In David Hare’s play The Absence of War, the Kinnock-like party leader, George Jones, is a tragic figure. His wit, his passion and his ability to extemporise are gradually extinguished, with his connivance, by a party machine that spends its time trying to out-Tory the Tories. They obey the polls religiously, yet still the voters aren’t ‘churning’. They do what ‘everyone agrees’ is necessary in order to win, but to no effect. Unable to work out why, they face the oncoming election much as they might a whirring propeller, and are left in shreds.
There is no tragic note to be sounded about any senior Labour figure today. Ed Miliband sacks his shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, for conveying a ‘sense of disrespect’ towards the owner of a white van. Ed Balls, having given up his brief attempt at an attack on the coalition’s austerity policy, courts respectability by pledging to honour all the coalition government’s spending cuts. Rachel Reeves gratuitously alienates the unemployed and welfare recipients – groups she treats as identical, although the majority of people who receive benefits are in work – by insisting that Labour ‘is not the party to represent those who are out of work’. All of this is evidence of Labour’s clumsy move rightwards in the hope of expanding its base. What has happened instead is that chunks of that base have seceded to the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens or even Ukip. Labour does not lack popular policy initiatives, from repealing the Health and Social Care Act or the bedroom tax to freezing fuel prices and introducing rent controls. What it lacks is a purpose.
Labour claims that addressing the ‘cost of living crisis’ is what really matters. But having accepted the straitjacket of austerity, what can Labour really do about it? The longest decline in living standards in fifty years can hardly be uncoupled from austerity policies that have retarded growth and removed vital support from working-class incomes. Ed Balls’s promise to continue cutting means that Labour can at best tinker at the margins of the crisis. In some instances, as with its de facto agreement with the Tories that unemployment benefit for the under-25s must be scrapped, Labour apes Tory policy. Even if this achieved its stated aim, by forcing unemployed young people to find work for poverty pay, how would that improve living standards?
Worse, Labour has accepted Conservative precepts. The private sector knows, and grows, best. The City is untouchable: it may be chastised, but never seriously confronted. Unemployment is a form of dependency, best dealt with through market discipline. Competition is the law of all social and economic life, and it is the role of the state to encourage it and to secure public participation in it. And the British state, and its military commitments, are sacrosanct. In the months leading up to the Scottish independence referendum – the sole recent instance of mass, enthusiastic democratic participation in the UK – Labour found itself campaigning alongside the Conservatives, with the result that in May’s election it will be all but wiped out north of the border. The logic of its position has compelled Labour to attack the SNP far more vehemently than it has the Conservatives. Miliband has been forced, under Tory pressure, to rule out a post-election coalition with the SNP, which may be enough to end any prospect of a viable Labour government.
By degrees, Labour has come to accept most of the Conservative ‘vision’, not least because it lacks one of its own. The Tory Weltanschauung is complex, its racist and authoritarian flavours tempered by business-friendly cosmopolitanism and ‘free market’ libertarianism. It has taken only thirty years for Labour to metabolise the right’s ‘common sense’ about the market and spending, its repressive attitude to security and criminal justice (the prison population and police numbers expanded at a much higher rate under Labour than they have under the Conservatives; ‘anti-terror’ legislation and Asbos proliferated), and now its immigration policy. Shortly after William Hague became Tory leader in 1997, Labour took up the Tories’ rhetoric about asylum seekers and gypsies. Its response to the riots in the north of England in 2001, which pitted young Asian men against the far right and the police, was to blame local tensions on the Asian propensity for self-segregation. There were years of authoritarian exhortations to embrace ‘Britishness’. But, as the Blairite columnist Dan Hodges has argued, ‘trying to ape the language of the BNP succeeded only in boosting the BNP.’ It also gave Cameron the opportunity in opposition to belittle the ‘Alf Garnett’ race politics of the Labour front bench and to pledge to ‘reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government’.
Judging from Labour’s painstaking recapitulation of Tory ideas, one would think that its main problem is the overweening strength of the Conservatives. Yet the Tory share of the vote is stuck in the range 30 to 35 per cent, exactly where it has been since Black Wednesday in 1992. The question of Europe has fatally divided its base, as a swelling coalition of small businessmen, lone traders and hyper-Atlanticist cowboy capitalists have shifted their loyalties to challengers such as Ukip. Big business, which traditionally dominates the Conservative leadership, may enjoy the fruits of Europe’s free-trade rules, but many small businesses demand the right to use cheap and precarious labour with as little regulation from Brussels as possible.
The roots of Miliband’s dilemma lie instead in a crisis of representative democracy that is not peculiar to the UK but is afflicting all the rich democracies. The context for this crisis is a rise in public indebtedness across the industrialised world whose proximate cause is the collapse of revenues resulting from the global recession and the subsequent need for unprecedented bailouts to rescue banks and prop up economic activity. But the problem is chronic; it was first detected in the 1970s. Among the root causes of increasing public debt are the slowing of growth rates compared to the postwar era, a demographic shift that has increased the size of the dependent population relative to the working-age population, and a displacement of manufacturing by service industries that are less profitable and thus generate lower tax revenues. But in the period of Thatcher and Reagan, it was argued that the postwar Keynesian consensus was the main culprit: it had distorted the market and driven up inflation, and state expenditure had outrun the productive base of the economy. Successive governments – Thatcher in the 1980s, Clinton in the 1990s, Schroeder and Blair in the 2000s – sought to reform the state to control costs. There were cutbacks in discretionary spending, and the public sector was restructured by the creation of internal markets.
