Britain and the crisis of the neoliberal state

Issue: 145

Alex Callinicos

Antonio Gramsci writes:

The “normal” exercise of hegemony on what has become the classic terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent that balance each other in various ways, without force violating consent too much, even attempting to make force appear to be resting on the consent of the majority, expressed by the so-called organs of public opinion—newspapers and associations—which, therefore, in certain situations, are multiplied artificially. Between consent and force lies corruption-fraud (which is characteristic of certain situations where exercising the hegemonic function is difficult, exposing the use of force to many dangers).1

Gramsci was writing in the early 1930s about the French Third Republic, a regime that owed its birth to one military defeat (1870) and its death to another (1940), and was notorious for the crises that punctuated its existence. Apologists for the British political system have typically contrasted its serene stability with the chaos that (so they say) tends to reign on the other side of the Channel. But the current state of politics in this country has provoked one respected commentator, Ross McKibbin, to write of “the structural collapse of the British state”.2

This seems an overstatement. After all, the basic functions of the state continue to be fulfilled—taxes collected, laws enforced and, despite austerity, public services delivered—pretty smoothly. The coercive apparatuses are amassing more powers, with, for example, yet another anti-terrorism bill on the way. And Britain is implicated in one more imperialist war in the Middle East. The basic “combination of force and consent” that defines bourgeois democracy in Britain seems in working order. But what Gramsci sometimes calls “political society”—the nexus of institutions including not merely the formal state apparatuses but also the political parties that act as a medium through which the hegemony of a particular class is exercised over society as a whole—definitely is in crisis.3

Thus another highly intelligent commentator, the economic journalist Anatole Kaletsky, recently warned investors that, “in the years ahead, Britain will likely be Europe’s most politically unpredictable country.” He gives three reasons for this:

First, Britain could become literally ungovernable after the [general] election [of May 2015], with no single party or coalition of parties able to form a majority government… The second reason for concern is that a multiparty coalition or minority government, even if it can be patched together in post-election haggling, will probably collapse within a year or two. Whether the next prime minister turns out to be [David] Cameron or Labour’s Ed Miliband, he will be seen as a short-term caretaker, passing only non-controversial measures.

Kaletsky argues that such a government wouldn’t last long, leading to another general election, and to “the third and most troubling business issue. A snap election in 2016 or 2017 is most likely to produce an overtly Eurosceptic government, committed to taking Britain out of the European Union”.4

In the background here is the enormous fright that, not merely big business in Britain, but leading capitalists globally had over the referendum on Scottish independence. The day after the Scottish vote, a relieved Financial Times carried a major article headlined “How Complacency Nearly Lost a United Kingdom”, in which the paper waxed indignant about how bungling by the Westminster political elite allowed “the dream of Scottish independence—long nurtured by a third or fewer Scots” suddenly to turn “into an existential threat to one of the world’s premier powers”.5

Cameron has committed the Tories, if they form a government after the next election, to holding a referendum over British membership of the EU in 2017. The spectacle of Cameron’s endless backsliding in the face of the increasingly dominant Europhobic wing of his party, now panicked by the electoral advance of UKIP, conjures up the prospect that, having nearly lost the Union, he may end up leading Britain out of the EU. However much business lobbyists may whine about over-regulation from Brussels, “Brexit” has little support among serious representatives of capital in Britain—not surprisingly since key sectors such as banking and cars are dominated by foreign firms using Britain as a base for their European operations. At the beginning of December the Financial Times reported that, in an online forum of leading City figures, “most participants argue that Britain’s departure from the EU would damage London and the broader UK, and imperil a fragile European recovery”.6 So, having just avoided one catastrophe over Scotland, Cameron may still blunder into an even bigger one over Europe.

