Who will fill the vacuum?
Labour’s general election defeat has been described by one high-ranking insider as perhaps ‘the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created’. Scotland has been lost to the SNP, and UKIP are eating into Labour’s core vote in England. New Labour believed it could turn its back on the working class as they would have ‘nowhere to go’: instead, the working class is turning its back on Labour in kind. Euro-nationalism is currently filling this vacuum in working class representation, almost by default, but the opportunity is there for a pro-working class alternative to Labour if progressive forces can be drawn together down the line.
The general election of 7 May saw the Labour party suffer what Jon Cruddas has called its ‘worst defeat since 1918′. Scotland, so long the party’s backbone, has been lost en masse to the SNP, while UKIP came third in the popular vote polling 3.8m votes and finishing second in 120 seats.
The UKIP surge came not just in the shires, as liberal prejudice would have liked, but also in the Labour heartland. Of the 50 seats that saw UKIP’s largest increase in vote share between 2010 and 2015, 32 were Labour. By region, UKIP’s biggest gains were in the Labour heartlands of Yorkshire and the North-East, and across the north UKIP averaged 16.9% in Labour-held seats.
Robert Ford, who has been tracking UKIP’s ascent in recent years, writes: ‘Ukip’s advance was strongest in seats with the largest concentrations of white voters, working-class voters, voters with no educational qualifications, and where opposition to immigration and the EU was highest. The strongest Ukip advances came in the seats along the east coast and in declining northern towns, where such factors came together. The party won shares of 25% or more in places such as Grimsby, Hartlepool, Thurrock and Boston and Skegness. Ukip’s performance also confounded those who argued that the party would primarily hurt the Conservatives – Ukip’s advance was slightly larger in Labour-held seats and Labour did four points worse in the areas where Ukip advanced most, compared to a 2-point Tory drop’ (link). Nigel Farage’s personal view is that ‘UKIP significantly helped the Conservatives win this election by tearing vast chunks out of the Labour vote in the north and the Midlands’ and that UKIP’s greatest growth potential is in Labour areas (link), something outlined in UKIP’s ’2020 strategy’ (link). Labour’s John Healey concurs with this view (link) and Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only MP, has told Channel 4 that he sees UKIP’s future as being ‘a non-socialist alternative to Labour in England’.
The Labour hierarchy is in turmoil over how to respond to this: were they too left wing? Were they not left wing enough? The horrifying answer for them is: both and neither, illustrating the existential bind Labour finds itself in. It did not just haemorrhage support in the heartlands or Middle England, it did so in both. One may be soluble, the other may not.
The working class turning its back on Labour
The roots of Labour’s crisis are quite simple. The New Labour project was underpinned by the belief that Labour could ditch Clause 4, embrace neo-liberalism and orientate entirely to the middle class, safe in the knowledge that its working class core vote could be taken for granted because, in Peter Mandelson’s words, they had ‘nowhere to go’.
At the time is was noted by those that founded the IWCA that if New Labour dared turn its back on the working class, the working class would, contrary to New Labour wisdom, reciprocate. It was also concluded that Euro-nationalism was best placed to benefit from this as the de facto radical alternative, in the absence of a worthwhile offer to the working class from the left.
Sure enough, the BNP began to fill the vacuum in working class political representation, taking 192,000 votes in 2005 and over half a million in 2010, seeing the election of two MEPs in 2009 and 50-odd councillors, becoming the opposition in Burnley and Barking. The BNP’s collapse has been gleefully received as a vindication by the liberal left, but UKIP has assumed its constituency and substantially grown it (almost seven-fold from the BNP’s vote in 2010) with the benefit of experience (learning from the BNP’s mistakes, as the BNP learnt from the NF), superior middle management, a less toxic brand and greater corporate backing.
What this demonstrates is that the BNP’s success, and indeed that of UKIP, has very little to do with the innate charm of these parties and is more symptomatic of working class disillusionment with the political centre, Labour specifically. From 1997 onwards, directly coincident with the emergence of New Labour, electoral turn-out has fallen well below its post-war trend of around 75%, with 65% now seemingly established as the new norm (link). As the progenitors of the IWCA wrote in 1995: ‘In straightforward language, it is the politics of the Labour Party that has created the BNP… Labour and the Left are increasingly alien to working class people’ (link). The Oxford academics Geoffrey Evans and Jon Mellon wrote just before the 2015 election that ‘Labour’s move to the ‘liberal consensus’ on the EU and immigration alienated many of their core voters a long time before UKIP were an effective political presence. These disaffected core voters left Labour in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 and went to other parties—or simply stopped voting. UKIP has since attracted these disaffected former Labour voters, particularly from the Conservatives… the damage to Labour’s core support had already been done by new Labour’s focus on a pro-middle class, pro-EU and, as it eventually turned out, pro-immigration agenda, before the arrival of UKIP as a plausible electoral choice in the years following the 2010 election’ (link). [It will be interesting to see how much of UKIP's increased support has come directly from Labour this time.]
And ‘where the liberal left continues to ignore working class concerns and has priorities other than immediate working class interests, Euro-nationalism is capable and more than happy to ‘fill the vacuum”. UKIP are doing precisely this.
Who will fill the vacuum? And how?
UKIP, like the BNP before them, are the symptom more than the disease, and an opportunistic one at that. Like the BNP, they are able to pose as Old Labour in Labour heartlands and as Old Tory elsewhere, as advantage dictates. It is not impossible that they will implode as the BNP did, or that the left-right contradictions in their make-up will rent them asunder. But the wider point is that the vacuum exists, and will be filled one way or another. If UKIP implode another formation will emerge from the right, because the gap in the market is there, and it will be wiser and more emboldened from the previous experience. And the political centre of gravity will continue drifting further to the right.
