Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

My interpretation of the British General Election of 2015 just published on openDemocracy: much of the post-election discussion is in denial about what happened.

The report of the Cabinet Office enquiry into the memorandum about Nicola Sturgeon’s conversation with the French Ambassador has exposed the role of the former Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, in leaking its contents. However it also vindicated the accuracy of the memorandum and the integrity of the Scotland Office civil servant who wrote it, thus bringing back into the public arena the remarkable claim that the SNP leader preferred David Cameron to Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.

The publication of the memorandum shows that its author was surprised by Sturgeon’s reported view and suggested that something might have been ‘lost in translation’. A moment’s thought will show that this explanation is highly implausible. A simple statement like that ascribed to Sturgeon would hardly have been difficult to understand, and the French Republic does not appoint as its Ambassador to the United Kingdom, or even Consul-General, an official who lacks a good knowledge of English.

Yet the Cabinet Office report eagerly buys this generous interpretation. It isn’t hard to spot the cover-up, yet the press has been slow to challenge Sturgeon or to try to bring her interlocutor, the Ambassador, into the limelight. As calls for Carmichael to resign mount, Sturgeon is remarkably let off the hook.

The SNP and the Tories

Why this matters is that, if Carmichael’s denial of responsibility for the leak saved his seat, Sturgeon’s denial of her alleged pro-Cameron remarks helped shape the General Election, not just in Scotland but in the UK as a whole. The SNP and its allies had built ‘Yes’ to 45 per cent of the vote in the 2014 referendum largely by campaigning never to have a Tory government imposed on Scotland again. In the election, Sturgeon pushed the SNP to 50 per cent and destroyed Scottish Labour by posing as the most determined anti-Tory leader, taunting Ed Miliband with her calls on him to ‘join’ the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens in ousting them.

There was always a striking symmetry between the SNP’s campaign to defeat Labour in Scotland and the Tory campaign against Labour in England and Wales. There was, of course, no direct understanding between the parties, but Rupert Murdoch’s cynical deployment of the Scottish Sun for an SNP vote, while its English counterpart backed the Tories, perfectly reflected their alignment.

What no one fully understood, perhaps, were the opportunities that the SNP’s advance would create for the Tory campaign. Many progressive voters and commentators believed that the arithmetical combination of Labour seats in England and Wales and SNP seats in Scotland would secure a Labour government with some kind of SNP support. This was the explicit basis of the SNP’s pitch to Labour-inclined Scottish voters, and the illusion to which Miliband also clung in his hopes for a minority government, even as he recognised that Labour’s likely SNP dependence was Cameron’s most potent claim.

Lynton Crosby and the TV debates

Yet the relationship between Labour and SNP seats was never a simple arithmetical one. Labour’s potential losses in Scotland inevitably undermined its credibility in the UK as a whole. If anyone came close to grasping the full significance of this, it was surely Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ chief strategist. By exploiting Labour’s potential dependence on the SNP, he was finally able to achieve indirectly what he was unable to do directly, to create a palpable fear of Labour government.

Crosby’s main path to this achievement was the astute management of the only points at which the media election came alive, namely the TV debates. The Tories’ insistence on a very wide spread of party leaders in the debates did not only neutralise a possible Cameron-Miliband confrontation, as Labour feared. It also set up an image of a cacophony of voices, in which Miliband was linked to the radical trio of SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. In the second debate, especially, Miliband allowed himself to appear with only these three leaders and Nigel Farage – Cameron having prime-ministerially absented not only himself, but also Clegg. Labour presumably agreed to this in order to maximise Miliband’s exposure, but it helped voters to visualise his tetchy relationship with a dynamic Sturgeon.

It was a highly unusual course for the broadcasters to include the nationalist parties in UK-wide debates. Since they stand candidates only in their own nations, the SNP and Plaid have been traditionally included only in Scottish and Welsh, not UK, debates, as have the Northern Ireland parties in Northern Irish debates. The nationalists’ inclusion in UK-wide debates obviously represented an ad hoc modification of the rules around debates, rather than a new principled inclusivity, since the Northern Irish parties were still excluded.

However this departure was the Tories’ price for agreeing to Cameron’s participation in a single debate, and it served them well, giving the SNP and Plaid an extra prominence which Sturgeon (especially) used very effectively. The Greens’ alliance with the nationalists, symbolised by the three-woman hugs at the end of the first debate, further enhanced their standing. This seemed to many a benign pan-British flowering of anti-austerity politics. But the momentum it generated further enhanced the SNP at Labour’s expense, making it much more likely that the Tories would be the largest party even if Labour made large gains in England and Wales.

The appeal to English fear and insecurity

The Tories’ even greater achievement was to cash in on this in England, by suggesting a sinister aspect to Sturgeon’s apparently engaging personality. The material, of course, was there in the SNP’s success in the referendum, and Sturgeon’s refusal, despite saying that the election was not ‘about’ independence, to rule out pressing for a further referendum after the Holyrood election in 2016. This enabled the Tories, with huge support from the Mail, Telegraph and Sun, to suggest that Miliband would be hostage to dark forces. The considerable achievement here was to turn Scots – for the first time in hundreds of years – into a threatening element for a segment of the English electorate. A huge amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that this was the one Tory message that was really played back – ‘I’m worried about that woman’ – by voters on the doorstep.