Thus, as McKibben puts it, “the crisis of the United Kingdom has coincided with, and is related to, the crisis in our relationship with the EU, which is now as much part of the structure of the British state as the Union with Scotland once was”.7 But driving both these crises is a third one—that of the party system. As Keir McKechnie brought out in our last issue, the Scottish referendum tore a huge hole in the core electoral base of Labour, for the past generation the dominant party in Scotland.8 Since the vote the Scottish National Party (SNP) has established a 20 to 30 point lead over Labour in opinion polls. Meanwhile, south of the border both the Tories and Labour are running scared in the face of UKIP, victorious in the parliamentary by-elections at Clacton, and Rochester and Strood, both of which were precipitated by the defection of rogue Tory MPs.

To put this in a larger historic context, the past few decades have seen a sustained decline in support for the major parties. In the 1951 general election Labour and the Tories between them took 96.8 percent of the total vote on an 82.6 percent turnout; by 2010 their combined vote had fallen to 65.1 percent on a turnout that was also 65.1 percent.9 At the last election the main beneficiaries of the two main parties’ decline were the Liberal Democrats, who won 23 percent of the vote, and who used the election of a hung parliament to enter a coalition government with the Tories.10 The Lib Dems’ betrayal over tuition fees and their more general implication in George Osborne’s austerity policies have led to a collapse in their position in the polls (pollsters disagree over whether individual MPs may do better at hanging onto their seats). But in recent polls the 65 percent combined share for Labour and Tories has become a ceiling, with the figure dropping below 60 percent in some cases.

After nearly five years austerity, with more to come under any likely government, the coalition’s unpopularity is combining with an evident lack of enthusiasm for Labour under Miliband and the rise of UKIP to precipitate another step change.11 The two and a half party system that has been the norm since the Social Democratic Party split from Labour in the early 1980s is morphing into a five or six party system—Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP, even (in some areas, at least) the Greens. Given that the electoral system is still first past the post, which is designed to entrench the dominance of the two main parties, the fragmentation of party allegiances makes the outcome of next May’s general election exceptionally hard to predict. As Tory pollmeister Lord Ashcroft puts it, “it is not often that Nigel Farage finds himself at the centre of a political consensus, but he spoke for Westminster in his analysis of what UKIP’s Rochester victory meant for the general election. ‘All bets are off,’ he declared. ‘The whole thing’s up in the air’”.12

The neoliberal transformation of politics

Of course, the crisis of the party system is not unique to Britain, even if it may be assuming a particularly threatening form here. In a widely praised book the late Peter Mair argues that the behaviour of both voters and parties in Western liberal democracies has significantly changed in the past generation. Thus, in Western Europe:

it has now become more than evident that citizens are withdrawing and disengaging from the arena of conventional politics. Even when they vote, and this is less often than before, or in smaller proportions, their preferences emerge closer and closer to the moment of voting itself, and are now less easily guided by cohesive partisan cues… Electorates in this sense are becoming progressively destructured, affording more scope to the media to play the role of agenda-setter, and requiring a much greater campaign effort from parties and candidates. What we see here, in short, is a form of voting behaviour that is increasingly contingent, and a type of voter whose choices appear increasingly accidental or even random. Much of this change has only become really apparent since the end of the 1980s.13

But, secondly, falling popular participation in mainstream politics is matched by “the withdrawal of the elites”. Thus, Mair argues, “disengagement is mutual”:

The last decades of the 20th century witnessed a gradual but also inexorable withdrawal of the parties from the realm of civil society towards the realm of government and the state, and together, these two processes have led to a situation in which each party tends to become more distant from the voters that it purports to represent while at the same time tending to become more closely associated with the alternative protagonists against which it purports to compete. Party-voter distances have become more stretched, while party-party differences have shrunk, with both processes combining to reinforcing [sic] a growing popular indifference to parties and, potentially, to the world of politics in general. This also becomes one of the sources of the growing popular distrust of parties and of political institutions more generally.14

Elsewhere Mair elaborates on the transformation of the party system:

In many different respects—including their patterns of incumbency, their policy commitments, and their electoral profiles—parties within the mainstream have become less easily distinguished from one another than they were in the polities of the late 1970s…the parties now share government with one another more easily and more readily, with any lingering differences in policy-seeking goals appearing to matter less than the shared cross-party ambition for office. Policy discretion has become increasingly constrained by the imperatives of globalisation, and, within the much-expanded European Union and the European Free Trade Association area, by the disciplines imposed by the Growth and Stability Pact and the European Central Bank. Even when parties are in government, in other words, the freedom for partisan manoeuvre is severely limited, and this too makes the task of differentiating between parties or between governments more difficult… Through the sharing of office, programmes and voters, even as competing coalitions, the parties have become markedly less distinct from one another, while partisan purpose is itself seen as less meaningful or even desirable.15

As Mair tacitly acknowledges here, the context for the mutual withdrawal of voters and parties lies in the political economy of capitalism in the neoliberal era. The triumph of neoliberalism during the 1980s and 1990s led mainstream parties to converge on the same regime of macroeconomic management (designed no longer to achieve full employment, as had been the case in the Keynesian era, but to keep inflation low and thereby to placate financial markets) and the same policy package of privatisation deregulation, and labour flexibility. As Mair himself notes, “the issue of planning versus markets has been settled—for now—in favour of the markets…leaving much of the matter of conventional political debate without a supporting context”.16 Both the resulting absence of meaningful political choice and the negative impact of these policies on people’s lives have helped to alienate voters from the mainstream parties and encouraged them to look elsewhere.

The neoliberal reorganisation of advanced capitalism is also crucial to understanding another development stressed by Mair, namely the restriction of the scope of even formal bourgeois democracy:

public policy is no longer so often decided by the party, or even under its direct control. Instead, with the rise of the regulatory state, decisions are increasingly passed to non-partisan bodies that operate at arms length from party leaders—the “non-majoritarian” or “guardian” institutions… Faced with increasing environmental constraints, as well as with the growing complexity of legislation and policy-making in a transnational context, there is inevitably a greater resort to delegation and depoliticisation… And since this broad network of agencies forms an ever larger part of a dispersed and pluriform executive, operating both nationally and supranationally, the very notion of accountability being exercised through parties, or of the executive being exercised through parties, or of the executive being held answerable to voters (as distinct from citizens or stakeholders) becomes problematic.17

The “rise of the regulatory state”—which, as Mair shows, is inseparable from ideological attempts to dissociate popular rule from the very idea of democracy and redefine actually existing democracy as the government of experts—is unintelligible when separated from the changes wrought by neoliberalism.18 On the one hand, the privatisation of utilities such as public transport, power and water has required the construction of regulatory agencies to ensure (in theory at least) the supply of minimally adequate services. These agencies are generally kept at arm’s length from elected politicians. On the other hand, the neoliberal regime of macroeconomic management has sought to rein in fiscal policy (taxation and public expenditure), still controlled by elected politicians, in favour of monetary policy (control of interest rates and the money supply), which has been transferred to central banks that were often institutionally redesigned to render them unaccountable to the elected government or parliament. These changes have been justified by both the ideological notion of the “expert” acting neutrally on the basis of technical knowledge and a critique—going back to the origins of neoliberalism—of both citizens and politicians as too irresponsible to be trusted with economic power.19

The global economic and financial crisis may have exposed the bankruptcy of neoliberalism, but it has also reinforced these trends. The banks’ antics have led the United States, the EU and Britain all to reorganise and strengthen their systems of financial regulation. One effect of these changes has been to increase the power of the central banks, which have in any case become the key economic policy-making agencies thanks to their role of sustaining the financial system and countering economic stagnation through quantitative easing and other forms of what Osborne calls “monetary activism”.

Meanwhile, in the EU (which, as Mair argues, typifies the broader changes in the functioning of bourgeois democracy) the crisis has led to further restrictions in the scope allowed elected politicians. First, the weak links in the eurozone—for example, Greece and Southern Ireland—were forced to surrender control of economic policy making and the fiscal process to the unelected troika of the European Central Bank (ECB), European Commission and International Monetary Fund. But these emergency arrangements are being generalised and institutionalised under the Treaty on Stability, Coordination, and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (or Fiscal Pact), signed in March 2012 by 25 member states. This establishes a regime of permanent austerity, in which governments’ compliance with requirements for a ratio of debt to national income of no more than 60 percent and a balanced budget are policed by the Commission and infringements punished by the European Court of Justice. Buttressing this process has been what Susan Watkins calls, in an acerbic analysis of the entrenchment of “oligarchic forms of rule” in the EU, “an unprecedented centralisation of extra-legal power in the office of the German Chancellor”.20