As for Labour, Cruddas says that its current plight ‘could be the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale’. Post-New Labour, what is the Labour party for? If it cannot retain working class support in its heartlands, if it is no longer seen as the party of the class by an significant and growing section of the working class, what is its reason to exist? Can this ever be resolved? Having lost Scotland, and facing constituency boundary changes that will likely work against them, will it ever be able to form a national government on its own again? Labour, like the Lib Dems, are finding out the hard way that there is no need for three neo-liberal parties, or even two; and that gaining votes in Guardianland doesn’t compensate for the loss of the core it took for granted.
One only has to look across the Channel to mainland Europe to see the vacuum being filled by Euro-nationalist parties (just last week, the Finns Party entered government in Finland), and for similar reasons as in the UK. Recently, the French think-tank the Jean Jaurès Foundation, founded by the former French PM Pierre Mauroy to ‘promote the values of Democratic Socialism’, issued its analysis of the factors behind the rise of the Front National. It reported:
‘With no political offer from the left, working-class French people feel they have been abandoned economically, socially and culturally. The FN has stepped into the breach: it says to these people: “you are the most important and we will fight for you”.
‘The left is trying to make up to what it calls ‘real minorities’ who it believes are discriminated against. In doing so it has become indifferent, even scornful, of the wider French working class. They say to these native French “you have not understood, you are racist and sexist”, and so these people have said, so be it. They are ready to admit voting FN because the left has abandoned them and the FN is interested in them.’ (link)
In short, the left in France has abandoned class politics, embraced identity politics and taken the core working class vote for granted, and is now reaping the whirlwind. Much as in the UK. As to how the FN have achieved credibility with the French working class, the FN’s Michel Paulin put it quite simply: ‘People are coming to us because we go to them. We are there on the street, on the landings of the tower blocks. People see we don’t have horns. They see our ideas are their ideas. And they don’t see the other parties at all’ (link). This simple lesson has been staring the European left in the face since the emergence of the FN as a truly national force in 1985, and it has uniformly and wilfully refused to act on it.
So what can be done? There is no reason why Euro-nationalism should be the only political tendency appearing on working class landings, listening and responding to working class concerns. This could and should be the default job of the pro-working class left, and the IWCA experiment has shown that the mainstream parties are as vulnerable to an attack from a progressive working class party as they are to the radical right.
On a macro scale, why should it be left to UKIP to frame the debate around hot-button topics like the EU and immigration in a reactionary fashion, when progressive pro-working class arguments can be made? The EU is a capitalist project; immigration policy is used to provide a weak, defenceless reserve army of labour for UK plc and keep wages down (the Migration Observatory at Oxford University recently reported ‘UK research suggests that immigration has a small impact on average wages of existing workers but more significant effects along the wage distribution: low-wage workers lose while medium and high-paid workers gain.’ [link]). This is obvious: why would the EU be anything other than a capitalist project? Why would immigration policy be designed in any other way but to service the needs of capital? In Europe, as elsewhere, the free movement of labour is at the behest of the free movement of capital – that is the way it works. And is best explained in that way. To do otherwise out of sentiment or sensitivity is to sow a dangerous confusion.
On austerity, Labour were so enfeebled in this election they couldn’t even muster the courage to counter the austerity narrative -’we must make cuts or we’ll become Greece; Gordon Brown’s profligate spending caused the recession’ – despite there being ample mainstream intellectual ammunition with which to do so (link and link). The ‘austerity’ label is nothing but the cloak behind which the state and society will be further re-configured along neo-liberal lines, with the NHS to be dismembered, education opened up to the highest bidder and the remaining vestiges of the welfare state to be squeezed yet further, with more food banks and suicides the predictable consequence. And why can’t Labour counter this narrative? Because they are complicit. The recession began on Gordon Brown’s watch, but was very much a New Labour recession, not an Old Labour one as the austerians would have it. New Labour accepted, extended and normalised the neo-liberal economic agenda in the UK, opening up the economy to financialisation which left it especially vulnerable when the global financial crisis hit. Neo-liberalism itself was a ruling class initiative which sought to resolve the endemic economic crises of the 1970s by raising profitability through the smashing of working class power, security and institutions. It is Labour’s acceptance of this agenda that has fundamentally, and perhaps irrevocably, alienated it from the working class: the class understands this, even if Peter Mandelson doesn’t.
In point of fact, if pro-working class forces can be drawn together down the line, UKIP can be looked at as doing our job for us by breaking off working class support from the mainstream parties. To again quote Evans and Mellon on UKIP’s support: ‘There are two quite distinct social groups that have shown a disproportionately high level of support for radical right-wing parties: the working class and the somewhat quaintly labelled ‘petty bourgeoisie’ (the self-employed—small employers such as shop owners)… working-class and petty-bourgeoisie radical right-wing party voters are divided on economic issues, but share the types of non-economic preferences addressed by radical right wing parties’ [italics added] (link). That UKIP is able to win working class support when it doesn’t even share the economic priorities of those self-same working class supporters is an indictment of the left as it stands, but it also indicates the opportunity that is there for an effective, pro-working class alternative to Labour. But if the battle for working class hearts and minds is to be won, Euro-nationalism will need to be challenged head on by just as compelling and grand a narrative. That is the challenge still.
 Sean Birchall (2010), ‘Beating the Fascists: the untold story of Anti-Fascist Action’ (London: Freedom Press), p400.
 Ibid. p402.