The post-election aftermath has provided a predictable medley of staged and half-baked conclusions. Besides UKIP’s gnawing at the Tories’ right flank, Labour’s lacklustre showing and a continuing Liberal demise, four additional snippets need serious thought
Labour: ‘no class’
It might have escaped your average cave dweller, but immigration politics has become an issue central to election discourse in the last 10 years or so. This is very much partly Labour’s fault – although not for the reasons (‘opening our borders’ and New Labour’s playing to Daily Mail fears at the very same time) that many point to. Labour has spent the last 20 years refusing to talk about class and about the economic fundamentals as to why deep class and socioeconomics divisions still exhibit the scars they do on British society. In such a society that is becoming even more stratified and divided in these terms Labour must provide voters to once again use class so people to identify themselves. In its absence many of those voters who don’t feel the system works for them will be given other options. Immigration and other sharper variants of racial or nationalistic politics has always been the go-to alternative. Labour must be less squeamish about talking about class so that enough of ‘their voters’ (whether they voted UKIP or simply didn’t vote) feel like they are an option at the ballot box. It would be harsh to expect Ed Miliband to correct a dynamic that’s been 20 years in the making, but there is also scant evidence that he will offer solutions.
These solutions also demand Labour be not so embarrassed by the trade union movement that formed it. A strong union movement is essential in reforming a political discourse that reminds working people that is it is the interest of capital – not migrants – that is the biggest threat to them. Given the recent ‘Blairite melodrama’ (Peter Kenyon, Chartist 2013) that saw the party pushing the union movement further out of the Labour family, it doesn’t appear that Ed Miliband is interested in a conversation about class at all.
The Greens: the protest vote that wasn’t?
With all this talk about protest votes and where angry voters go with their anger, one must ask this question of the Greens: would they have been better served if Caroline Lucas remained as their leader? Would they not have provided a stronger magnetic pull for angry green-tinged ex-liberal democrats if they had the profile they should have done? 4 years after an amazing double achievement of attaining a Member of Parliament and control of Brighton council is the gain of a mere 23 local councillors nationwide really ‘a success’ in an election where voters were desperately looking to vote for the yellow, blue and red option. In September The Green Party will have a scheduled and constitutional process of selecting its leader. In the running up to a general election they would be wise to take advantage of an unpopular Labour offer even more unpopular Lib Dem attempt to avoid oblivion. Calling Ms. Lucas!
Scotland’s unwanted purple patch: A stunning UKIP gain
Nigel Farage on pint number 5 wouldn’t have put money on this. This truly was a stunning UKIP pick up. Alec Salmond tried to put a brave face on it, but he knows that his party should have picked up a third European Parliament seat in Scotland. The fact it was UKIP that nabbed it rather than Labour and the Liberals pierces the nationalist rhetoric that Scotland is radically different to Conservative, insular and almost Xenophobic England. It is different, but not as different as he thinks. He must grasp that this says something fundamental about the coming independence referendum rather than dismiss it as public concern over the unbridled power of Europe. On this point the electoral numbers do not make pleasant reading for the nationalists. The parties backing a ‘YES’ vote (the SNP and the Scottish Greens) took only 37% of the vote, whilst the three unpopular Westminster parties plus the ‘very very English’ UKIP took a grand total of nearly 61% of the vote.. Although this unliekly doesn’t claim to mirror people’s voting intentions in the coming referendum, it should be noted that this mid-30% region is where the pro-independence vote, for most of the last 10 years, has usually rested. Although more recent 2014 opinion polls have indicated a tighter contest than this, this actual poll does indicate that stubbornly hard number in favour of the union is very much in tact.
The EU: the status quo is not an option
A number things need to accepted on this now toxic subject. Firstly, UKIP are chiefly responsible for the entangling of EU politics and immigration politics in British politics. It doesn’t have to be like this. It wasn’t like this 10 years ago. Secondly, the mainstream political parties have acted as if they’ve had more important things to deal with rather than this paradoxically sticky and overly technical subject. They cannot behave like this now (to be fair, the Tories have been rabidly paying attention, Labour rabidly not). Thirdly, and fundamentally for left, the nature of the EU and its direction of travel is nothing like it was in the 1980s and 1990s. It has become part of a transnational neo-liberal agenda which itself now threatens so much that we hold dear. The case for European integration from the left can no longer be based on defending the EU as is, and in fact must include a radical agenda that looks more like creative destruction than mere ‘reform’. New institutional structures that empowers the European Parliament and national parliaments, an elected European Commission and a Court of Justice with radically curtailed powers must form part of a new European raison d’être that seeks to put environmental goals at the centre of ‘der projekt’. This must explictly entail an end to the ambition to ‘complete the single market’. This economic and market-making rationale for Europe has now, truly, gone too far. A number of supposedly centre-left politicians and commentators often trot out the-now dangerous cliché we ‘need to create a single market in services’. The implications of such a development is truly dangerous, both for the already battered state of our public services and in pushing our already heavily liberalised labour markets further down this horrible path.
Defending the status quo will lead to defeat, in a UK ‘in-out’ referendum and of the EU itself.