Friday, July 24, 2009

Labour's crushing defeat

In 2005, Ian Gibson won Norwich North for Labour with over 21,000 votes. Today, in a bye-election resulting from Gibson's resignation over the expenses scandal, Chris Ostrowski lost it for Labour with a pathetic 6,000 votes, approx. That means Labour shed more than two-thirds of its vote. The Tories are down 2,000 votes on their 2005 level, but won the seat because the collapse of the left vote. The Greens put on two thousand votes, but one would have expected them to do much better - and UKIP outdid them, adding about three thousand votes to their previous tally. Craig Murray probably didn't expect much better, but at least he beat the BNP. On this basis, the 2010 general election will see a Tory landslide and surge for other right-wing parties, including possibly the fascists.

It's all too easy to blame this on Gordon Brown's outstanding inadequacy, the MPs expenses scandal, and Blairite plotting. These are all important factors, and the vapidity of challenges to Brown - James Purnell, of all people - can't inspire Labour voters with much hope of seeing a change in the future. But the collapse of social democracy is not a specifically British phenomenon, as the results from the recent Euro elections demonstrate. That was a continental cull that spared only a few forces to the left of social democracy. Nor is it recent. The decline in party identification is long-term, and the principle reason is that these parties have largely succumbed to neoliberal policies that accelerate inequality, undermine the unionised public sector from where many of their votes come, and erode the income and working conditions of their core supporters. The Labour Party has dealt with this by trying to construct a new electoral coalition that includes sectors of the middle class and the rich, and it was this coalition that once made New Labour seem so indomitable. Their ideological catchphrases were aspiration and enterprise. They courted a culture of conspicuous consumption. But this was based on unsustainable private sector borrowing, and soaring house prices. With the 'credit crunch' and ensuing recession, New Labour no longer looks as if it can meet the aspirations it has volubly acclaimed.

There is an obvious question, though: why don't left-wing voters turn out in greater number to back preferred alternatives? So far, disaffection with New Labour is producing passivity and disengagement rather than electoral insurgency. I can only think it is related to the absence of a general mobilisation against job losses in this recession. Despite very brave stands in particular localised settings against job losses, despite the militancy of the construction workers, these have not yet become part of a mass movement. This could change very quickly when the axe falls on the heavily unionised public sector, but neither the government nor the union leaders want a fight on this territory before the election. The left is right to assume that any one of the struggles going on now, over Vestas for example, could be a trigger for a much wider revolt. But institutional factors don't favour it at the moment.

Aside from this, there is a sort of cultural production of passivity. The reification of socially produced institutions is such that, in the news spectacle, we experience them as almost god-like forces controlling our lives without reason or accountability. There's a surge on the Dow Jones today - phew! - and then it collapses. Asian markets are up - fingers crossed - and then they're down again. GDP figures are falling less rapidly than before, then we learn that it's a false dawn. Investors are confident, then they're fleeing in droves. Our future seems to depend on forces beyond our ability to understand them, much less control them. One of the great challenges in trying to rouse resistance to the loss of jobs and livelihoods is that the very idea of ‘resisting the recession’ can seem incoherent in light of its spectacular autonomy. I assume that this is a powerful factor where working class organisation is weakest, although that ain't necessarily so.

Your diagnoses, correctives, complaints and grievances in the comments thread, please.