'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Brief Note on the British Election 

Eventually, New Labour had to subject itself to the judgment of the voters, and the campaign has been underway for several weeks. After 12 years of pursuing policies of privatization, liberalization of the financial markets, expansion of public surveillance and, of course, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Labour Party finds its Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and its parliamentary candidates generating little enthusiasm. Tory leader David Cameron finds himself in a similar situation, although the greater likelihood of victory necessarily energizes them a little more.

But the dirty secret of the campaign is the lack of any meaningful economic differences between them, and the other major party, the Liberal Democrats, as noted by lenin three weeks ago:

The 2010 general election will result in a victory for the nasty party, whoever wins. All three major parties, having supported the mammoth bank bailouts, stand for the deepest cuts in the public sector for over 50 years, far outstripping anything accomplished by Thatcher. Outdoing Thatcher in the cuts stakes is, in case the point passed you by, as nasty as can be. The chancellors' debate - which, underscoring the poverty of alternatives, was won by the drab former Shell economist Vincent Cable - reinforced this quite starkly. There is only a difference of emphasis and timing between the parties, and these differences all sound eminently reasonable and plausible within the terms of the discussion - but they are largely technocratic differences with policy flavours attached. And even if New Labour pretends to be protecting frontline services, the fact is that it is already driving cuts through the education sector. It is continuing its savage cuts in the civil service. Health departments are already budgeting for big cuts. For example, the London NHS Trust is conducting secret meetings behind locked doors, in which no notes are taken, in order to plan approximately £5bn in cuts. And that's just one city. Already, cutbacks in other areas, such as maternity wards and A&E departments in the north-east are causing difficulties for sitting Labour MPs - Gordon Prentice, the left-wing Burnley MP, is having to fight his own government over the closure of an A&E department in Burnley. To which the other parties say, amen, and faster, please!

If anything, the situation has gotten worse as a consequence of Greek financial crisis with commentators warning that, without the imposition of severe austerity measures, the UK could soon find itself in the line of fire.

The surprise of the campaign has been the emergence of the Liberal Democrats as a plausible alternative to Labour and the Tories. On a number of issues, the LibDems are better than Labour. They have resisted the curtailment of civil liberties and increased electronic surveillance implemented by both Blair and Brown. They opposed the invasion of Iraq and consider the modernization of the UK's nuclear submarine force, the Trident, a hideous waste of money, although they don't go so far as to say that they will promptly scrap it. Led by a young, relatively charismatic leader (remember, this is the UK), Nick Clegg, and promising the prospect of transformative political change by overcoming the duopoly, the LibDems now poll slightly ahead of Labour and slightly behind the Conservatives, a result that, if it is confirmed on election day, will bring about a hung Parliament.

Accordingly, for some on the left in the UK, the LibDems have an allure. With policies that appear to be less militaristic than either Labour and the Tories, while refusing to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment (which Brown has done, while privately describing his target audience as bigots), the LibDems have a reformist sheen, especially when one adds their insistence for proportional representation into the mix. Rightly or wrongly, many on the left believe that the adoption of PR will permanently cast the Tories into oblivion, with future electoral results that mirror the purportedly social reality of the UK as a center-left country.

But it is a little more complex than that. As Seamus Milne noted yesterday in the Guardian:

The Liberal Democrats, after all, have form. As Clegg demonstrated in last week's leaders' debate, the Lib Dems are more independent in foreign policy, and progressive on civil liberties, than New Labour. But in a dozen councils across England the party has opted to ally with the Conservatives – even when Labour is the largest party – and voted through cuts, closures and privatisations.

His conclusion is brutal, but accurate:

It's also becoming clearer that if Labour were to end up coming third in the popular vote, far from opening up opportunities for its revival on a more progressive basis, this could even risk its disintegration and the effective exclusion of any working class or union presence from mainstream politics.

Yes, indeed. The collapse of Labour will push the UK even more rapidly towards the political model of the US, where the working class has been almost completely erased from the process. In this sense, the comparison of Clegg to Obama is apt, as Obama is finishing the project of creating a purportedly classless society started by, probably Carter, but most certainly by Reagan and Clinton. For British workers to have any political voice, however faint, Labour must survive. Without question, that voice is a faint one. But, for those on the left in the UK who believe in the electoral process as the means for achieving political change, and still embrace a class conscious politics, the preservation of the power of the trade unions and activists within a compromised Labour is essential, even if it looks like a desperate rear guard action.

Just as in the US, it is hard to imagine the circumstances by which an effective class based left politics can emerge there, although, for now, there are more resources for it in the UK than in the US. The Labour Party was created in the service of the principle that the working class could peaceably take power through the electoral process, and more equitably distribute the fruits of the society for the benefit of all. With participation in the UK political system dependent upon larger and larger sums of money and media access, such a mission seems more implausible than it has ever been. Accordingly, the UK election is more evidence in support of the notion that liberal democracies are now only capable of reconstituting governments in the thrall of capital, or, as Baudrillard called it, alternation. Only in a region of the world where such a system has not yet firmly rooted itself, South America, is it possible for socialist alternatives, however pallid, to survive. As for the rest of us, we are on our own, until we find a way to collectively organize beyond an electoral process rigged against us.

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