These measures mark a further attempt to depoliticise (and exclude from any control by elected politicians) profoundly political issues relating to the direction of economic policy and its impact on employment, living standards and the distribution of wealth and income—as is indicated by the clause in the Fiscal Pact that requires signatory states to write the commitment to a balanced budget into their constitution. Incidentally, Osborne, despite Britain’s non-participation in the pact, now wants to place a similar commitment on the statute book and Labour will vote for this change. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which he set up as a supposedly non-partisan “expert” body to police fiscal policy, is another example of the attempt to depoliticise austerity. At the same time, the crisis is testing the underlying ideology to destruction. This is particularly true when it comes to the role now played by the central banks in shaping economic policy. No one can watch ECB president Mario Draghi’s byzantine manoeuvres to secure Berlin’s support for quantitative easing, or the subservience to Osborne and the Treasury of Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s bungling Canadian governor, and have any doubt that they are playing supremely political roles, which are increasingly hard to conceal from the wider public.

So far, however, the neoliberal transformation of the political system, accelerated by the crisis, has not faced serious opposition from within the mainstream parties. This is itself a tribute to the strength of the neoliberal consensus within an increasingly closely integrated political elite. As Mair shows, the main parties now occupy a largely self-enclosed sphere, differentiated from the citizens whose support they seek, though (he fails to add) closely integrated with the corporate media and business lobbies. As a result, the relationship between political parties and social classes has changed. Gramsci famously wrote that “every party is only the nomenclature for a class”, but this did not, of course, mean he thought that parties were a passive medium for the articulation of independently formed class interests. Thus he says that the “modern Prince” (ie the revolutionary party) is “at one and the same time the organiser and the active operative expression” of the “national-popular collective will” that is a necessary constituent of working class hegemony.21

Parties thus play for Gramsci a dynamic role in shaping the institutional nexus through which a class’s conception of the world is transformed into an explicit ideology and philosophy, and social forces are organised and mobilised to turn this conception into a political project aimed at conquering the state. It’s not true that contemporary parties have no relationship to classes. The Tories and Labour still maintain a social anchorage in business (large and small) and the organised working class respectively. But—to continue the metaphor—the cable connecting the party to its class anchor has grown longer and has frayed. The specific causes differ. During the long years of opposition in the 1980s and 1990s Labour was transformed into a centralised machine in which the elements connecting it to working class organisations and neighbourhoods—the trade unions and to a lesser extent local parties—were firmly subordinated to the leader and their immediate team of cronies, advisers and spin doctors. In the case of the Tories, in many ways the opposite has happened, as successive leaders from Margaret Thatcher onwards have found their party increasingly hard to control.

After UKIP won the Rochester by-election, a columnist close to the current Tory leadership complained:

The Tories’ folly is not losing MPs such as Mark Reckless, the defector who now represents Rochester for UKIP, but admitting them in the first place. Their benches are peppered with cranks, zealots and the flamboyantly disloyal. A serious party must have a selection process that screens out candidates who are plausible defectors, as Mr Reckless always was. Mr Cameron began his tenure as leader by trying to recruit moderates—it helped if they were women or ethnic minorities—as parliamentary candidates. Traditionalists fought back and, as ever, he relented for the sake of a quiet life.22

The result is the paradoxical situation where the Tories—the traditional party of big business in Britain—are, over Europe, at odds with the main big business organisation, the CBI. We see a similar phenomenon in the US, where the extravagantly pro-capitalist Tea Party wing of the Republicans has played with policies—for example, forcing the federal government to default on its debt—that in no conceivable world correspond to the interests of American capital. One shouldn’t shed too many tears for the bosses’ plight. In the neoliberal era, all parties aspiring to govern genuflect before capitalism. A striking example of this came when Nicola Sturgeon, the new Scottish first minister and SNP leader, rushed to reassure the Financial Times in her first print interview after replacing Alex Salmond that the radicalisation of the independence debate during the referendum campaign posed no threat to companies in Scotland, which would find in her a “very strong ally”:

“I want them to know that they have got nothing to fear from me,” Ms Sturgeon said. “I am a social democrat, I believe in pursuing greater equality and tackling social justice, but…you can’t do that unless you have got a strong economy, unless you have got a vibrant business base earning the wealth that makes that possible”.23

This is, of course, the mantra of New Labour, now increasingly stridently repeated by Miliband. As his father showed long ago, capital has various avenues in which it can influence the political process.24 In the neoliberal era its access to a political sphere from which ordinary voters are increasingly shut out has grown as corporate lobbyists have gained more resources and become more aggressive and as parties compete for funding for ever more expensive election campaigns. The history of Labour shows how all mainstream parties, whatever their history and class alignments, have become thoroughly permeable by capital. These developments accentuate a phenomenon already familiar to Gramsci:

The great industrialists utilise all the existing parties turn by turn, but they do not have their own party. This does not mean that they are in any way “agnostic” or “apolitical”. Their interest is in a determinate balance of forces, which they obtain precisely by using their resources to reinforce one party or another in turn from the varied political checkerboard (with the exception, needless to say, only of the enemy party [partito antagonista ie the revolutionary party], whose reinforcement cannot be assisted as a tactical move).25

The inevitable accompaniment of the integration of politics and business is the growth of what Gramsci calls “corruption-fraud”. Perry Anderson has written very powerfully about the sheer scale of political corruption across the EU:

With this generalised involution [of the political system] has come a pervasive corruption of the political class, a topic on which political science, talkative enough on what in the language of accountants is termed the democratic deficit of the Union, typically falls silent. The forms of this corruption have yet to find a systematic taxonomy. There is pre-electoral corruption: the funding of persons or parties from illegal sources—or legal ones—against the promise, explicit or tacit, of future favours. There is post-electoral corruption: the use of office to obtain money by malversation of revenues, or kickbacks on contracts. There is purchase of voices or votes in legislatures. There is straightforward theft from the public purse. There is faking of credentials for political gain. There is enrichment from public office after the event, as well as during or before it.26

Anderson offers a devastating list of illustrative examples of corruption at the highest levels, starting with Helmut Kohl and Jacques Chirac and continuing with the more recent antics of Tony Blair and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy. As we go to press, José Sócrates, former Socialist Party prime minister of Portugal, is in jail on suspicion of corruption, money laundering and tax fraud. “Corruption-fraud” has played its role in the British political meltdown. The last great jolt to the party system came in 2009 when, as the worst slump since the 1920s was wreaking economic havoc, the MPs’ expenses scandal hit the headlines. The timing, just before the European parliamentary elections, was perfect for UKIP, which had been recovering from a damaging split: thanks to popular anger at political sleaze, UKIP’s support in the polls doubled and it beat Labour into third place in the Euro-elections, winning 13 seats in Strasbourg.27

Filling the vacuum

Politics abhors a vacuum. The shrivelling of mainstream politics, its enclosure into the airless world of the 24-hour news cycle and the mutual courtship of corporate and political executives, has created an opening for a range of “outsider” parties—disparaged by the neoliberal mainstream as “populist”—to capture and articulate the rage felt in wider sectors of society.28 This opening takes three main forms in Europe. First and, alas, strongest are the electoral breakthroughs made by the racist right, headed by UKIP in Britain and the Front National in France. Secondly, we see, less extensively, significant advances by the radical left, most notably in the Spanish state, Greece and Southern Ireland. Of these the most extraordinary case (discussed in detail elsewhere in this issue) is that of Podemos, which has leapt since its formation a year ago to sometimes the top spot in Spanish opinion polls.

