By Sally Campbell
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Why did the Tories win?

This article is over 6 years, 7 months old
The shock of the Tory majority win in May's general election threw up lots of questions for socialists. Sally Campbell looks beneath the results to understand the dynamics at play in british politics.
Issue 403

The immediate response of most people remotely on the left to the election of the Tory majority government last month was despondency. This was not what we had expected; not what the polls had predicted — until that exit poll, which was largely met by disbelief.

Through the course of Friday, we saw the image of crates of Moët & Chandon champagne being delivered to Downing Street, heard the news that Foxtons, the estate agent most associated with “gentrification”, had seen its shares rise 12 percent at the news of the Tory victory, and that the £100 million of property deals delayed by Labour’s threat to implement a mansion tax had all been signed and sealed.

The BBC reported that “bank shares saw some of the biggest gains, on hopes that the sector will not see any further rises in levies. Shares in Lloyds Banking Group rose 5.75 percent while Barclays was 3.7 percent higher.”

I was at school during the 1992 election, when Labour similarly lost to an unexpected Tory majority government, and my memory of teachers crying in the corridors came flooding back.

But within days the mood started to feel quite different. Thousands of young people — many of whom wouldn’t have voted (only 36.6 percent of 18-24 year olds and 45.9 percent of 25-34 year olds did) or were too young to vote — took to the streets in an anti-Tory rage. First on the Saturday, when around 2,000 protested at Tory HQ, then the following Wednesday in Bristol, where up to 4,000 marched against austerity, led by a group of sixth-form students.

There was clearly a gut understanding of what more Tory rule means for young people. A group that has already lost its Education Maintenance Allowance and seen rises in university tuition fees will now face an assault on benefits, affecting housing, work and many other aspects of life. And young people’s response is not despondency, but anger and defiance.

People’s Assembly (PA) organising meetings suddenly had hundreds attending — 500 in Manchester, 650 in Nottingham. Local demonstrations called in Sheffield and Cardiff each attracted more than a thousand protesters, while Manchester saw up to 3,000. And there are many examples of an anti-austerity mood feeding into everything else — Birmingham Pride saw a huge 75,000 people attending, led by members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (depicted in the film Pride) with a clear anti-Tory message of solidarity with all those under attack.

The PA national demonstration in London on 20 June is set to be massive, and will put down a clear marker that we are not going to sit back and accept five more years of Tory rule.

The Tories are rolling up their sleeves and coming out fighting, as a glance at their new cabinet shows. They are keen to roll out as many vicious cuts in welfare as possible alongside attacks on immigrants, human rights, Muslims and young people. Siobhan Brown looks at some of the key policies they have announced so far

The key job for socialists is, of course, to do everything we can to build the anti-Tory, anti-austerity movement, more of which later. But it is also important that we fight for an interpretation of why the election went the way it did.

An item on Radio 4’s Today Programme soon after the election suggested that an answer might be found in a new scientific study which shows that people fear the colour red. Only slightly less unconvincing is the mainstream narrative coming from the media and the Blairite wing of the Labour Party that it was because “Red Ed” was too left wing.

A connected assumption drawn from the result is that there has been a shift to the right among voters in Britain.

Here a closer look at the votes is instructive. Labour’s share of the vote increased on 2010 by 1.4 percentage points and they gained nearly three quarters of a million votes. As points out, this is the first time Labour has improved on the previous election since 1997. In England, Labour’s vote was actually marginally higher than Tony Blair managed in 2005 — the last election Labour won.

The Conservatives gained 630,000 and their share went up by 0.7 percentage points.

A major factor was the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, whose vote fell from 23 percent in 2010 to 7.9 percent this year. A Lord Ashcroft poll of 12,000 voters after the election found that a quarter of the LibDems’ 2010 votes went to the Greens, 12 percent to Labour, followed by smaller numbers switching to Ukip, the SNP and finally the Tories. Despite this, the Tories gained some 27 seats from the LibDems and Labour only 12.

While the past three decades have been dominated by the Tories, Labour and the LibDems, this election continued the trend towards fragmentation and polarisation — though not on the scale of Spain or Greece (with the exception of Labour’s defeat and the SNP’s win in Scotland).

