Friday, March 04, 2011

Liberals crash and burn in Barnsley

The results from the Barnsley Central bye-election:

  • Dan Jarvis (Lab) 14,724 (60.8%)
  • Jane Collins (UKIP) 2,953 (12.19%)
  • James Hockney (C) 1,999 (8.25%)
  • Enis Dalton (BNP) 1,463 (6.04%)
  • Tony Devoy (Ind) 1,266 (5.23%)
  • Dominic Carman (LD) 1,012 (4.18%)
  • Kevin Riddiough (Eng Dem) 544
  • Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 198
  • Michael Val Davies (Ind) 60

This is a huge vote against austerity. The Liberals crashed from second to sixth place and lost their deposit - this in a seat where the Labour MP had been forced to resign due to his imminent imprisonment for fraud. Both the Liberals and the Tories saw their vote share slashed, from roughly 17% each in the general election. That is, the coalition parties saw their vote share cut by almost two thirds. The BNP vote is also down by three percentage points, though this can partly be attributed to the fact that UKIP more than doubled its vote share.

This means that not only is the electoral base of the Liberal component of the coalition shattering as working class voters rally to Labour as the only available parliamentary obstacle to the cuts, but the Tories' hard right base isn't dependable either. UKIP represents the defection of a racist, nationalist, Europhobic and hyperglobalising segment of the Conservative Party, based disproportionately on small businessmen, lone traders and the insecure newly affluent, initially concentrated in the suburbs and rural areas of south-east England. Its voters include many 'strategic defectors' from the Tories outside of general elections, middle class right-wingers who want to register their hostility to immigration and European integration without risking a Labour government if possible. However, the party has also assembled support from skilled workers in collapsing industrial areas, and its core support is demographically similar to that of the BNP, excepting that BNP voters tend to be a bit younger.

The Cameron-Clegg coalition was based on the existence of a large centre vote, as millions of voters looked for an 'honest broker' amid the crisis and after the dreadful New Labour years - but that centre ground is predictably collapsing. The austerity agenda is producing a rapid polarisation, with Labour consolidating its hegemony over the left vote (excepting in Scotland, where the SNP is consistently out-performing Labour as a rival reformist bloc based on soft left nationalism), while the right-wing fragments in multiple directions. With racism on the rise and about half of the electorate theoretically willing to consider voting for some kind of anti-immigrant party, the danger is of the most reactionary elements on the right using the support redistributed to them in order to polarise the agenda further to the right. The temptation for Cameron will be to steer to the hard right as his coalition crumbles - he can't really do without the Liberals, but he can manage even less without the Tories' core vote and in his despair he may have to gamble on re-pivoting his whole agenda on the basis of some reactionary-populist cynosures.

This is the terrain on which the anti-cuts left is going to be operating in the short-to-medium term. It is one in which the struggle against racism and fascism will inevitably be a crucial aspect of the fight against the cuts. The fire-fighting against the EDL mobs, the doorstepping in BNP target constituencies, and the painstakingly constructed cultural interventions of Love Music Hate Racism are currently retarding but not stopping the growth of the racist right. They are preventing the racists from fulfilling their latent potential, and thus keeping a space open for the Left. But it is when the anti-cuts movement takes off as a force in its own right, as when the student demos rocked Britain, that the far right looks weakest and least relevant. The EDL's impotent, foot-stamping fury at the way in which radical youths stole the agenda and limelight for the Left illustrates this beautifully.

It also means that those who think you can exclude Labour from the anti-cuts movement are kidding themselves, and would do well to free themselves from the Procrustean bed of formally correct but useless slogans. Rather, we should be operating on conflicts at the core of social democracy: the central conflict being between the Labour Party's aim to represent and convoke the working class as an agency for reform, and its inevitable drive to gain 'credibility' with capital, whose cooperation will be required once Labour is in office. In practise, this means that anti-cuts activism will involve interventions within Labourism itself, uniting coalitions of Labour members and supporters with those to their left, the better to oppose any concessions to the Tory agenda by the leadership, resist the 'realist' pro-cuts politics of Labour-supporting intellectuals, and put pressure on Labour councillors not to simply capitulate and vote for 'humane' cuts.

There you go. That's my short hand analysis of the Barnsley Central bye-election. Don't say I never do anything for you. Or at you.