Voters in Crewe & Nantwich humiliated New Labour last week by handing the Tories their first by-election win over Labour since 1982. The Crewe result followed that of the London and local elections on 1 May, which also saw the Tories giving Labour a drubbing.
These results have raised sharp questions over whether political attitudes in Britain are drifting rightwards. Many people assume that if the polls show the Tories winning and Labour losing, this must be caused by the bulk of British people switching their political views from left to right.
But this is an oversimplification that masks the real reasons why Labour has lost support. Election results do not simply reflect underlying political attitudes, but are the product of much more complex dynamics.
Many popular policies – such as taxing the rich or pulling the troops out of Iraq – are not represented by any of the major political parties. Moreover the policies of the main parties effectively define a political consensus that exerts a powerful (but not overwhelming) influence on the political ideas held by ordinary people.
You can get a sense of these dynamics by looking at the issues at play in recent elections. A lot of them are class issues on which Labour was on the wrong side – such as the ending of the 10p tax band, closures of post offices and hospitals, rising prices and public sector pay curbs.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that many traditional Labour voters concluded that their government had declared war on them – and decided to withhold their support.
But worse, Labour piled on the losses by running an election campaign that focused on the issues of crime and immigration.
These are both issues that are traditionally wheeled out by the right to divide and divert the working class vote. Yet in Crewe & Nantwich it was the Labour Party that issued leaflets attacking the Tories because they opposed “making foreign nationals carry an ID card”.
This approach allowed Tory leader David Cameron to claim that Labour was running a “nasty” anti-immigrant campaign. He cast the Tories as a party committed to building a “progressive alliance” that would campaign for the poor and forgotten.
So a desire to punish Labour for its betrayals on core class issues combined with an atmosphere of ideological confusion whipped up by the two main parties. All of this opened up a road for Labour’s supporters to cross over into the Tory camp.
What happened in Crewe should be set in a broader context. Over more than a decade in office Labour has moved continually rightward. As a consequence, it has abandoned its role as the guardian of social democratic ideas in British political life.
In the past, Labour provided a limited defence of ideas such as the welfare state and anti-racism. With this defence gone, many Labour supporters no longer feel confident to carry the arguments – and virtually no Labour politician is given air time to make them.
By abandoning basic social democratic ideas, New Labour has helped the right to gain ground on issues such as immigration, racism and crime. But even on these issues, people’s actual views are much more complex and contradictory than it might seem at first glance.
A BBC poll on race relations last month gave rise to news stories that opened with the line, “Almost two thirds of people in Britain fear that race relations are so poor that tensions are likely to spill over into violence.”
The survey reported that 60 percent of those sampled believed there were too many immigrants in Britain, and almost half thought the government should encourage migrants to leave.
This is a depressing picture – yet the same survey reported that the proportion of people who describe themselves as “prejudiced against people from other races” fell from 25 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2008. So how do we explain such an apparent discrepancy?
First, we should note that anti-immigration sentiment is typically contradictory. A survey respondent can believe that there are too many immigrants yet insist that they do not hold a grudge against immigrant workers themselves. They might believe that local services can’t cope with an influx, or that bosses are using “cheap labour” to undermine their pay and conditions.
So someone who believes that Britain has too many immigrants might still be won to the idea that trade unions should seek to organise them, or that more should be spent on specialist teachers to help those who have recently arrived.
These contradictions mean there is good reason to think such people can be broken from their reactionary ideas. That is much less likely to be the case with a hardened racist who openly declares that black people are inferior to whites.
Second, the questions that surveys pose are often as revealing as those they choose not to. The BBC survey asks its respondents if they believe immigration has made parts of this country “feel like a foreign country” (58 percent agreed, up from 54 percent in 2005).
Here researchers have loaded the survey by failing to ask people whether they saw advantages in immigration. They have instead assumed that the changing complexion of an area must be an exclusively negative experience. Why was there no question asking if people enjoyed living in an ethnically and culturally diverse country?
Third, all such surveys offer at best a limited snapshot of public opinion. Every wave of migrants into modern Britain has met with varying degrees of hostility, yet each in turn has found a place inside the working class movement through a process of struggle.
Nevertheless it is undeniable that reactionary ideas around immigration have gained ground in recent years. But the Labour Party has failed to stem that tide. Instead it is now feeding it by pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment at the ballot box.
This is by no means the only issue where Labour’s failings can have severe consequences. From the late 1980s until the mid-1990s statements that broadly reflect a pro-welfare state position have won about two thirds support in the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. But parts of this consensus have been weakening in recent years.
According to the most recent BSA survey, those agreeing that the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor has fallen from a high of 58 percent in 1991 to just 35 percent last year.
Supporters of New Labour argue that this is evidence of a shift to the right by a section of society, and one reason why the party finds itself in difficulties today. But this response misses out the crucial issue of Blairism and the role that Labour has played in undermining the consensus around welfare.
In the years following Tony Blair’s election as leader in 1994 Labour has moved sharply to the right on this issue. The attacks on welfare started as soon as Labour came into office with an assault on single parent benefits.
They continue to this day with threats to those on long-term sickness benefits, proposals for compulsory training schemes for the unemployed, and the aim of forcing the jobless to accept low paid jobs.
That all three parties accept the premise of these attacks means that there are few voices in the mainstream media to put the traditional social democratic argument in favour of the welfare state and against stigmatising the victims of the capitalist system.
And under such circumstances it is not surprising that some people have recently started to believe New Labour’s rhetoric, moving away from the traditional social democratic position on welfare and towards the current all-party consensus. Those people are now much more vulnerable to Tory propaganda on other issues too.
Nevertheless, we should note the persistence of broadly progressive views on inequality and the welfare state in the face of over a decade of neoliberal propaganda.
The BSA surveys show that the proportion of people who believe the gap between high and low incomes is too large has remained consistently above 75 percent since they first asked the question in 1987.
A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year pointed out that a solid third of people in Britain remain steadfast in support of a strong welfare state and tackling inequality through wealth redistribution – despite the fact that their beliefs find no representation within mainstream politics.
This left wing core is likely to be more concentrated within the working class than in the overall sample. And despite its lack of a voice, the views of the solid third often finds a way of connecting with those whose support for the welfare state has wavered of late.
A YouGov poll for Labour’s Fabian Society last year asked respondents whether those earning more than £100,000 should see tax on their income rise – some 67 percent said yes. That sheds light on why cutting taxes for the very rich and abolishing the 10p tax band have become a focus for working class anger at this government.
So despite the weakening consensus on some welfare issues and the growth of reactionary views on immigration, it would be a wrong to compare what is happening today with the rise of right wing ideas that started under Tory leader Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s.
Thatcher’s policy prescription of tax cuts for the rich, privatisation of state assets, council house sales and bashing trade unions finds very little support today. That is why Cameron is careful to put some kind of distance between himself and his predecessor.
The recent successful mobilisation to defend abortion rights is another indication of how the mood of the public remains to the left on a raft of issues. The same could be said regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, privatisation in the NHS, and the need for a programme of council house building.
The government’s abandonment of its core supporters and traditional ideology means that today there is a deep and growing mood against Gordon Brown and New Labour.
If the left doesn’t organise that anger, there is a real danger that the right of various sorts will do so.
But if the left moves forward with confidence, there is no reason why it cannot win over the wavering middle ground to a politics committed to fighting inequality and injustice.