The idea that Labour lost the election because it appealed, economically, to too narrow a section of voters, has nothing to say about this remarkable development. This key Tory success had almost nothing to do with interests and everything to do with an intangible fear and insecurity on the part of English voters who simply do not understand Scottish politics and the (to them) sudden rise of the demand for independence over the last two or three years. The Tory warnings had unmistakable echoes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s notorious warning that ‘the Arabs are coming’ which won him a similar surprise victory, but was all the more astonishing since the Scots – unlike Arabs for Israeli Jews – have never been an enemy of the English in modern times.

Multi-party dynamics and Labour’s failure

The Tory appeal to fear seems to have played particularly well to Southern English voters. In all the attention to the SNP’s near-clean sweep in Scotland (95% of seats for 50% of votes), the similar Tory success in South-West England (over 90% for 46%) has been overlooked. Here the Tories used the SNP scare to shepherd even more one-time Liberal Democrats into the Tory fold.

The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, had already indicated that he preferred a new coalition with the Tories, thus saving his own seat (as Tories followed Daily Mail advice to vote tactically for him) while removing any last vestige of a reason for anti-Tories to support the Lib Dems tactically in southern marginals. The Lib Dems were thus squeezed from both sides, enabling Cameron (who repeatedly visited the South West during the campaign) to scoop up all of their seats in the region. At the same time, the Scottish scare probably helped the Tories retrieve some of the support they had lost to UKIP, which may have been a significant factor in minimising the expected Tory losses across England.

Labour’s defeat, therefore, was the result of far more than their own failings. The collapse of the Lib Dems contributed almost as much as the rise of the SNP to their downfall. During most of the campaign, it was widely agreed that Labour (which means, given the presidential character of the national battle, Ed Miliband), was doing surprisingly well. The Tories’ two well-rehearsed attack lines, the economy and Miliband’s personal weakness, failed to shift the polls. Labour remained stubbornly in the race: its attack on inequality (especially over Non-Doms) resonated widely, and Miliband even began to become a positive for the party in some quarters.

Labour had to overcome a Tory lead of 36:29 from 2010. Given the traumatic nature of that defeat and the benefits of incumbency for Cameron, it was actually a good outcome for Labour to be level-pegging in the final stages of the campaign, especially with the SNP, UKIP and the Greens all taking votes from it on a significant scale. We need to recall that the party had already declined from a 43% vote share in 1997’s landslide to only 35% in Blair’s final 2005 victory, without these additional competitors. To be almost back to that share of the vote would have been creditable, given the circumstances. Even the actual result saw Labour’s vote share rise slightly more than the Tories’ did.

It is true that, in the last week of the election, a rather different TV trap ensnared Miliband. The BBC’s Question Time saw Cameron waving Liam Byrne’s notorious note about ‘no money left’, and two well-primed audience members reinforcing its symbolism with sharp questions to Miliband. Miliband’s weakness here, unlike his SNP framing, reflected his and Labour’s inability over five years to nail the Tory-Lib Dem canard about responsibility for the crisis, and the party’s failure to pin the blame for austerity on deliberate Conservative policy.

Thus the two apparently decisive flaws of Labour’s campaign – its potential SNP dependence and economic record – were both about perceptions and feelings rather than about appeals to interests, let alone policies. Both conveyed the impression of Miliband’s weakness that the Tories had attempted to pin on him from the start.

Polls and lessons

The strange thing about most autopsies on the election is how little they have reflected on the dynamics of the campaign. It is almost as though those six weeks didn’t happen – Labour’s defeat resulted, we are widely told, from its failure to appeal to a broad enough constituency and especially to ‘aspirational’ voters. Few mention the complex multi-party dynamics (although everyone commented on these during the campaign), let alone the Conservatives’ skilful exploitation of these.

There is clearly much we do not yet understand about exactly how things tipped unexpectedly towards the Tories. We have yet to see a full detailed analysis from the exit poll which accurately predicted the surprise outcome: this may throw more light on the discrepancy with the earlier polls. We don’t know how far the results reflected a last-minute swing from the 34:34 tie suggested by the last fortnight’s polling to the 37:30 (Conservative: Labour) actual outcome, and how far the polls had misrepresented opinion throughout the campaign.

Yet surely any discussion of the way forward for the British left from this historic defeat should reflect on the experiences of the campaign and the way in which its multi-party dynamics contributed to Labour’s result. It is clear that the Scottish referendum campaign and the rise of the SNP have not only turned Scottish politics upside down, but have fundamentally affected British politics as a whole. English-British nationalism in both its explicit UKIP and opportunist Conservative forms has taken centre-stage: it will dominate in the EU referendum, which will define UK politics for the next year.

As Labour’s aspiring leaders shift back to the centre ground after the modest leftward move under Miliband, none of them appear to have much to say about the dramatic new challenges which sank the party on May 7th. They seem to wish to forget the recent campaign, rather than to learn its lessons. None of them appear to offer a narrative which will enable Labour to fare better in the radically new kind of electoral theatre which has developed in Britain.

