The Critical Mass: (i) Wide Open Election

January 1, 2015 12:19 pm

It’s a little over four months to the 2015 British General Election (May 7).This one promises to be crucial and more fluid than any election in living memory.

Ever since the failure of the international banking system in 2008, millions of people have been pushed further into poverty by neo-liberal governments who insist that ordinary people should pick up the tab for the greed and economic ineptitude of the international capitalist class and their bought and paid for politicians.

With economic upheaval comes social and political instability characterised by an increase in impoverishment, cuts to the social wage, an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and the rise of racism and xenophobia, often disgracefully inflamed by the political class and accommodated by the capitalist media. Hand in hand with this is the rise of new movements. One such is UKIP – the United Kingdom Independence Party – which has made a number of significant gains in the last few years since its inception back in 1993.

‘Winter of Discontent’

A different economic storm

But the state of affairs we have now, in Britain, can be traced back a generation to 1976. Then, we had a Labour government floundering in the face of a different economic storm in the wake of the 1973 ‘oil shock’. The Labour Party was a different animal to the one we see before us today. On paper at least, it was subject to a certain measure of accountability both to its members and its affiliated trade unions. It had been elected on the basis of a wave of national strikes against the Tory government of Edward Heath (1970-74) that had attempted to make millions of ordinary working class families pay for the crisis of capitalism. Labour was elected on the most radical manifesto since 1945. Within two years in office, Labour ministers went back on their word and, hand in hand with rightwing trade union leaders, imposed a ‘Social Contract’ of public sector cuts and wage restraint while going to the IMF (International Monetary Fund)  for a bail out.

By 1978, low paid public sector workers triggered a series of national strikes that soon became known, in the capitalist press, as ‘the Winter of Discontent’. They lasted into 1979 when an election was called and the Tory Party, under Margaret Thatcher, won when many Labour voters abstained or went over to other parties to register their disgust.

While Labour fell into opposition and division between left and right, the Tories unleashed a programme of tax cuts that mainly benefited the wealthy and big business; made cuts in the public sector and local government which heralded mass unemployment (3 million) by 1981. The Thatcherites’ enmity towards our European partners surfaced. And Thatcher, politically,  aligned us with ‘Reagonomics’ in the US – mainly that, if the wealthier class is left pretty much alone, the ‘trickle down effect’ would kick in and benefit everyone.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party tore itself apart as its new leader, Neil Kinnock, began to move the party from the centre-left to centre-right by jettisoning any semblance of socialism and, indeed, expelling socialists. Thatcher herself was to brag that her ‘finest achievement’ was the creation of ‘New Labour’, a tamer, paler imitation of the Tory Party itself, less democratic, less influenced by the very people who created the party in the first place, the trade unions.

‘Where there is discord…’

Mistrust and malaise

But the Thatcherite counter-revolution didn’t only affect Labour. Fissures between ‘left’ and ‘right’ also appeared in her own party, mainly over Europe, but certainly over those who preferred a ‘One Nation’ Toryism versus those who wanted a more ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism. It was from this wing of the Tories that went on to found what became UKIP – anti-European, pronounced anti-trade unionist, anti-immigration – by 1993.

UKIP, mainly consisting of a rump of ex-Tories, seemed stuck in the margins until the ‘noughties’ when they gained a couple of European members of parliament (MEPs) and a more strident, publicity and media-savvy leader in former Tory and merchant banker, Nigel Farage.

As Thatcherism had changed the political and economic landscape of Britain – 20% of its manufacturing industry was gone, much of our social housing stock was sold off to private landlord companies; our trade union laws were amongst the most restrictive in the western world; most of our public utilities were sold off; and our local governments were subjected to some of the most stringent spending regulations. Correspondingly, the financial sector was deregulated to be able to seek out the biggest pickings for investment around the world for the biggest profits – many of our jobs being transferred to low wage economies in the developing countries.

‘New Labour’ continued these Thatcherite policies and added to them with further privatisations – the railway network, and freed up the restrictions for the banking sector, while refusing to relinquish the anti-trade union laws. Accordingly, voter abstention in elections increased. There was little difference between our three main parties, except by degrees. This has become more pronounced during the first decade of the new century with the fallout of the politicians’ general consensus for our participation in an illegal war and other costly interventions. That notwithstanding, a series of ‘scandals’ have also compounded the general public’s feelings of  mistrust and malaise, even downright cynicism that ‘they’re all the same’, particularly since the ‘cash for honours’ and ‘expenses’ scandals.

Moreover, the scandals haven’t just stopped there.  Other sectors of ‘the Establishment’ have been dragged through the dirt with cases of tax avoidance, phone hacking and child abuse. Politicians, celebrities, police, journalists and media tycoons have all been exposed as either guilty, complicit or involved in elaborate cover-ups.

‘A New Dawn?’

Capitalism’s ‘Berlin Wall’ moment

Be that as it may, as many newspapers as these may sell, in the end, the media itself knows the news agenda has to shift along onto ‘other stories’. What better way to distract the public from the scandals of ‘their social superiors’ than highlighting the ‘scandal of mass immigration’. The constant drip-drip of anti-immigrant stories has served to introduce not just a period of respite for the ongoing travails of the ‘tops of society’, but from the crisis the system of capitalism now finds itself, since 2008, when it first began to unravel.