Scotland and Catalonia represent an interesting third form: the political and social crisis wrought by austerity is pressing at some of the pre-existing fault-lines in established states. We have discussed the case of Scotland extensively in previous issues.29 The parallels with Catalonia are striking. In both cases, the experience of state-wide austerity has strengthened long-standing movements for independence. The inept tactics of the central government have helped: Cameron’s bungling fades by comparison with Rajoy’s refusal to allow a Catalan referendum on independence and Madrid’s decision to prosecute the Catalan president, the eminently respectable centre-right politician Artur Mas, for holding an informal popular vote (which strongly backed independence) on 9 November. Finally, ideologically the running in both independence movements has come from the left, with Salmond and Sturgeon proclaiming themselves defenders of the welfare state against English Tories, and Mas under pressure from the left-nationalist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. If the Partido Popular governing in Madrid, the heir to the Franco dictatorship that for 40 bloody years denied the right of the Basques and Catalans to self-determination, sticks to its guns, the Spanish state is heading for an explosive confrontation.

One fascinating feature of the Scottish referendum is the way in which it bucked the trends documented by Mair towards declining political participation. Turnout on 18 September was 86 percent on a 97 percent voter registration—higher than in any general election in Scotland since 1945. Since the referendum membership of the main pro-independence parties—not just the SNP but also the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party—has surged spectacularly. The political effervescence produced by the referendum debate was on display in Glasgow on 22 November when 15,000 crowded into a rally to celebrate Sturgeon’s apotheosis as SNP leader and into the conference of the leftist Radical Independence Campaign. Pace the philosopher Alain Badiou, the party form is not dead—in Scotland at least. All this shows is that the depoliticisation wrought under neoliberalism is no inevitable fate: new movements can redefine the meaning of politics in a way that extends the boundaries of democracy.

It also confirms what the experience of Podemos and Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece) has already demonstrated, namely that the popular rebellion against the existing parties doesn’t have to be captured by the populist and racist right. The latter’s advances come partly from their success in fusing together hostility to the EU and anti-immigrant racism into a reactionary but powerful diagnosis of the reasons for crisis and austerity. But there is no reason why these elements have to belong together. An anti-capitalist critique of the eurozone and the EU more generally can be married to a progressive political programme that seeks to unite the exploited and oppressed in opposition to the ruling classes’ recipe of austerity, racism and war. This is an urgent task for the radical left throughout Europe. If Kaletsky’s predictions prove correct, British socialists will soon have to address a referendum on EU membership in which the running will be made by UKIP and the Tory right, their xenophobic Little Englandism hugely amplified by the tabloids.

Whether of left or right, the “populist” challengers face difficulties of various sorts. First and most obviously, they have to show that their electoral support is more than a short-term protest vote, and provides them with a potential base for transforming the political system. But, secondly and more profoundly, what kind of transformation are they seeking? This raises tricky questions of both tactics and principle. The “populist” parties’ electoral successes derive from their ability to present themselves as outsiders, challengers to the existing political system. But, with the exception of some outright fascist parties, none are genuinely anti-systemic. This doesn’t mean that we should underestimate their ability to destabilise the existing political scene, as the far-right Swedish Democrats showed in December when they voted down the budget of the new minority social-democratic government, forcing a general election.

Nevertheless the “populist” parties are typically outsiders aspiring to become insiders in a bourgeois democratic political system that has been restructured to accommodate them and their demands. This means they have to reassure capital that they can be trusted to manage the state. This isn’t so much of a problem for, say, UKIP because of the strong business connections it has had from the start. But the more left wing challengers are under real pressure to demonstrate their respectability. Hence Sturgeon’s promise to be business’s “very strong ally” and the efforts by Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras to reassure the dominant forces in the EU that, should his party win the next general election, he will be a “responsible” advocate of eurozone reform. Podemos’s dizzying advance in the polls is forcing it to address the same issues. All of this goes to show that, despite the rhetoric of novelty that surrounds particularly the more left wing challengers, the laws of political gravity continue to operate: parties aspiring to govern must confront the question of whether they are seeking to confront or collaborate with capital. Syriza may have to answer this question very soon if the right wing government of Antonis Samaras, denied even the smallest relaxation of the troika’s terms, is forced into elections that may come as early as the end of January.