The third party in terms of votes is now Ukip, while the SNP has become a strong opposition force in Westminster, with 56 MPs. The 2010 election saw a historic high of 12 percent voting for “Others” outside the main three parties; in this election the figure was 24.9 percent. The peculiarities of the first past the post system disguise this fragmentation.

Elsewhere in this issue Jo Cardwell deals with the question of Ukip. Here it suffices to stress that, though Ukip came second in 42 Labour seats, only a small proportion of its vote came from people who voted Labour in 2010 (14 percent).

Overall there was no “shift to the right”. The combined vote of the “left” — the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Labour — was up 7 percent, while the rise of Ukip meant that the right’s combined vote (Tories, Ukip and the far-right) was also up 7 percent. If we include the LibDems with the right — justifiable as they enabled the Tory cuts for five years — then the right’s vote is actually slightly down.

Nonetheless, the Tories managed to effectively put a narrative that suited them. Some 46 percent of people accept that continued austerity is necessary to “fix the economy”. On welfare specifically the picture is also bad. British Social Attitudes surveys show that, after falling from 63 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2010, the proportion who want to see higher taxes to pay for more spending on health, education and social benefits has increased only slightly to 37 percent.

Only 30 percent want to see more government spending on welfare benefits — half the proportion (61 percent) that did so in 1989. Nearly three quarters endorse the government’s benefits cap.

However, other figures paint the opposite picture. More people oppose than support the bedroom tax — significantly, an issue over which there has been a sustained fight by campaigners on the ground, which Labour then took up. Support for a publicly funded NHS and renationalised railways remains very high.

According to the researchers themselves, “analysis of British Social Attitudes and other data suggests that, overall, the public mood has begun to move back towards the political left since 2010”.

We must ask what shapes “social attitudes”. Surely the reason that so many people support pro-austerity arguments is that no major political party has challenged them? The Labour Party has never effectively taken on the Tories’ narrative.

Again, to quote “Labour said it didn’t spend too much when Brown was in government (true, it spent less than the Thatcher or Major governments) but yet it wouldn’t reverse Tory spending cuts, and promised to continue with more; and while the bedroom tax was to be repealed because it was kicking the poorest out their homes, the benefit cap, which had the same effect, was supported to the hilt.”

So Labour inconsistently challenged some Tory policies, but didn’t fundamentally debunk the myths about austerity. Whenever Miliband raised class politics — scrapping the bedroom tax, imposing a mansion tax, opposing zero-hour contracts — his polling went up, as Diane Abbott MP pointed out after the election. But Labour didn’t provide a coherent alternative that could inspire people to turn out and vote.

Instead of pledging to fund the NHS publicly and properly, Miliband’s monolith promised the meaningless “NHS with the time to care” — along with the pledge “Controls on immigration”, of course. Immigration is another issue which social attitudes surveys suggest has seen a shift to the right — but again it is an issue on which all the major parties have conceded thoroughly, paving the way for Ukip’s nearly 4 million votes.

The astounding success of the SNP shows what could have been. And, of course, the Tories’ second winning strategy was to mobilise fear of the SNP — something which Ed Miliband kindly aided them with, when he declared before the election that he’d never do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon.

The SNP vote was not a nationalist vote, but an anti-austerity one. The Labour Party had betrayed its traditional Scottish base during last year’s referendum, when it tied itself to the Tories to save the Union. Sturgeon learned from the referendum campaign that class politics was the way to go and she spoke out accordingly as a social democrat — defending the NHS and speaking out against Trident. This won her top spot in the polls across the whole of the UK as most popular of the party leaders. Bob Fotheringham sketches out the contradictions of the Scottish result on p16.

None of this means that simply putting an anti-austerity message is enough to win votes. The small votes won by the consistently anti-austerity Tusc and Left Unity — and even Plaid Cymru, whose vote remained about the same — show that it takes more than that. The SNP’s victory in Scotland was built on a social movement that developed through the referendum campaign to give people a feeling that they could really effect change. In England and Wales there was no such impetus.

