Thursday, 31 December 2015

8 important trends in British politics

The end of one year, and the start of another, is a good time for reflection. So I thought I'd step back from the day-to-day churn of British politics and think about the underlying trends we have seen illuminated in 2015. 

It is easy to miss many of these due to a focus on the everyday or short-term, or because of the news media's habit of exaggerating some things while overlooking others. 

What, then, are the big current trends in British politics that we can discern from events in 2015? In no particular order...

1. The Tories are steady but going nowhere. 

There was a lot of exaggeration in the responses to the Tories' general election victory. The fact that nearly everyone had forecast a hung parliament meant that a tiny Tory majority appeared to be a spectacular triumph, rather than a very narrow win helped by the electoral system. The long-term trend for the Tories has been one of decline: compare its vote share from anywhere between the 1950s and 1992 with its results since 1997 and this is clear. It is also reflected in falling membership. 

It is unlikely that the Tories will ever again reach 40% in a UK-wide general election (if Scotland gains independence, it might be a different matter). There is no particular reason to believe that the Tories will improve on its 2015 vote share. They can form a majority government on no more than 37% of the votes - as we've seen - and the likely boundary changes means this will certainly be possible in future. But I don't see how the Tory Party can restore the dominance it had in the 1980s (conversely, I don't see any reason to predict a significant fall in its support).

2. The Lib Dems have collapsed. 

The Lib Dems and its predecessor parties have historically had a small core voting base. But at times this has been boosted as a result of careful positioning - or opportunism - allowing the party to pick up votes from those disaffected with other parties. The 2010 election was a peak in this respect, with the Lib Dems benefiting from widespread disillusionment with 13 years of Labour government (but also the fact that the Tories had not entirely 'detoxified' after the experiences of the 1980s and 1990s). 

Being the junior partner in a Tory-led coalition for five years led to collapse and only 8 Lib Dem MPs were elected in May. There are no indications of any Lib Dem revival, not any reason to expect one as the party has no obvious purpose. It has returned to being a party that derives votes largely from a core base of mainly middle class and centre-ground voters, polling below 10%. 

3. The SNP dominates Scottish politics.

The SNP landslide in May - taking 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster - was a genuine political earthquake. There is every reason to expect another SNP landslide in May's Holyrood elections, with the party forecast to increase its majority in the devolved Scottish parliament still further. 

This has been a long-term process and the independence referendum accelerated Scottish Labour's decline and the SNP's ascendancy. Many people on the Labour left simply don't grasp how much Scottish politics has been transformed, and naively think that Labour can win back lost support. This involves under-estimating how discredited Labour has become, how strong the SNP's support base now is, and how important the questions of independence and (more immediately) home rule, or increased powers, are for left-leaning Scottish voters. 

4. Ukip is past its peak, while the far right is defunct.

I've been saying this for over a year: Ukip has already reached its peak. It took roughly one in eight votes nationally in May and there's simply no reason to expect it to improve on this in future local or general elections. It has a fairly settled voter base and is incapable of getting people elected in first-past-the-post elections. The fact that its sole MP, Douglas Carswell, is in open conflict with party leader Nigel Farage gives a strong sense of the problems it faces. Whatever happens in the EU referendum, it is likely to damage Ukip: once it's taken place, Ukip's core aim has been removed from the political landscape. 

The rise of Ukip is one reason, of course, why the traditional far right is absolutely nowhere. Dedicated anti-fascist campaigning also played its part, as did the far right's propensity (especially when under pressure and suffering defeats) for in-fighting. The British National Party imploded a little while ago and has not been replaced.  

5. Labour is shifting leftwards. 

For those of us on the left, the most important - and hopeful- trend is what's happening in the Labour Party. This is one that has taken everyone by surprise: 2015 has been a real game-changer for Labour. It was widely assumed that general election defeat would be followed by a consensus around moving Labour somewhat to the right. Jeremy Corbyn's huge popular success in the leadership race, galvanising a mushrooming of Labour Party membership and a renaissance for the left, changed everything.

What we are seeing is the widespread disaffection with a hollowed-out social democracy finding expression - in a unique way - through the established, and largely discredited, social democratic party itself. This results from a combination of factors and has led to a fierce conflict within the Labour Party. How this plays out is not yet settled, but Corbyn and the left do have some distinct advantages. The 'moderates' in the Parliamentary Labour Party are reconciling themselves to it being near-impossible to challenge Corbyn's position. 

6. The Green Surge is a fading memory. 

The Green Surge began in summer 2014 and continued until the general election in May 2015. There was a huge increase in membership combined with a small tilt leftwards in its profile and composition. This demonstrated - together with the SNP's triumphs - that Labour can indeed leak votes to its left, and suggested there is significant electoral space for a party positioned (in however ambiguous and tricky a manner) to the left of the neoliberal mainstream. 

Corbyn's rise to the Labour leadership has changed all that. Apparently, there has been little direct effect on Green Party membership. But there's no doubt that the whole dynamic underpinning the Green Surge - disillusionment with a rightwards-leaning Labour Party sending people to the Greens - has simply gone. This will surely be reflected, in the next year or two, in membership figures, the composition of the party and the votes it receives, most likely starting with disappointing votes in London and local council elections in May. 

7. The independent left is marginalised electorally. 

While Labour's left turn may have damaged the Greens' prospects, it has wiped out any chance of explicitly socialist organisations like TUSC or Left Unity making any progress (assuming Corbyn continues as Labour leader). These outfits were already achieving miserable results in elections - and that was before a socialist was elected to lead the Labour Party. 

I also expect the new Scottish left formation RISE to do badly in May's Holyrood elections, though I wish them well. I'm not sure there is space for something new - resting on a relatively small layer of activists, with no existing profile - when the field is already crowded with SNP, Labour and Greens. I hope to be proved wrong - we will see. 

8. Strikes remain a rarity, but unions and movements are important political players. 

Since the early 1990s there hasn't been a single year when more than two million strike days have been recorded - a sustained period of low trade union combativity like never before. This is a crucial and highly significant long-term trend for the left to register. It continues to be a major weakness on our side - and the effects of the historic defeat of the unions can be seen, for example, in the downwards trend in real-terms pay for the last seven years. 

Nonetheless, trade unions and protest movements alike have played an influential role in recent years. Street protest has been, for many years and across a wide range of issues, a central part of opposition to government policies. This year, the People's Assembly's national demonstration in June was a particular high point, while Stop the War Coalition has repeatedly made the news, especially around the Commons vote to bomb Syria. It will again play an important role in 2016 around the issue of Trident replacement as well as Syria. The connection between protest movements and Corbyn's rise to the Labour leadership has in some ways amplified the impact campaigners can make. 


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