The result was not a smaller state, or even a more efficient one (the introduction of internal markets in the NHS, for instance, has increased overheads from 3 per cent to 15 per cent of total costs), but a state that is more business-friendly and less democratic. And deficits have not significantly decreased in most cases. In the US, Clinton’s blitz on welfare and pro-Wall Street policies produced a short-lived budget surplus by the close of his administration. In the UK, governments have run deficits in all but six years since 1979, and even before 2008, the trend was that they were gradually increasing. Indeed, the surge in structural unemployment, used to control inflation and bust unions, has tended to exacerbate the public debt problem.
Wolfgang Streeck and Armin Schäfer argue in Politics in the Age of Austerity (2013) that one result of cost controls is to emaciate the budget for discretionary programmes, as more of the budget is consumed by debt repayments and other mandatory expenditures. Given the success of the rich in lobbying against tax increases, and in avoiding paying tax in the first place, it is increasingly difficult to raise the revenues needed for existing services. Taxes on consumption – which hit the poor hardest – have been implemented, but there is limited political tolerance for these. States are increasingly left with very little room to manoeuvre, while the growing domination of government discourse by neoliberal doctrine tends to suppress policy choices which are not ‘market-friendly’. In this situation, mild market interventions such as temporary energy price freezes might be possible, but nationalising energy companies will not be seriously considered. This narrowing of democratic choice renders Westminster politics increasingly irrelevant to the lives of citizens, except in so far as it panders to spite: the punishment of the obese, the disabled, Scots, single mothers, immigrants and so on.
Now that we’re expected to fend for ourselves, the expectations invested in parliamentary democracy have tended to dwindle, as has participation in it. Voter turnout has fallen across the rich democracies, most sharply among the poorer and less educated. The tendency is particularly advanced in Britain: turnout in general elections between 2000 and 2010 varied between 60 and 65 per cent, well below the 72.5 per cent average recorded by Streeck and Schäfer for the core economies in the same period. In the 2010 general election, turnout ranged from 44 to 72 per cent, with the lowest turnouts in the areas with the highest unemployment. The collapse in participation rates is much steeper in local and regional elections, perhaps partly in response to the centralisation of political power and the decreasing scope of local government to effect real change.
In Labour’s case, the collapse of its representative link with its base also has specific causes. The social basis of Labourism is the labour movement, and it is in retreat. Union membership has halved since 1980. The co-operative movement has shrivelled and the Methodist halls are no longer filled; the broader labour movement no longer produces a steady stream of orators and organisers. Even so, the accelerated rot of recent years is a product of New Labour’s period in office. The Blairites had argued that mass recruitment of new members would anchor the party to the mainstream, while a centrist governing strategy would help bind middle-class voters to progressive ideas. In fact, membership fell to the lowest levels in the party’s history after 13 years of Labour government, and the loss of five million working-class votes between 1997 and 2010 resulted in Labour’s lowest share of the vote since 1918.
Ed Miliband’s leadership bid was based partly on the need to reclaim the working-class vote. The first year of his leadership saw a brief revival in party membership. Yet he has struggled to reconcile his objective with Labour’s continued acceptance of the post-Thatcherite consensus – and of austerity politics – as the condition of gaining middle-class votes and the co-operation of business. The essential fallacy of British politics is that there is a large centre ground, and that this is where elections are decided. As Nick Clegg has discovered to his cost, in a period of economic depression this area has a tendency to shrink. Yet as the political situation polarises and the establishment parties feel the earth fall away beneath them, they cling ever more tightly to their belief in this centre ground. Labour is doing just this, as a matter of both principle and strategy. It is doing it because it thinks it’s the right thing to do, because it’s what the party is used to doing, and because it can’t do anything else.
Ironically, Labour’s electoral weakness may stave off the worst for it. The party is trapped in a spiral of self-destruction, which James Doran, a Labour activist, has called ‘Pasokification’. Greece’s dominant centre-left party implemented austerity and its vote collapsed from 43.9 per cent in 2009 to 4.7 per cent in 2015 – but Pasok’s fate is only an extreme form of the implosion threatening most European social democratic parties, from the German Social Democrats to the French Socialists. The Labour Party faces a dilemma in May. Defeat will be demoralising and will increase the possibility that the party will ultimately collapse. There is little evidence that any significant force, other than the Blairites, would be in a position to take advantage of Miliband’s loss, and certainly none that a Labour left with any influence would emerge from the ruins. Yet if it wins, Labour will be forced to implement an austerity agenda which, while not enough to satisfy Conservative voters, will turn its own remaining voters off in droves. That would be a defeat of a different order. For a vision of that future, one need only look across the Channel, at François Hollande sinking and sinking in the polls, and the Front National on the rise.
Richard Seymour’s latest book is Against Austerity.
This essay originally appeared in the London Review of Books.