Socialist Worker

Election turmoil lies behind Labour crisis

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 2430

Ed Miliband at Labours conference this year

Ed Miliband at Labour's conference this year (Pic: Anthony Mckeown on Flickr)

Last week I found myself being bombarded by “We Back Ed” tweets. These were a reaction to the latest plot against Ed Milband, much-hyped in the media.

Reading the tweets I was reminded of the line from Hamlet, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

I’m sure shadow health secretary Andy Burnham was right when he said “powerful vested interests” would prefer a continuation of the present Conservative-Liberal coalition or an outright Tory government to Labour.

But this doesn’t alter the fact that Labour is running far too weakly in the polls against an unpopular, shambolic government six months before the general election.

Last weekend’s polls put Labour ahead again after the Tories had inched into the lead. But the difference is very narrow—only two or three percentage points.

The problem isn’t primarily the hapless Miliband. It’s true that he comes over as neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring.

His “fightback” speech on Thursday of last week attacked the “zero-zero economy”—zero hours contracts and zero taxes paid by the rich. But Miliband hasn’t broken with the heritage of New Labour that helped to create this economy in the first place.

The deeper problem is indicated by the fact that Labour and the Tories combined are currently polling at less than the 65 percent share of the vote that they won in the 2010 general election. Even the latter figure represented a historic decline compared to the 97 percent share of the vote Labour and Conservatives received in 1951.

In an excellent article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, Ross McKibben argues that Labour is the victim of a dual crisis—“a crisis of the British state” and “a general crisis of social democracy”.


I think this right although McKibben, no Marxist, implies that Labour’s decline is a consequence of the decline of the industrial working class. Other academics use a version of the same argument to argue that Ukip is displacing Labour as the party of the “manual working class”.

Such analyses rely on too simplistic an understanding of class. There has been a shift in the structure of the working class from manual and industrial occupations to white collar and service jobs.

But Labour cut itself off from many in this restructured working class by the policies it pursued under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. McKibben aptly summarised these as “the further privatisation of the state and its institutions, the private finance initiatives, the outsourcings, the Iraq war”.

The experience of New Labour in office proved particularly damaging in Scotland. It undermined loyalty to the Union and gave the Scottish National Party (SNP) the opportunity to position itself as the defender of social democracy against neoliberal London politicians.

As McKibben points out, “Labour has (or had) an electoral interest in keeping Scotland in the Union. The Conservatives do not.”

As traditionally the dominant party in Scotland, Labour played the key role in winning the referendum for the No campaign. 

But this has proved a Pyrrhic victory as old Labour strongholds in working class neighbourhoods voted Yes. 

The SNP lost the referendum but has stormed far ahead of Labour in the Scottish polls. No wonder, as puzzled (and stupid) London commentators observed, the party’s recent conference was a victory celebration.

Does all this mean Miliband has no hope of becoming prime minister? Not at all. At the British level we now have five major parties (Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, and Ukip). Who will come out on top in these circumstances under the first-past-the-post electoral system is anybody’s guess.

But probably no party will win a majority of seats. Nigel Farage hopes Ukip will make a big enough breakthrough for him to become the kingmaker. 

But the Scottish polls suggest the SNP may have a bigger chance of playing this role. No wonder Alex Salmond is rumoured to be eyeing a Westminster seat. In the immortal words of Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.