It wasn’t just the Thatcherites who freed up capital that contributed to the bubble bursting (while destroying much of the manufacturing base that could have taken up the slack) but ‘New Labour’ also let loose the bankers from any restraints so they could further gamble our money on the casino that is the global markets. All are linked by a thousand threads to a thousand more until it all came tumbling down, starting in the USA.

Labour, having ditched ‘socialism’ in the 1980s, and joined in the jubilant crowing at the ‘fall of communism’ in 1989, now toed the line that capitalism was the perfect model for society, the only game in town. The thesis was that ‘history had ended’ as we had attained the perfect state. Within twenty years, capitalism suffered its own ‘Berlin Wall’ moment.

Since then, our government, like other similar capitalist governments, with little or no real moral compass, operates in the very same capitalist framework that has been found wanting. It insists that millions of ordinary working class people have to suffer ‘austerity’ and pick up the tab for the failure of ‘their’ system. Billions of pounds worth of cuts have been handed down by the coalition government since 2010. There’s billions more to come, it’s been said, to a level not seen since the 1930s, the decade of the ‘Great Depression’. We’re offered a diet of ‘never-ending austerity’ while the top 1% and the big corporations receive not only tax cuts to add to their wealth, but indulge themselves further in massive tax avoidance and our MPs are given an 11% pay rise.

Who’s to blame? Our newspapers, along with our politicians, blame immigrants or those ‘feckless benefit recipients’, anything to get the attention off themselves or their failed policies. The truth is – immigrants and those on benefits DID NOT CAUSE THE BANKS TO GO BUST. The gambling bankers did, those bankers who refuse to invest OUR MONEY that bailed them out into new jobs, houses and services while continuing to award themselves huge, obscene bonuses.

‘It’s not us, it’s them’

Our mainstream political parties, with hardly a policy where you could fit a cigarette paper between them, offer no solution except more of the same. They are discredited. What do the ‘strategists of capital’ do if voters are turned off their system?

Enter Nigel Farage and UKIP.

Since 2001, there have been tens of thousands of anti-immigrant and anti-muslim news articles in our press, mainly in the rightwing popular press such as the Daily Mail, Express, Sun and Star. With remorseless repetition, there has now been something of a crossover into the centre-left popular press. Some politicians of both right and left have shamelessly picked this up. Anything to distract from their failed policies. Anything in an attempt to chime with, what seems like, ‘the popular line’. ‘It’s not us over here, it’s them over there’ seems to be the order of the day.

‘In it together?’

For a period, it seemed the far right British National Party (BNP) were making some progress with the likes of Nick Griffin gracing our screens and newspapers. But too many saw through them for what they are – ‘nazis in suits’. And that image rarely left them. But Farage, and those around him, are more astute operators. He plays the ‘populist’, the ‘man in the bar with a fag and a pint in his hand’, plain-speaking, no-nonsense – but wait, no real policies either.

You’ll find, if you get them in a corner or pin them down long enough, they too, have very little to offer the electorate beyond leaving Europe and stopping immigration, and harrowing rumours of NHS privatisation, swiftly denied, of course. They are, as has often been said, ‘a rump of disgruntled ex-Tories’. Or, as David Cameron once said: ‘A bunch of fruitcakes, homophobes and loonies’. A notion he has since been forced to retract as he has acknowledged a very real threat from UKIP eating into his party’s vote.

Labour, too, can no longer afford to feel smug with the result of UKIP gaining, not just two former Tory defectors, but UKIP’s coming within a few hundred votes of what was once a safe Labour stronghold in north-west England.

Accordingly, the hapless Labour leadership tried to move its immigration policy closer to ‘UKIP-lite’, pandering to their agenda, while hoping that much of UKIP’s support is designed merely as ‘protest’ and will revert back in a ‘real’ election.

That could be ‘hope against hope’. While more stories keep surfacing about various ‘UKIP loonies’ such as the ‘women are sluts who should clean behind the fridge’ or that floods are’ God’s punishment for gay marriage’, UKIP’s bandwagon goes on.

Meanwhile, on the ‘Tartan Front’, since the Scottish referendum, the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) have come on in leaps and bounds with a newly-swollen membership, despite narrowly losing the independence campaign against the ‘common front’ of the three main parties. While UKIP threaten mainly Tory seats across England, Labour stands to experience a possible crushing defeat in Scotland, pushing the door wide open to a completely new political vista for Britain.

While the question had always been: ‘Why should Scottish MPs vote on questions in Parliament about English issues?’ This may well be transformed to seeing the SNP actually holding power for the whole country in a possible new coalition with a minority Labour government!

However, all this aside, which ever party or combination of parties takes up the reins of government, what IS certain is each and every one of those parties – at this point – are in favour of continuing austerity.

The real heart of the matter has to be: if ordinary people cannot tolerate what a ruling class is handing down to them anymore, then what do they do? Where do they turn? At some point the ‘critical mass’ is reached, and then we have to pose the next question – ‘What is to be done?’

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