The strange death of Labour Britain

It’s hard to get any work done today, with the results of last night’s UK election still swirling around my head. They’re deeply depressing for many reasons, not least because the most disadvantaged people throughout the British Isles are going to suffer at least four more years of brutal austerity and cuts while the plutocrats and their political wing – the Tory Party – continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

But I also can’t help thinking about what’s ahead for the Labour Party now that Ed Miliband’s modest flirtation with a social democratic program has produced a failure. The old Blairites, who never really went away, will doubtless seize upon this opportunity to ditch even tepidly egalitarian language and thinking and return to their old, wretched neoliberal line. In some ways, Labour’s defeat has its origins in 1992 when Neil Kinnock lost to John Major, thus paving the way for Tony Blair and the total eradication of socialism from Britain’s socialist party. In another way, the defeat originates in 1979 after the ejection of the last Old Labour government led by James Callaghan. During the 1970s there was arguably an opportunity to save British socialism by radicalizing it. Instead, the radicalization came from the right and Britain’s Labour movement has never really recovered. The strange death of Labour Scotland also arguably has its origins in the Thatcher era.***

(***The SNP surge, which wiped out all but one Labour seat in Scotland, is an important lesson in political alienation and mobilization. Unfortunately, the large SNP contingent – the third strongest at Westminster – won’t be in a position to do much except protest.)

As far as I can see, most of the leading candidates to replace Miliband are relatively young career politicians who are not particularly committed to social democracy and are unlikely to seriously challenge Tory narratives around taxation, spending, and inequality. Labour’s left will mount its perennial challenge to the establishment and will doubtless be shut out again. Meanwhile, things in the country are going to get steadily worse and UKIP – a fake populist party led until this morning by a privately educated ex-banker – may become the principal beneficiary.

The Conservative Party fared badly last night too. As others have noted, a 36% vote share would have relegated the Tories to the opposition benches in many other elections. The coming referendum on EU membership and the possibility of Scottish succession mean that the Conservative Party is also, potentially, facing a serious crisis. To beat Labour, the Tories and their allies in the press deliberately stoked some of the most vile and chauvinistic English nationalism and they will now have to pay the price. With only a small majority, their situation is more precarious than it appears – this is, perhaps, the only redeeming thing I can find in last night’s results (though I suppose the very satisfying destruction of the backstabbing Liberal Democrats also counts for something).

I care about Britain for reasons which are both personal and political. Studying the history of its Labour, socialist, and radical traditions has been a huge source of intellectual inspiration and it hurts to see what’s become of the party of Clement Atlee, Michael Foot, Anuerin Bevan, Keir Hardy, and Tony Benn. The idea of vulgar toffs like Boris Johnson and David Cameron continuing to squat in Downing Street makes physically sick, but not as much as a Labour Party which contributes to the demonization of immigrants and people on welfare. Nostalgia really serves no one interested in progress, but it’s hard not to think about the spirit of hope that prevailed in 1945 when Labour won a landslide, created the NHS, nationalized coal, rail, and steel, and built the welfare state out of the rubble of the Second World War and wonder where it went.

Forgive me for being sentimental, but it’s hard not to feel like a beautiful idea, real or chimerical, has slipped away and that it may be gone forever.

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