By Alex Callinicos
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Britain’s two party system still in crisis

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Issue 2453
Victory was beyond Ed Milibands grasp (Pic: Flickr: Labour Party)

Victory was beyond Ed Miliband’s grasp (Pic: Flickr: Labour Party)

Miliband would have understood the catastrophe that engulfed the Labour Party on Thursday of last week. Not the wretched Ed, but his Marxist theorist father Ralph.

In his classic critique of Labourism, Parliamentary Socialism, the elder Miliband described “the Labour leaders” as “bourgeois politicians with, at best, a certain bias towards social reform”. He documented their craven loyalty to the British imperialist state.

It was this loyalty, not Ed Miliband’s inability to eat a bacon sandwich or timid criticisms of Tony Blair, that did it for the Labour campaign in the general election. This was a defeat made in Scotland.

Miliband committed the catastrophic error of campaigning against Scottish independence in last September’s referendum as part of a Unionist coalition with the Tories. This allowed the Scottish National Party (SNP) effectively to destroy Scottish Labour last week, sweeping away the patient efforts of generations of working class militants.

Miliband then found himself caught in a vice during the election campaign. 

Shortly before the election, the academic Tim Bale accused SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon of, “with supreme sleight of hand and breathtaking chutzpah” entering “into an unspoken alliance with the Conservatives —one that massively overstates her likely influence over a putative Labour minority government.”

This is in the hope that, by helping David Cameron to secure a second term, an SNP victory in 2016 and a second independence referendum will become more likely.

Alliance or no, Cameron certainly ruthlessly played the Scottish card, to rally small-c conservative English voters to stop a fictional Labour-SNP coalition. 

In the process, as another academic, Patrick Dunleavy, tweeted on election night, “Tories have eaten Lib Dems”, taking seat after seat away from their hapless coalition partners.


Faced with this onslaught, Miliband junior could offer no positive reason for voting Labour. Fatally, he had no coherent answer to the Tory accusation that the last Labour government caused the economic crisis. 

Instead of addressing the pull of anti-migrant racism among some ex-Labour voters he pandered to it. I suspect that we’ll discover that, where the Labour vote rose—in London for instance—this was motivated by visceral hatred and fear of the Tories. 

But the two-party system is still broken. The Conservative and Labour shares of the vote barely moved compared to 2010. In terms of votes, if not seats, Ukip have supplanted the Lib Dems as the third party. 

And the SNP now has a solid phalanx of 56 anti-Unionist MPs in the House of Commons.

As for David Cameron, Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in the Observer newspaper that “this result may have given the Tories more seats, but at the same time it has left the prime minister much weaker in parliament. He has a wafer-thin majority and no Lib Dem buffer between him and his backbench irreconcilables. He may come to look back on his days with Nick Clegg as bliss.”

More than that, the means Cameron used to win will quickly return to haunt him. To appease his right wing and hold Ukip at bay, he has committed himself to an in-out referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU). Like his crony George Osborne and the bulk of big business, he doesn’t want “Brexit”, a British exit from the EU.

But how will he get EU leaders to give him a deal that allows him to campaign for a yes vote—and stop the Tories splitting in the process? And, after weeks of demonising the SNP, how can Cameron keep a Scotland that gave them a landslide victory inside the Union? 

After his re-election he promised a return to “One Nation” Conservatism. But is that nation more than England?

Cameron and his advisers are skilled tacticians. But their cunning plans have bought the first Tory majority in the House of Commons since the 1990s at the price of precipitating a real crisis of the British state. 

That crisis will dominate and probably wreck the rest of Cameron’s premiership.


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