My surprising local angle on Britain’s 2015 General Election. At the last election, in 2010, I was in Brighton, and my comment on the battle between Caroline Lucas’ Greens and Labour was much-read. This time I’m in East Devon, where local campaigns against property development and hospital closures, and for local democracy, are having an impact which I analyse in this piece which has just appeared on openDemocracy.

It is the unlikeliest place to look for evidence of Europe’s new political turbulence. Forecasters agree that in South West England, the main issue in the May 7 General Election is between the two Coalition parties. Will the Liberal Democrats manage to cling on to their seats or will David Cameron’s Tories take them, offsetting Labour gains elsewhere in England and Wales – which combined with the SNP’s capture of Labour seats in Scotland will allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street?

Certainly, the insurgent soft-racist party, UKIP, will advance a little here, but it is nowhere near to capturing seats as it may elsewhere. Likewise the ‘Green surge’ may conceivably work in regional capital Bristol, but there is no sign that rural constituencies will see strong Green advances. With the Lib Dems the fall guys of the UK’s first coalition since the Second World War, sitting Tory MPs must be feeling complacent about their own returns to Westminster, even if the national outcome remains on a knife-edge.

This will undoubtedly have been the case in the East Devon constituency, where the academic site projects national trends to give the Conservatives 40 per cent, Labour 16, the LibDems and UKIP 15 each and the Greens 7. However the site willingly acknowledges that local constituency-level knowledge is not included in its model, and Lord Ashcroft’s programme of constituency polling has also not reached here.

It is therefore understandable that national media have so far overlooked a very English local insurgency which has produced a serious independent candidate,Claire Wright, who aims to oust Tory foreign office minister, Hugo Swire.

Independent MPs are rarely elected in UK general elections, but the rare exceptions are often in safe Tory seats where (as here) both Labour and the Lib Dems are weak. In recent times, Martin Bell (a BBC reporter) toppled ‘sleazy’ Tory Neil Hamilton (now a leading UKIP figure) in Tatton in 1997, although when Bell stood down in 2001, the seat reverted to the Tories’ George Osborne. Consultant Richard Taylor captured Wyre Forest in 2001 on the back of a strong campaign to save Kidderminster’s hospital, holding it until 2010.

Could East Devon be 2015’s case? Wright is not a celebrity capitalising on a national scandal, as Bell was, nor does she have a single decision like Kidderminster’s hospital closure to rally opposition to local Tory dominance (although local hospital closures are important issues, and Wright is part of a campaign against cuts in the Ottery St. Mary hospital). It might therefore be thought that her chances are slim. Yet she is building on very broad opposition to the ruling Tories on East Devon District Council (EDDC), widely perceived as a one-party state where developers rule – if not a hotbed of corruption (Tory Graham Brown was forced to resign in 2013 in a ‘councillors for hire’ scandal).

Wright has a broad local base. A youthful district and County councillor, she came to prominence in a mass movement which brought 4,000 people onto the streets of the district capital and seaside resort of Sidmouth (population 14,000) in 2012, in protest against a development on open green space proposed by the EDDC. Already there was a scent of wider anger with a one-party regime on the council (the Tories have ruled for 35 of the last 39 Years). ‘Without the ventilation of change, the council has, some feel, begun to smell’, wrote the editor of Country Life at the time.

Unlike most such protests which quickly fade, Save Our Sidmouth spawned a movement, the East Devon Alliance (EDA), which is now challenging for power on the council. EDA is aiming to contest at least 45 of the 58 council seats and end Tory rule. The election takes place on the same day as the general election and the Lib Dems have no chance of gaining control, while Labour and the Greens will be lucky to gain any seats at all.

Syriza or Podemos, EDA is not. Yet this local movement of mainly middle-aged, middle-class southern English is one of many local resistances to the Tory-led Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, widely seen as a property developers’ charter, who are nationally united in the Community Voice on Planning (COVOP).

Like the London tenants fighting the sale of their estates to developers, EDA contests the increasing bias of the British state towards property developers, local and international. The difference between EDA and other anti-developer resistance is that EDA, including several sitting independent councillors, is now challenging for district power. With implicit backing from the local press, EDA threatens a major upset in this quiet backwater.

Without EDA’s challenge to the local council, Wright’s independent campaign might seem quixotic. Yet simultaneous local and national elections, with synergies between the campaigns, give her a chance. Bookies now have herahead of the Lib Dems and Labour, and a respectable second place is clearly possible. Wright’s challenge is to persuade Lib Dem, Labour and Green voters who will vote EDA in the local elections to also support her – while at the same time trying to eat away at the Tory vote.

In what has been called Britain’s most unpredictable election – as I write, electionforecast projects a mere one-seat Labour plurality over the Tories (283-282 in a parliament where 326 seats are needed for a majority) – clearly every seat counts. Experts expect wide variations between constituency outcomes, and East Devon is another to watch. They would also do well to take on board the significance of the local elections: in East Devon on May 8, the most likely change is an end to decades of Tory council rule.

My personal take on the Ralph and Ed Miliband saga. A version has also been published on openDemocracy.

