It was not only predictable but predicted - by me, on all manner of social media - that this government would start to rebuild its base and Labour's fragile poll lead would collapse, in the year before the general election. This is now happening
. Labour's support has fallen six percentage points, and the Tories have a lead for the first time in ages.
Why? Hasn't the Labour Party issued a number of popular statements, from fuel freezes to rent controls
? Isn't this government implementing profoundly unpopular policies such as the de facto privatisation of the NHS? Isn't austerity - or at least this government's version of it - unpopular with most voters? And if Ed Miliband is uninspiring, wasn't he just as uninspiring when he had a seemingly commanding poll lead? And where has this government's Belgrano moment been? It was prevented from joining any war in Syria in a humiliating Commons vote in which Labour, for once, opposed the government.
The first clue to an answer might just be in the Belgrano reference. Mrs Thatcher swept back to power with a strong mandate in 1983, having presided over the most unpopular administration in the postwar era, having overseen a harsh austerity budget which actually aggravated a recession and resulted in rioting on the streets of London and Liverpool, and having suffered severe internal divisions arising from its determined pursuit of neoliberalism. Much of the Left at the time blamed the Falklands and the revival of empire kitsch - the anthem 'Rule Britannia' rang from the terraces - for consolidating Thatcher's popular support. In fact, while the Falklands war helped define the administration ideologically, consolidate Thatcher's position in her own cabinet, and mortify and weaken the opposition, it doesn't seem to have had a sustained impact on the Tories' poll ratings. The really significant factor was the revival in the global economy in 1982, linked to the expansion of capitalism in south-east Asia. This, coupled with the government relaxing fiscal constraints, created a sufficient coalition of class elements which experienced a material 'benefit' from Tory rule, enough to make up a decent electoral plurality. And that may be what we're seeing here. The economic recovery
, weak though it is, is not a mere statistical artifice. It isn't a recovery for everyone - just for enough people to give the Tories a slight lead and blunt the edge of discontent. And the fiscal straitjacket? Loosened
, a bit - for certain people.
Second, and this is by far the more obvious point, the politics of opposition under this administration have been dire. Remember 2011, when it actually looked as though popular movements, from unions to students to Occupy, might fuse into a broad front against the government? Remember the euphoria when the Tories looked genuinely vulnerable? Good, I want you to remember that, and think about how easy it is to piss it away. We know to expect nothing from Labour. Oh, it has had momentary bouts of opposition to some of the harsher and swifter of the government's austerity measures, but it has always reverted to whatever the 'common sense' among civil servants, businesses and the dominant media institutions happens to be. British social democracy in the 21st century is a dedicated partner in austerity, and only the activation of its base by forces extraneous to Labour would alter that.
The unions resistance has been pitiful not merely because of bad leadership, and not merely because they have been narrow and sectional in approach, more interested in limiting the immediate damage and preserving the bargaining mechanisms that limited their militancy in exchange for some influence than in leading a broad offensive against austerity. As important has been the politics of the union base, the grassroots. It's not just that there is no 'rank and file' to speak of, no movement 'from below' capable of driving the unions into confrontation with the government. It's not just that unions are more bureaucratised, more dependent on their leaderships than ever for initiative in such matters as industrial action and political campaigns. It is that the space for organised radical politics has declined in the union movement in proportion as it has elsewhere.
The extra-Labour left has been nowhere, in total disarray, unsure of its strategy, unable to cohere its diverse strands much less pull together the scattered elements of resistance, unable to consistently mobilise opponents in numbers, and unable to actually disrupt very much (indeed, there are some on the Left for whom disruption is entirely beside the point). In the long, long diminuendo of organised left politics in the UK, the biggest organised left was the tiny far left which, even if it weren't for - you know - everything, was totally unequal to the historical responsibility placed upon it. The five years or so of crisis and austerity have transformed a sectarian left, with each grouplet placing its organisational interests before all else, into a fractal left, characterised by splits within splits, loudly achieving nothing. You know perfectly well why. The break up of the SWP obviously creates a space in which healthy elements can converge and rebuild. The flourishing of individual activists, of critical thinking, of strategic thinking, is real. However, it also liberates - without pointing any fingers - a horde of tinpot generals, smarmy amoral 'operators', cranks, blank-eyed dogmatists who may as well be in the Church of Scientology, vicious self-pitying moralists, bullies and sycophants, and parasites that feast on the decomposing flesh of larger organisms. On the healthier end, the People's Assembly and Left Unity are doing extremely useful and important work in sustaining some generalised form of opposition to austerity - although it's taken enough time and the support for each campaign doesn't overlap as much as it should, in part because of the influence of pathologies which I've alluded to. And it will take a long time, too long, to rebuild a liveable left, much less a successful one.
Now this brings us to an important conclusion. The Tories currently have 33% of the vote. Their electoral coalition has hardly expanded, if at all. Their long-term decline is not being reversed in a sustained way, and if a third of the vote gives them a simple plurality, that is because of the sheer enervation of the opposition on the Left. For the contrast with the Right could hardly be clearer. It is UKIP which has first cohered the reactionary malcontents, and then assembled a cross-class coalition of voters and potential voters with the agenda of shifting the terms of the ideological discussion and tilting the balance of power in the parliamentary Conservative Party. Positioning itself as a populist upsurge, it is a far more convincing opposition in many ways than the Labour Party - even if it opposes what is humane and reasonable, and defends what is indefensible.
Third, think of the ideological situation. The Tories are ideologically weak, I think. The Lib Dems are ideologically pointless now. But Labour. How to put this? All very well to put out a string of populist policy announcements - end the pasty tax, free dentures for the long-term unemployed, fuel allowances for cabbies, new tramlines in Maidenhead, whatever - but this is just noise until it's part of a resonant 'vision'. And Labour just doesn't have a clue what its 'vision' is. It congratulates itself on 'the squeezed middle', 'Blue Labour', 'One Nation Labour', and so on. Because not only does the Labour leadership love the smell of its own farts - so does the media chorus. Every time Miliband pops out another vaporous soundbite, the news - always desperate for novelty, fond of power, and particularly fond of right-wing Labour leaders - makes it sound as though he has written the Grundrisse. Now these thematics must be heavily focus-grouped and polled, yet I see no evidence that they catch the remotest echo in the popular imagination. And there's a reason for that. It's that they are utter, uninspiring, incoherent bollocks. It is not just that they do not represent any systematic alternative to the policies being pursued by the coalition. It is that, as with both 'Blue Labour' and 'One Nation Labour', these themes attempt to hybridise an extremely mild reformist language with a half-hearted co-optation of reactionary traditionalism, an ideological blend that neither pleases nor motivates anyone but politicos and pundits. There is only a weak articulation between concrete policy proposals, which even when popular are pretty unambitious if not even beside the point, and the general ideological 'line'. What are we supposed to think? "Let's have compulsory apprenticeship schemes because We Are One Nation"? Or "Cap fuel bills to save the squeezed middle"? Who the fuck would go out and vote on that basis, much less - I don't know - form a picket line or mount a barricade?
Of course Labour are going to lose the next election. They are hopeless, in a hopeless situation. They are an opposition which can barely bring itself to oppose. They cannot even act intelligently, because they are structurally compelled by their investment in neoliberal accumulation strategies, to be stupid. They even fuck up the fuck ups. The Tories don't have to actively win it. They just have to play their hand in a reasonably smart way, placate their base, and wait for Her Majesty's opposition to defenestrate itself.
Anyone with a political strategy based on Labour winning the next election would do well to start rethinking urgently.