Another Fine Mess: Our Politics are in Disarray

May 22, 2013 5:15 pm

What’s going on with our political parties? Our politicians haven’t been held in such contempt for a long time. And, really, who can blame the electorate? You’d have to go a long way back in time to find a similar period when most people who were old enough to vote could repeatedly complain that our politicians are ‘all the same’.

Before 1900 – the year the Labour Party was founded – and when the electorate was considerably smaller (all male suffrage, skilled trades and above could vote if you were over the age of 21), the two main parties were either Tory, who, by and large, represented the landed aristocracy and the finance sector, or the Liberal Party, who represented business and manufacturing. If you worked in industry, you voted for your bosses’ party. If you worked on the land or in small boroughs, you tended to vote for the party of the local landlord.industry labour party

In reality, both capitalist parties were so intertwined it seemed like they were the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum of democratic choice. Many a wealthy industrialist would buy into landed property in order to increase their social standing. Meanwhile, elements of the landed bourgeoisie invested in business, particularly if their own land could yield profit with the sinking of new coalmines, or the discovery of iron ore deposits. So, both parties, in a sense, were linked by a thousand threads and each seemed to take it in turns at taking on the levers of political power.

Both Tories and Liberals aimed to win over the new voters of the working class by promising prosperity, beneficial ‘Factory Acts’, shorter working days and a fatter wage packet, but, once in power, these promises were reneged on all too often.

Workers had little option but to look to their own defences. This meant defending their interests by turning to their own organisations, the trade unions. Industrial action could bring changes. Any gains made, however, could gradually be clawed back later by the ruling class. The answer then, as far as workers were concerned, was to form their own political party. Hence the founding of the Labour Party at the turn of the 20th century.

It was the unions and socialist societies that formed the bedrock of the new workers’ party. Labour gained much ground in its first twenty years, winning support from workers who usually looked to the Liberals for progressive reforms. Correspondingly, Liberal Party support continued to nosedive, especially after the First World War, spurred on by the air of revolution in the aftermath of the creation of the world’s first workers’ state in Russia. Communist and socialist parties sprung up in almost every country across the globe.

Objective Conditions

The ‘new opposition’ to the main British ruling class party – the Tories –  was Labour, who first formed a short-lived government in 1924 and again in 1929. The economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash that year forced Labour into a ‘National Government’, a coalition with the Tories and Liberals in ‘the national interest’. Many left-wing Labour members left to form the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, more and more former Liberals, whose fortunes had long since been fading, joined Labour, often gaining positions that would guide the new party into ‘safer channels’ as far as capitalism was concerned. Middle class interlopers from the Liberals who joined Labour to preserve their political careers played a large role in blunting socialist policies. However, as the affiliated unions were still very much the main founders of the party, there were always tensions between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ within Labour.

world war twoBut our political parties must respond to ‘objective conditions’. These are concrete events that happen in our society. Very often, they must respond to these events and enact policies that will gain them support. The poverty and economic duress of the 1930s – poor housing, poor health, dangerous work conditions, low pay and unemployment – were the very conditions that facilitated the rise of fascism and the bloodiest conflict in history, WWII, that led to more than 60 million deaths and untold global destruction. It was total war of the masses and civilian population, and their counterparts in the armed services expected a better world in reward for their privations. The wartime coalition government was forced to move aside for a better society.

Even in 1944, there were hundreds of thousands of workers on strike for better conditions –  there were even a number of soldiers’ strikes. Although the Labour leadership under Clement Attlee would have preferred to continue in coalition with the Tories, the grassroots membership demanded change and no return to the conditions of the 1930s. Therefore, the Beveridge Report –  a blueprint for a welfare state (written by a reformist Liberal peer) –  was published. It called for the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy and a national health service (NHS) to vanquish ‘poverty, sickness, idleness, ignorance and homelessness’. It promised to build a ”better Britain’. It was adopted by Labour and they won an electoral landslide in the 1945 general election, unseating the ‘wartime leader’, Winston Churchill.

