The media cliche machine has been in overdrive since the by-elections on Thursday of last week. Tedious though this is, undoubtedly something big has happened.
One could put it like this. Over the past few decades the popular base of the two main parties has been gradually eroding—members and voters alike.
But there are moments when a step-change takes place.
One was at the May 2010 general election. Defeated Labour and the supposedly victorious Tories got 65 percent of the vote between them, and Britain had its first peacetime coalition government since 1939.
We have seen another step-change in the past few weeks. The social base of the big Westminster parties has continued to rot away. The Tories have pursued unpopular austerity policies. These have damaged them and caused a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats.
Meanwhile, Labour has got the worst of both worlds. Ed Miliband inched the party a few millimetres to the left, antagonising the Blairites and their media chums.
But he has also embraced what Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey called “austerity-lite”.
This means he has totally failed to express the anger of millions of working class people who have felt their lives get worse thanks to successive bouts of neoliberalism.
So that anger has found other channels. What is particularly interesting is the divergence between these channels north and south of the border.
In Scotland this has been provided by the Yes campaign, which took a predominantly progressive form. The Scottish National Party (SNP) seized the initiative when first minister Alex Salmond reframed independence as the way to save the welfare state from the Tories.
Though a final intervention by Labour managed to save the Union, it was at a high price. The vote split on class lines.
Every Labour parliamentary seat in Glasgow voted Yes. Further north middle class constituencies that traditionally support the SNP—including Salmond’s own—voted No.
Interestingly, Scotland since the referendum has bucked the trend.
It’s fashionable to argue that contemporary “anti-politics” involves a rejection of the very form of the party. But parties that were pro-independence such as the SNP, Greens, and Scottish Socialist Party have seen a huge influx of members.
Alas, in England the main beneficiary of the rebellion against the party system have been the racist populists of Ukip. Anyone who thinks that this mainly hits the Tories should reflect on the fact that Clacton—where Douglas Carswell was triumphantly re-elected last week on the Ukip ticket—was a Labour seat until 2005.
We shouldn’t overstate the scale of what’s happening. The latest Opinium/Observer poll has Labour on 35 percent, the Tories on 28 percent, Ukip on 17 percent, and the Lib Dems on 9 percent.
Nigel Farage isn’t going to be walking into 10 Downing Street next May. Nevertheless, Britain is moving to a four or even five-party system (including the SNP).
What’s missing is the radical left. The party system is fragmenting above all because of the experience of neoliberalism. Yet a strong voice challenging neoliberalism is absent from the electoral field.
There’s no objective reason for this. The British electoral system works against small parties, but it can be beaten, as George Galloway and Respect proved before Ukip.
The social democratic ideas that the SNP under Salmond has successfully appealed to are as strong in popular consciousness south of the border as they are in Scotland.
The problem is the extreme fragmentation of the radical left, compounded by the mutual hostility that exists among these fragments. This is, if anything, worse in Scotland than it is in England and Wales. Wallowing in the rights and wrongs of these divisions is futile and self-destructive.
The combination of the Scottish referendum and Ukip’s rise demands that we change.
We have to shake off the petty narcissism of our different projects and work together to create united left wing alternatives to neoliberalism both sides of the border.
History will judge us very harshly if we fail.