It is ironic as well as objectionable that the Daily Mail’s notorious piece on the late Ralph Miliband, which has so rebounded on the paper, should have brought into question his British identity. Not only did Ralph, as Ed Miliband was rightly quick to point out, fight with British forces in the Second World War. But Ralph’s intellectual and political projects, while framed within Marxist theory and socialist internationalism, were also in very important senses British.

The radical student response to Ralph Miliband

I went to the London School of Economics, where Ralph Miliband taught, in 1965 to study Sociology. While at school, I had been involved in Labour politics in the Newcastle-under-Lyme constituency of Stephen Swingler, a left-wing MP who had been prominent in the Victory for Socialism movement within the party. At LSE, I moved rapidly to the left in opposition to the Labour government’s backing for the US war in Vietnam, its anti-trade union policies and the appeasement of racism in its immigration policies. Swingler’s support for the latter – he had been co-opted by Harold Wilson who made him a transport minister – was a turning point in my own rejection of the Labour Party and movement towards the emerging far left.

As I abandoned the LSE Labour Club for the more radical Socialist Society, fellow students quickly pointed me in the direction of Miliband’s lectures. His authoritative, reasoned exposition of a Marxist perspective on power, soon to be published as The State in Capitalist Society (1969), was enormously impressive. As a lecturer, he had an open, relaxed but very careful manner that was very attractive; even a former Tory cabinet minister, Lord Moore, has testified to the integrity manifested in his teaching.

However Ralph Miliband’s bonds with his left-wing students were soon to be tested. Parliamentary Socialism (1964), which demonstrated the limits of reformism in practice, was already a classic in our eyes. It underpinned our rejection of Labour, as The State soon gave wider backing to our Marxist perspective. However as our theoretical perspectives transformed, Ralph’s works quickly came to appear too narrow, both in their overwhelmingly British basis and in their more general empiricism. (Although I should add that this does not mean that we uncritically embraced the French structuralism of Nicos Poulantzas, in the Miliband-Poulantzas debate of the 1970s.)

Moreover since ‘empiricism’ was well known to be a peculiarly British sin, the Miliband oeuvre was increasingly pigeonholed as a very British contribution to the burgeoning Marxism of the 1960s, even if it would be more accurate to say that it was closer to the radical Sociology of the non-Marxist American, C. Wright Mills. Indeed, Ralph was part of the formidable cohort of anti-Stalinist socialists, with generally loose and ambiguous relationships to Marxism as such, who clustered in the New Left of the late 1950s.

Within this very British phenomenon, Edward Thompson spoke for a distinctively English radicalism and Raymond Williams for working-class experience grounded in his Welsh border background. These local identities were not available, however, to a refugee like Ralph, however – or indeed to Stuart Hall who had come to Britain from Jamaica. The post-imperial British identity not only provided the overarching frame for the New Left but a specific reference point for those who were not English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish by background. It is an interesting counter-point to the Mail’s narrow casting of Britishness to reflect on the fact that part of the contemporary meaning of ‘British’ is its greater inclusiveness – for example we have British, but not English, Asians and Muslims.

It was not, however, Britishness that most tested Ralph Miliband’s relationship with the student left of the late 1960s. Although Ralph’s long-term collaborator John Saville wrote in his 1994 obituary, helpfully reposted by the Guardian this week, that ‘during the 1968 troubles at LSE he was outstanding in his defence of the students’ positions’, Miliband’s stance, like that of most of the left-wing academics, inevitably fell short of the radical students’ expectations. I mention this because it led my 20-year-old self to publish a name-calling criticism of Ralph in the International Socialist paper, Labour Worker – for which I was rightly slapped down by some more mature comrades. Ralph must have been aware of this, but with typical generosity never alluded to it in our later dealings.

Ralph Miliband and a political alternative to Labourism

Ralph welcomed student radicalism but was obviously wary of its excesses. Likewise, as one would expect from his critique of parliamentarism, he engaged with the anti-parliamentary left of the late 1960s and early 1970s but did not join any of its groupuscules. Empiricism could also be read as groundedness: Ralph was strongly rooted in British politics – indeed he had engaged with Victory for Socialism and was friendly with Swingler. He could tell the difference between small organisations whose narrow ideological stances would always limit their mass appeal, and a movement with the real promise of creating a real party to the left of Labour.

Even after this radical period, Ralph continued to argue for an alternative to Labourism and was always interested in any initiatives that seemed to promise movement in that direction. When I left the International Socialists after a decade, in frustration at their attitudes to democracy both in general and within their own organisation, he and Saville published my critical history of IS in The Socialist Register 1978. Ralph took a keen interest in the subsequent Socialist Unity movement, in which Socialist Challenge under Tariq Ali’s editorship joined with former IS members and the Big Flame group, but rightly intuited that this too was too narrowly based to lead to a breakthrough.

Later Ralph involved himself in a variety of socialist initiatives across the Labour/non-Labour left divide. His guiding line seemed to be to foster a vigorous, democratic and non-sectarian socialist current, whether inside or outside the party. Unlike many Marxist academics, he constantly involved himself in – Daily Mail please note – British politics.