But the radical left in Britain doesn’t have the luxury of considering such grand strategic questions. Instead it has to address the humiliating gap between its chronic fragmentation and what the situation demands of it. The crisis of the British political system has so far worked to the benefit of, at best, a bourgeois nationalist party with a leadership astute enough to tack left but fundamentally content to serve capital and implement austerity and, at worst, a racist, xenophobic party concentrating all that is ugliest in British political culture. We can discuss the precise mixture of objective causes and subjective weaknesses that has meant that the radical left has failed to build on the promising opening created by the mass movement against the Iraq War ten years ago and to express a popular and progressive alternative to the politics of austerity that has prevailed in the worst crisis capitalism has faced since the 1930s.30 But the fact remains that what Gramsci called the “enemy party”, capital’s antagonist, is missing from the political map of Britain.

This situation is intolerable. It places an overriding duty on every fragment of the British radical left no longer to wallow in whatever successes it can claim, and in its grievances against other fragments. We all have the responsibility to rise above our petty divisions and work together to lay the basis of a united radical left party. After the Rochester by-election the Socialist Workers Party issued an appeal to this effect.31 Maybe its specific proposals need improving on, and certainly the wreckage of past attempts at unity and the memories of earlier conflicts are obstacles lying in the path of such a project. Pursuing it won’t mean that our internecine disagreements will simply disappear—and in some cases they are too important to be forgotten. But despite all these difficulties, a more united left has to be forged. The time when this truth could be evaded is over.


1: Gramsci, 1975, III, p1638; see Gramsci, 1971, p80n.

2: McKibbin, 2014, p9.

3: See the discussion of political society in Thomas, 2009, chapter 5.

4: Kaletsky, 2014.

5: Stacey, Parker, Dickie and Rigby, 2014.

6: Jenkins, 2014.

7: McKibbin, 2014, p9.

8: McKechnie, 2014.

9: Voting figures from

10: See Callinicos, 2010, on the 2010 election.

11: On austerity past and to come, see Roberts, 2014.

12: Ashcroft, 2014. The detailed research of the British Election Study, while casting light on particular issues, confirms the uncertainty of the overall result: Mason, 2014, and

13: Mair, 2013, p42 (Kindle location 691-695).

14: Mair, 2013, pp77 and 82-83 (Kindle location 1171, 1253-1258).

15: Mair, 2013, p59 (Kindle location 929-944).

16: Mair, 2013, p72 (Kindle location 1111).

17: Mair, 2013, pp68-69 (Kindle location 1065-1075).

18: See Mair, 2013, Introduction, for the critiques of “majoritarianism” advanced by the likes of Giandomenico Majone and Fareed Zakaria. Majone’s conception of “non-majoritarian democracy” in the EU is dissected in Anderson, 2009, pp105-116.

19: Two classic statements of the neoliberal critique of democracy are Hayek, 1960, chapter 7, and Brittan, 1975.

20: Watkins, 2014, p13.

21: Gramsci, 1971, pp152, 133; Gramsci, 1975, III, pp1732, 1561. The party is largely a symptomatic absence from Peter Thomas’s otherwise valuable study of Gramsci (Thomas, 2009).

22: Ganesh, 2014.

23: Dickie, 2014.

24: For example, Miliband, 1969.

25: Gramsci, 1971, pp155-156; Gramsci, 1975, III, p1750.

26: Anderson, 2014, p3.

27: Ford and Goodwin, 2014, chapter 2.

28: D’Eramo, 2013, shows how the term “populism” has come to be used to deny legitimacy to all opposition to the neoliberal transformation of politics. Laclau, 2002, is an important discussion of populism, despite its heavy poststructuralist philosophical baggage. Interestingly this book has influenced the Podemos leadership: see the tribute to Ernesto Laclau by Íñigo Errejón at See also the article by Manel Barriere, Andy Durgan and Sam Robson elsewhere in this issue.

29: Callinicos, 2014a, and McKechnie, 2014.

30: For one attempt at a diagnosis (extending more broadly than Britain), see Callinicos, 2014b.



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