‘Butskillism’

While support for the Liberal Party continued to shrink, the Tory Party was forced to respond by taking on its ‘One Nation’ mantle, governing ‘for all’, and not just their traditional narrow interests. By the 1950s, with full employment, massive social house-building, and a strong social security safety net in place, the ‘age of consensus’ was at its height. The Tories built as many council houses as Labour.

The new affluent society meant the two main political parties grew closer together in policies as people ‘never had it so good’, according to Tory PM, Harold MacMillan. The era was known as ‘Butskillism’ – named after Tory party chairman Rab Butler and Labour leader Hugh Gaitskill – as both parties seemed interchangeable, only different by degrees. But each had their own core voters – generally business people voted for the Tories and workers for Labour.

Again, it was ‘objective conditions’ that forced political parties to respond to real events. The long, extended post-war boom period began to crumble by the mid-1970s as recession – that recurring disease built into the capitalist system –  began to hit. Capitalism creates goods and services to meet demands and, at some point, due to over-production and increasing demand, production is cut back, factories close and workers are laid off.  economic crisis

The cycle of “boom and slump” is at the very heart of the capitalist system, but it’s the working and middle class who bear the brunt of recessions – wage cuts/freezes, job losses and so on. By the 1970s, capitalist theoreticians called for an end to state funding or governments spending their way out of recessions. Cut the money supply, cut the cost to the state, they demanded. They claimed that decreasing taxes meant wealth would ‘trickle down from above’. In order to achieve this, the ruling capitalist class needed politicians who would be willing to take on the powerful protectors of workers – the unions. Defeating them by attacking them with anti-union laws to make them less powerful meant the door would be open to full-blown, unrestricted capitalism – enter the likes of Margaret Thatcher.

Even better, force the Labour Party to jettison any semblance of socialist policies that supported nationalization -namely the welfare state – and you would politically disarm working class opposition to capitalist policies – enter the likes of Neil Kinnock who opened the door for Tony Blair to completely re-fashion old Labour into the New Labour we see today, a party totally devoid of socialist policies, or even the most rudimentary whiff of  ‘Leftwing reformism’.

‘Three cheeks of the same backside’

And this is the point we have reached today with our three main parties, each one of them capitalist in outlook, anti-trade union, pro-City financial interests. We see the completion of the middle class counter-revolution within the Labour Party. Today, we hear such observers as George Galloway MP, formerly of Labour, who notes pithily that: ‘The three main parties are three cheeks of the same backside’.

There is no current political party that represents the interests of millions of ordinary people. People are becoming more and more detached, disinterested and disillusioned towards politicians, as little difference can be detected between their policies. The recent spate of political scandals – ‘cash for honours’, ‘cash for questions’ and MPs expenses – have all increased the growing disdain members of the public have for our political classes. Small wonder, then, that no party scored more than 30% in the recent by-election at Eastleigh. Hardly a ringing endorsement for any of our parties.

UKIPThe situation has become so bad that, in the search for politicians who seem untainted by corruption, false dawns, doubletalk and empty promises, the likes of UKIP can find an echo and claim to ‘be different’ to the main parties.

Yet, closer examination reveals that UKIP only underlines their own complicity in the heady world of British politics. They are, by and large, right wing refugees from the Tory Party, with a smattering of ‘protest votes’ from the other parties and the ‘none of the aboves’. You don’t have to dig too deep to find that Farage’s party is very much ‘the fourth cheek’, with its calls for more cuts in jobs and services, and more tax cuts that will benefit the rich. And already, we see the surfacing of decidedly unsavoury characters from among their ranks.

More importantly, what UKIP has highlighted, is that there is a yearning from the electorate for a genuinely new party. A party that will represent the needs of those turned off by the ‘altogetherism’ of the Westminster clique that rules the roost in our society.

We don’t need another party that will represent the interests of big business and the City.  We need a party that will represent the millions, instead of the millionaires.

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