Over to Ed

All of this is relevant now, of course, only because the Mail is taking aim at Ed Miliband, in the light of his successful Labour conference and popular proposal to control energy prices. Ed naturally, and accurately, emphasises that his politics are very different from his father’s. Yet the fact that Ed and David Miliband have become leading Labour politicians, often seen as supremely ironic, is not quite so surprising when we consider Ralph’s own trajectory and experience.

Ralph Miliband may have shown in Parliamentary Socialism that Labour, hidebound by parliamentarism, would prove incapable of achieving socialism. But his advocacy of an independent British socialist party failed to make a strong impact, and all the efforts in his lifetime to achieve something like that proved deeply unsuccessful. British politics have fractured and mutated over the last half century, but the beneficiaries have been sundry centrists, nationalists, greens and now (with UKIP) the reactionary right – everyone indeed except the socialist left. And this seems unlikely to change.

Where does that leave those motivated, as Ed Miliband claims to be, by the democratic socialist values that Ralph embraced? There are of course many extra-parliamentary means by which they can make a difference, within a capitalist society. But in a parliamentary democracy, it matters who wins elections and runs the government. It is a reasonable conclusion that we should try to use the major existing centre-left political force to make a difference too, and to find new ways of linking parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles which will reinforce both. In this sense, Ed Miliband’s political project is both coherent in its own terms and a logical conclusion from the failure of his father’s. Moreover Ed seems to possess Ralph’s guts, integrity and honesty, which puts him (in personal terms) well ahead of the Labour leaders of the last two decades.

None of this is to say that Ed Miliband has shown a clear and coherent medium-term strategy for achieving reform. Nor is it to say that the Labour Party, in its present state, is a promising instrument for achieving even those modest goals which Ed Miliband has advanced. Evidently, forging credible social-democratic policies from the present position, starting from the dispiriting legacy of the Blair-Brown governments, and in the face of Tory-Lib Dem and press attacks, and winning the 2015 election with a real majority, are a tall order. The electoral odds – the negative experience of Tory rule, the pro-Labour bias of the electoral system, the UKIP drag on the Tory vote – suggest Labour will probably be the largest party. But anything more than that will require a serious shift in popular opinion, which so far Ed Miliband is far from achieving.

Welcome to Little Tory England

Posted: December 11, 2011 in Britain

The background to and consequences of David Cameron’s fateful break with Europe: a new article for

At the European Union summit in Brussels on 8-9 December 2011, Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron refused to agree to a full EU treaty to support new governance for the eurozone. He was alone among representatives of the twenty-seven member-states in doing so, with the partial exception of three leaders who will consult their parliaments before making a final decision. Thus, Britain will be isolated (or near-isolated) as almost the entire union proceeds to implement the treaty, probably by March 2012.

Cameron’s ostensible reason for using the United Kingdom’s “veto” is that his EU partners rejected his demands to accord special protection to “Britain’s interests” by protecting its financial centre, the City of London. In reality the City was not threatened and is more likely to be undermined by Britain’s self-inflicted pariah status.

Cameron’s position reverses a forty-year stance of engagement (albeit often reluctant) with the rest of Europe by British governments. The overriding reason is that he will do anything to avoid an open split in his Conservative (or Tory) party. The dominant trend in the party is hostile to anything but the most minimal role for the UK in Europe; many Tory MPs and even ministers are Europhobic to the extent that they wish to leave the union altogether (the more common label “Eurosceptic” is inappropriate because it implies that they are open to reason on the subject, which for many is not the case).

For the Europhobes, holding a referendum on Britain’s role in Europe trumps all other political goals. Cameron could not afford the referendum that they would have obliged him to stage over Britain’s signature of any new treaty, since the “wrong” result would have obliged him – thanks both to his international commitments and to his Liberal Democratic coalition partners (who are mostly europhile) – to support a treaty that many in his party would continue fiercely to reject. The ensuing splits in his party and government would be fatal.

The political logic

David Cameron’s European decision belongs to a broader political context. He came to power in 2010 after an election dominated by the reality that the winner would have to manage a major financial crisis (thus the Bank of England’s governor remarked that it was a good election to lose). The outgoing Labour government had already promised cuts in public spending, but Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne announced even deeper austerity measures over a five-year term.

Thus the Conservative-LibDem government faced from the start a huge political task, which Cameron had to handle well if he were to have a chance of being re-elected in 2015. His strategy has been to consolidate his existing electorial base by focusing on cuts to the (traditionally pro-Labour) public sector rather than tax increases for the well-off and rich (his own constituency). At the same time he is trying to rig the electoral system, both by equalising the size of constituency electorates (in principle a democratic demand) and by making electoral registration voluntary (which will reduce the size of the national electorate). The certain outcome of the latter change will be that many people will be excluded – perhaps millions, and most of those young and/or poor.

The strategy, taken as a whole, faces great problems. The combination of the austerity programme and the eurozone crisis has halted the already weak economic recovery, caused tax revenues to fall, and raised indebtness further; already this has led Osborne to extend the deficit-elimination plan by two years beyond the next election, to 2017 (and then only on implausibly optimistic assumptions). Moreover, the prolonged assault on public-sector workers’ pay and pensions is likely to ensure further unrest, following the strikes of 30 November.

