“So are we all Tories now?” asked the lead article in the Observer Review last Sunday.
“The Sloanes – and their political wing, the Tories – used to drive 4x4s and liked blood sports. Now they drive Priuses and embrace cycling, camping, pop festivals, grow-your-own veg and seaside holidays. They’ve colonised traditional Liberal-Labour territory in an audacious ideological land grab.”
The idea that the Tories are swimming with the tide, politically and culturally, is widely accepted in the media. It’s a symptom of the near-disintegration of Gordon Brown’s government. But Labour decline and Tory revival have happened before.
But as soon as we compare the last time – 1978-9, when the minority Labour government of James Callaghan collapsed and was swept aside by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher – we see how distinctive the present situation is.
Thatcher came to office supported by substantial sections of big business and the middle class who were terrified by the power that organised workers displayed during the 1970s and were determined to see this power broken. Even Callaghan acknowledged that Thatcher represented a sea-change in the political and ideological mood that it was hopeless to resist.
The mellow image projected by the Tories under David Cameron today underlines the difference. Cameron is trying to stress the continuities between what he would do in government and the policies pursued by New Labour under Tony Blair.
This is no reason for complacency. New Labour took Thatcher’s free market counter-revolution further. The Tories, if they win the next general election, will push this process on, undermining the welfare state even more.
But Cameron isn’t riding a tide of rampant reaction. The popular mood is more than anything else one of a kind of weary contempt for the government.
From a longer term view, we can distinguish two processes at work. One is the familiar down-phase in the cycle of a Labour government, when its betrayals drive away traditional Labour voters, giving the Tories a chance to return.
The second is that the roots that Labour once had in workplaces and working class communities are decaying steadily. This means that each successive down-phase leaves Labour’s social base weaker and more fragmented than it was the previous time.
The Labour Party’s latest submission to the Electoral Commission claimed 176,891 members in December 2007. According to the Daily Telegraph, “that is scarcely 40 percent of the 405,000 peak reached in 1997 when Tony Blair took office, and thought to be the lowest total since Labour was founded in 1900”.
The effects of Labour’s decline are ambiguous. Thus 1978-9 was marked both by the wave of strikes in public and private sectors during the “Winter of Discontent” and by Thatcher pinching the anti-immigrant message of the Nazi National Front (NF).
The economic militancy of the 1978-9 strikewave was largely sectional and focused on pushing up wages that had been cut in real terms thanks to the Labour government’s Social Contract. It blew itself out without strengthening the left in British society.
We can see similar forces at work in Britain today. New Labour and the Tories compete to see who can be more reactionary on crime and migration. But on the plus side of the equation is the marked rise in workers’ combativity.
History doesn’t repeat itself mechanically. The present revival of the workers’ movement comes against the background of the great anti-war protests and a decade’s resistance to neoliberalism.
In the late 1970s, the victories the far left achieved – above all, the eclipse of the NF thanks to the Anti Nazi League and Rock against Racism – were hard-won, acts of resistance against the general shift to the right in society.
Today, by contrast, the situation feels far more open. There are very worrying trends – not just the endless agitation about youth violence and migrants but also the assault on civil liberties. But the strikes mark an important step forward for workers after the defeats of the 1980s and 1990s. Everything is still to play for.