Europe. In Germany, Portugal, France, Spain, Italy and Ireland the left is a real electoral presence. This is thanks partly to proportional representation and partly to the depth of local socialist and Communist traditions. But we have failed where they have succeeded largely because of mistakes of our own. As the experience in Scotland showed, the problem is not just the absence of PR.

There's plenty of blame to go around. With a few important exceptions, trade union leaders prefer the safety of the threadbare Labour link to the risks of a new political initiative. The few serious attempts to build a new electoral vehicle, including the Socialist Alliance in 2000-2003, have been sabotaged by sectarianism.

The legacy of distrust is one of the biggest obstacles we now have to overcome. As is our short-termism: the electoral struggle is an uphill one; it rarely yields quick results. It requires a long-range commitment and a strategy to match. Under any electoral system, to progress the left will have to show much greater unity, imagination and determination than it has hitherto.

The post-election landscape is, even at this stage, remarkably clear. There will be struggles against public-sector cuts, increasing industrial action, renewed conflict over war and civil liberties. In that context, we will have to engage in a sober assessment of both our weaknesses and strengths, and work to ensure that at the next general election, there is a meaningful choice.

First published in the April-May issue of Red Pepper.

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