Against this background, Cameron’s European “veto” has proved popular with most of his party and the Europhobic press that many voters read. But there is another crucial element in the equation: the “national” one within the UK. Here, the European dimension intersects most acutely with the Scottish one, especially when the Scottish National Party (SNP) government is in power in Edinburgh and plans to hold a Scotland-wide referendum in which the options include full independence and a more limited (if still meaningful) transfer of additional powers to the Scottish parliament.

David Cameron is, like all his fellow Conservatives, a “unionist” (which in Scottish-British terms means a supporter of maintaining the UK as a unified state), and he officially opposes both these options. Yet more covertly, he has reason to favour either. The first, independence, would boost the possibility of the Tories extending their rule in England alone (since in British elections the Conservatives do better there and badly in Scotland, whereas Labour usually needs Scottish and Welsh votes to reach office); the second, additional powers, could be even better, since it would give Cameron a pretext to challenge the right of Scottish members of parliament to vote on English matters (the so-called “West Lothian question”) as a route to consolidate Tory control in England without breaking up the union.

Either way, there is a striking complementarity between the interests of Scottish nationalism (at present generally Europhile) and English Tory nationalism (uniformly Europhobic). The ex-Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown strongly criticises Cameron’s decision in Brussels and says that it offers the SNP leader Alex Salmond “an uncovenanted gift. If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?”

The political logic is an embrace of “Little Tory England” within the shell of the still nominally EU-affiliated and still more or less united, United Kingdom. It will be a country that keeps its nuclear weapons, its seat on the United Nations Security Council, and a high military profile. It will aim to stay a centre of European and world finance, keeping the freedoms to export to and travel in the EU, but with as little as possible to do with any other EU institutions, especially not with the European Convention on Human Rights or any sort of workers’ or social protection.

It will be a country whose financial sector is protected from the kind of regulation that might impinge on the ability of its elite to pay themselves exorbitant salaries and bonuses; whose prime minister proclaims “zero tolerance” for the criminality of rioters but indulges the criminality of powerful media figures in his own social circle; and where the official atmosphere is increasingly aggressive towards the poor, migrants and asylum-seekers. It will, in short, be like the worst of the present UK, but with the danger of further entrenchment as the Tories gain a further electoral advantage from the “loss” of Scotland.

The opposition matrix

This fusion of economic crisis, austerity, public hypocrisy, intra-UK tension, and now a semi-divorce from the Euopean Union suggests that December 2011 is a major turning-point in British politics. But there are other actors in this situation besides David Cameron – and their responses will determine whether Little Tory England is actually realised over the next decade.

A range of potential oppositional forces exist, and possible synergies between different levels of resistance. The Liberal Democrats’ collaboration with Cameron’s retoxified Conservatives has just received a mighty shock, as reflected in the responses to the “veto” of their leader Nick Clegg and business minister Vince Cable (as well as Paddy Ashdown); more fissures are likely, as well as mollifying moves by Cameron to keep the coalition on track.

This moment also presents an opportunity for the extra-parliamentary opposition, in the trade unions, the environmental and women’s groups, and the emerging “occupy” movement. In a parliamentary democracy, a mass movement can succeed only if it engages the political system. In France in 2010, a similar mobilisation against changes to the pensions system, stronger than the British movement is at the present time, escalated its protests through a powerful series of strikes, only to be defeated by a conservative majority in parliament. In Britain, a conservative parliamentary majority exists only through LibDem support. The junior coalition partner will not be easily detached, in part because it fears an early election; but the broad opposition can make any real headway only by increasing the strains inside the coalition.

The opposition needs therefore to combine internet and street-level activism with targeted pressure, especially on the vulnerable element of the coalition. At the same time, the challenge of Little Tory England demands a bolder response from Ed Miliband and Labour: a vision of Europeanism and internationalism that also addresses English concerns, and of social justice in a situation where the living standards of people across the UK are being squeezed while the rich sail on. The task is urgent, before the lockdown of power becomes irreversible.


Street politics, violence, media

Posted: November 29, 2010 in Britain, the left

An edited version of this post appeared on openDemocracy, 7 December 2010

‘The relationship to violence is also much better, as shown by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators against throwing the fire extinguisher at Millbank. There is an understanding of the need for no willed violence against people. Doubtless provocateurs will try and spoil this. But this student movement, if that is what it is becoming, will not go on to create bands of terrorists like the Angry Brigade. Because it has already been preceded by terrorism, and everyone can see how reactionary it is.’ – Anthony Barnett, Open Democracy, 27 November

‘The crude truth is that student violence works better than any amount of priggish argument. When the protests of 10 November turned to window smashing, a lot of people tutted that, while 50,000 peacefully protested, a tiny minority’s violence would dominate the front pages. Exactly! Without it, the demonstration may not have made the front pages at all.’ – David Mitchell, The Observer, 28 November

As the focus of the rolling Western economic crisis moves decisively from bank to state finances, the street is once again competing with parliament as the place to do opposition. When (in September-October) I was in France at the height of the protests against the raising of the retirement age to 62, people frequently asked me why there was no protest in Britain, where the coalition government is raising the age to 66, abolishing the method of indexing public sector pension rises which has existed for almost four decades, sacking half a million public employees, and removing benefits from millions of people.