Nonetheless it was fantastically important that socialists stood in this election and could raise anti-austerity arguments and be a principled anti-racist voice. Some Tusc candidates, such as Jenny Sutton in Tottenham, north London, ran vibrant campaigns building on previous electoral work. Through that they were able to pull people around them, tap into local communities and campaign groups, and build a network of anti-austerity, anti-racist activists for the battles to come.

One remarkable vote for the radical left was that for Gerry Carroll, who stood for People Before Profit in West Belfast and came second to Sinn Fein with 19.2 percent — a historic return of socialism to the city. This is also a story of doggedly building up a base through consistent electoral work and visibility in campaigns on the ground between elections.

In general, though, the pressure on workers is still to vote Labour — and we should not leap to the conclusion that Labour is finished — although it might be in Scotland for the time being!

The Labour leadership battle — if it even deserves such a name given that all the candidates are basically Blairites — suggests that they are drawing exactly the wrong conclusions from the party’s defeat. The entire New Labour cabinet of the late 1990s seems to have crawled out of the woodwork in the last few weeks to offer advice on how to shift Labour back to the right — to appeal to “aspirational” voters who shop in John Lewis.

Peter Mandelson’s understanding of economics and class is laid out in his article in the New York Times (“Why Labour Lost the Election”, 19 May): “So there was a race to see whose rhetoric would attract the most votes, which the Conservatives won. Why? Partly because the rest of us do not pay for rich people’s wealth (except when they cheat on their taxes), whereas general taxpayers do fund Britain’s generous welfare system and sometimes feel that the unemployed are not just workless, but work-shy.”

Presumably rich people’s wealth just magically appears out of thin air, entirely unrelated to the work done by “taxpayers” every day! To top off his astute analysis he throws in some lazy stereotypes: “The bigger reason Labour lost the argument is that the British, on the whole, do not like income disparities being turned into class war.” He portrays Ed Miliband as a man with an “ideological vendetta” which seems unreasonable in “straitened fiscal times”. Perhaps he is confusing him with his father, Ralph.

Geoff Hoon, former defence minister, believes that Labour’s base is shrinking because of the decline of the “traditional working class” (employed in mining, shipbuilding, steel). This is a convenient excuse for a representative of the New Labour project, which saw Labour lose 4 million votes between 1997 and 2005, and a further million by 2010.

There are forces on the left of Labour who want to pull the party in a different direction, but they are so weak at the moment that they were not even able to put forward a left candidate for the leadership election. Instead the left is meant to be satisfied with Andy Burnham, claimed as the union man, but in fact someone who oversaw the introduction of PFI in the NHS, voted for the Iraq war, and has in recent weeks talked about the need to “tighten borders” against immigrants.

It matters what happens in Labour, and the more debates can be pushed to the left the better.

But the best chance of defeating austerity is certainly not to wait five years until the next election and hope Labour wins. Judging by the Tories’ belligerent first weeks in office, we don’t have five years. The last real opportunity to beat austerity was in the autumn of 2011 when 2.6 million public sector workers went out on strike over pensions. The union leaders must bear the responsibility for closing down that opportunity when they called off the strikes. We have to make sure this does not happen again.

Part of the reason the Tories are keen to push cuts through so quickly is because they know that, with such a small majority, they may not be able to sustain themselves. Constitutional questions over Scotland and the EU are likely to explode in the coming months — issues we will return to in this magazine. They must also explain slowing growth in the economy — and they can’t blame Labour this time.

Elections give only a snapshot of the mood — and it’s increasingly a distorted snapshot because parliamentary politics is so distant from people’s lives. In a recent poll 6 percent of people defined themselves as “very left wing”, rather than “centre-left” or “left wing”. That’s over 3 million people. Beyond them are the millions more who want to see a fight to save the NHS, defend education and protect trade union rights.

That means there is a large audience for socialist ideas, which finds expression both in the fragmented election results and on the streets, in the workplaces and colleges. Socialists have to be organised on all these fronts.

Judging by the aims laid out in the Queen’s Speech, the Tories have declared class war. Let’s give it to them.

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