Two days of nationwide student protests – against massive increases in university tuition fees resulting from the removal of most state support from teaching – have changed all that. The protests seem deeper and broader than any student activism of recent days, provoking Barnett to compare them to those of 1968. Particularly notable is that, like the French protests in ‘68 and 2010 but unlike most British student actions, school students have also joined en masse.

However as the quotes which head this article suggest, ‘violence’ has already become a big issue. Starting from non-violent assumptions, Barnett is reassured ‘by the spontaneous revulsion of the demonstrators’ against people throwing objects from the top of a building which could have killed or injured police officers and others. He might have added that, in the most recent London demonstration, school students tried to protect a police van from protesters who wanted to smash it up. But students’ humane and pacifist instincts will count for nothing if it is true, as Mitchell argues, that the violence of the few will always trump the peaceful actions of the many in gaining media – and hence wider public – attention. Who is right?

The record suggests that peaceful mass protest does gain media attention, when it is new and as long as its momentum is maintained across successive actions, with growing numbers and sources of support, and especially if it triggers or connects with mainstream political opposition. This autumn’s French protests did not need violence to generate a major political crisis. If in the end they were unsuccessful, this was because both the protesters and their wider public support (or most of them) accepted the legitimacy of the parliamentary institutions which ratified the pension age increase to which they objected. If peaceful protest did not work, more violence would not have helped persuade the conservative legislators whom they needed to win over to block Nicholas Sarkozy’s ‘reforms’.

However there is clearly something to Mitchell’s claims. The ‘violence’ of smashed windows and bonfires (more than the throwing of fire extinguishers), clearly contributed to the shock which the Millbank protest generated. Mainstream media feed off shocking images, and are quick to ignore the conventional. However we need to distinguish between imaginative transgression, on the one hand, and violence against people or property on the other; the former does not necessarily entail the latter. The Millbank protest would have shocked and surprised media and public opinion by the mere fact of students invading the building which housed Conservative HQ. The images of smashed windows added little to what would have been achieved by unauthorised entry.

Of course as Barnett implies, in noting the protestors’ recognition of ‘the need for no willed violence against people’, damage to property is not really ‘violence’. Yet the key to deciding these questions is not just the first-order distinction between ‘violence’ against people and ‘damage’ to property. Above all, it’s a question of political context. The kinds of ‘protester’ who get a kick out of breaking windows are just as likely to want to physically attack the police themselves. In context, the distinction between broken windows and the threat to a policeman’s life from the fire extinguisher can easily disappear, so that both become represented as ‘violence’. Even if the protesters were clear on this distinction, it is unlikely that many media outlets – or indeed TV viewers – would be impressed. We have to remember that respect for property, as well as life, is deeply engrained in Western popular culture, and its legitimacy is accepted by the vast majority of the population. Neither violence against people or ‘violence’ against property is going to help win support.

This would not matter for al-Qaida: they can use the most shocking violence to create huge media events, because they don’t need to gain the support of the majority even of Muslims, just of the small minority who are prepared to give time, money and in a few cases their lives to keep the network going. But students fighting tuition fees need mass public support, and they gain much of their political resonance from the sense of hypocrisy and betrayal on the part of Nick Clegg and his colleagues. They need to impact the mainstream political process (pushing embarrassed Lib Dem MPs into voting against the policies). The synergies between dramatic student action, sympathetic (or at least not completely hostile) media coverage and cracks in the parliamentary consensus are crucial.

In this situation, it is vital that any violence is clearly seen to be over-reaction by the police, not ‘provoked’ by protesters’ own violence. The evidence of mounted police charging protesters in the most recent demonstration gives the movement the possibility of claiming the moral high ground – but only providing it blocks its own would-be violent wing.

It is difficult to understate the importance of this issue and the necessity for activists to clearly understand it. A decade or so ago, when the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement built up impressive world-wide support, even if it was never as deeply rooted in most particular countries as are the movements today. In the end, that movement broke up and lost its momentum, largely because each of the major protests at international summits was divided by the violence – against people as well as property – unleashed by some factions. The movement as a whole failed to distinguish itself from the violent wing and was tarred with the ‘violent’ brush. Support peeled away, the final blow occurring when a different sort of violent shock, the 9/11 atrocities, fundamentally shifted the political agenda.

In Western societies today, the sense of violation and injustice among working and middle class people is deepened every day by new shocks and cuts, showing a system out of control and governments which punish the innocent rather than those who have caused the crisis. The next two or three years will see the most important opportunity in decades for people to take direct action to influence political outcomes. As in 1968, student movements may be the start of mass movements with much wider involvement and support. It would be a tragedy if student activists fail to grasp their responsibility to avoid violence of any kind, not only to win their own issues, but to shift the larger arguments about ‘cuts’ and social justice which are everywhere on the agenda.

Brighton’s Green MP

Posted: May 9, 2010 in Britain

Congratulations to Caroline Lucas, elected for Brighton Pavilion as Britain’s first Green member of parliament, in the general election on May 6 – a small but significant development in the context of the otherwise indecisive results (on which I will comment further once the outcome of coalition negotiations is clear). All I want to say now is that my analysis of the electoral situation in Brighton Pavilion has been fully vindicated by the result, in which the Greens got 16238 votes (31.3%), Labour 14986 (28.9), Conservatives 12275 (23.7) and the Liberal Democrats 7159 (13.8). The Tories did not have a serious chance of winning this seat. Even with the Green and Labour votes almost evenly divided, as happened, they came (as I predicted) a clear third. Therefore I was correct to argue that tactical anti-Tory voting should not be an issue here, and that left-wing voters should decide on principle between Labour and the Greens. My own vote (this is my home constituency) went Green, because I believed that after all the failures of the Labour Government, the opportunity to have an MP criticising Labour from the left was an important one to take.

This blog does not usually deal with local politics, but I happen to live in the Brighton Pavilion parliamentary constituency, widely hyped as likely to elect Britain’s first Green Party Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, at the General Election due to be held by June this year. In an election dominated by the uninspiring choice between Gordon Brown’s tired Labour Government and David Cameron’s not-very-reformed Conservatives, the Brighton Greens’ aspirations are at least an interesting sideshow. In the long, mostly unsuccessful struggle to establish a parliamentary presence to the left of the Labour Party, a Green victory could be a significant breakthrough – or another false dawn.

Brighton Pavilion is currently held by Labour, which had a comfortable 5,000 majority (on somewhat different boundaries) at the 2005 election, although the third-placed Greens, on 22%, got by far their best result of any seat in the UK. However since then Labour has lost control of Brighton and Hove city council to the Tories, with the Greens increasing their presence on the Council to almost the same as Labour’s. In the Pavilion constituency, one third of Brighton and Hove, Greens had more votes than either of the major parties in local and European elections (the national third party, the Liberal Democrats, don’t really count here). Pavilion is now one of 3 constituencies in the country where the Greens think they have a chance of electoral success (under the UK’s anachronistic ‘first past the post’ system), and realistically it’s by far their best hope of their first MP.

The Greens are understandably pulling out the stops to win. Their latest publicity material brandishes the results of a December poll by ICM, a reputable polling organisation, showing the Greens locally on 35% (+14% compared to the notional 2005 result in the same area), Conservatives 27% (+4), Labour 25% (-13), and the Lib Dems 11% (-5). Caroline Lucas also tells us: ‘It’s encouraging that nearly two thirds of Labour and Lib Dem voters would support me to stop the Conservatives.’

In a policy-lite leaflet (although I learnt that radical Caroline is a Vice-President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the Greens omitted to tell us four important facts about the ICM poll:

  1. the sample of only 533 was smaller than usual, increasing the scope for sampling errors
  2. the poll was actually commissioned by the Green Party
  3. the poll, unlike most national political opinion polls, prompted voters that the Greens, as well as the major parties, were standing in the election, and
  4. probably most crucial, the poll had been timed just a few days after the Greens had mailed all the voters in the constituency, which is likely to have skewed it in their favour.

Moreover the poll result can easily be interpreted differently from the Green account:

  • The 3 main contenders (Greeens, Tories, Labour) are close, the differences being almost within the margin of polling error on this small sample, and certainly within the range that could be altered in an election campaign.
  • However the Tory score of 27%, at a time when nationally they were polling around 40%, does not suggest that they have a strong chance of winning the seat.
  • This poll, 6 months or so before the election, doesn’t take account of the likely effects of the election campaign, during which normally the governing party recovers ground from the opposition, and the Lib Dems benefit from massive media exposure. Any Labour resurgence would probably close the gap with the Greens, and the Lib Dems could also take votes from them, making the Pavilion race very tight.

Taking these points into account, I think the poll suggests that the Tories have only an outside chance, and the real competition is between the Greens and Labour. It seems that Labour still has a reasonable chance of retaining the seat and thwarting the Green onslaught.

What does this mean for left-wing, or anti-Tory voters, in this constituency? Cards on the table – I write as a Labour Party member, but pretty disillusioned. I voted Green in a recent council byelection, tactically so as to stop the Tories from getting an overall majority on the council. So I am not blindly opposed to either the Greens or tactical voting.

However in relation to the General Election in Brighton Pavilion, the evidence of the Greens’ own poll suggests that the argument that Labour and Lib Dem voters should vote ‘tactically’ to stop the Tories is pretty weak. In any case, with a modest Labour pick-up in the election campaign, the argument could easily work the other way.

No – the argument should not be a tactical one, but one of principle. Which candidate, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas or Labour’s Nancy Platts, would make the best MP?  Will Caroline, standing for ‘fairness’ and public service jobs, and likely to be a lone Green voice in a hung or nearly-hung parliament, be a better bet than Nancy, whose promised critical voice might influence as well as sustain a minority Labour government? Do the Greens, unfairly deprived of parliamentary representation on a national scale, deserve their voice from this one constituency? If they do, it should be with better arguments than their current attempt to bamboozle Labour voters into phoney ‘tactical’ voting.

Martin Shaw

Research Professor of International Relations and Politics, University of Sussex, Brighton