Britain’s resurgent Tories

Issue: 119

The Tories were crowing after May’s local elections and the Crewe & Nantwich parliamentary by-election. With 44 percent of the local election vote, victory in the London mayoral election and a 17.6 percent swing away from Labour to take Crewe & Nantwich, they are convinced they will win the general election set to take place in two years time. New Labour’s acolytes believe the same after their party took a mere 24 percent vote in the local elections and was pushed into third place, 1 percent behind the Liberal Democrats.

There is infighting throughout the Labour Party, with rumours and counter-rumours of coups and leadership challenges against Gordon Brown as 100 or more Labour MPs contemplate the prospect of losing their seats at the next election. But the panic is not confined to the stalwarts of New Labour. It is afflicting wider sections of the left, with a widespread misinterpretation of the results as meaning an inevitable return of the Thatcher-Major years.

There is even talk of the combination of the Tory gains in Britain and Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in Italy signalling a swing to the right across Europe. Such conclusions are fundamentally wrong. The political barometer has moved leftwards in places such as Germany, with the impact of the new left party Die Linke, and Greece, with two years of workers’ and students struggles’ (see our interview with Panos Garganas in this issue). And the immediate implications of the British results are very different to those in Italy. Its general election was a disaster for the left; Britain’s elections were only a warning.

It only requires a cursory look at the Tories’ electioneering to see this. Their campaign made a concerted attempt not to appear right wing. Boris Johnson’s victory over Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election depended in part on him glossing over his own noxious record in order to give the impression that he is in favour of multiculturalism.

Simon Jenkins, the Guardian’s right of centre commentator, accurately wrote of “Livingstone and Johnson swapping policies like Christmas presents”. The Tory leader, David Cameron, has been repackaging his image, with speeches about caring for the poor, denunciations of the closure of local post offices, and concern for civil liberties. “If you care about poverty, if you care about inequality, back the Tories,” he now proclaims. In Crewe & Nantwich his party even attacked Labour for playing the anti-immigrant card—despite having played it themselves so often in the recent past.

No doubt such talk would soon be forgotten once in office, but it is an important part of the reason for the Tories being able to pick up votes.

Not a return to the 1980s

The current Tory approach contrasts sharply with the one they used when they gained ground towards the end of previous Labour governments in the late 1960s and late 1970s. Those governments had, like New Labour over the past eleven years, carried through policies that hit their own supporters hard—imposing legally binding wage limits below the level of inflation, cutting back welfare services and helping employers defeat strikes (the seafarers and dockers in 1966-7, skilled engineering workers and firefighters in 1976-7). As a result millions of Labour voters stayed at home, allowing the Tories to sweep into traditional Labour municipal strongholds and win by-elections in solidly Labour areas. The Tories had by-election swings in 1968 just as great as that in Crewe & Nantwich in May this year.

Previously the Tories gained votes as they moved sharply to the right. In 1970, under Edward Heath, they formulated a hard right wing agenda, dubbed “Selsdon Man”; in the late 1970s, under Margaret Thatcher, they embraced an even harder agenda. The current approach of Cameron is very different.

The difference is rooted in the Tories’ own perception of the popular mood. They recognise that the disillusion with the Labour government is not new. In the 2001 general election Labour’s vote was already three million down on that of 1997. By the 2005 general election it was down by another million. Labour was re-elected with the lowest proportion (22 percent) of those entitled to vote since the First World War. The vote by which it won was less than the vote the Tories lost with in 1997 or that Labour lost with under Neil Kinnock in 1987 and 1992.

Table 1: The Labour vote

1997 13,518,167
2001 10,724,953
2005 9,562,122

But the Tories discovered the hard way that they could not benefit from Labour’s weakness so long as they pursued right wing policies reminiscent of Thatcherism under leaders William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard. Their vote in 2005 was nearly a million lower than in 1997 and nearly 40 percent down on Major’s vote in 1992.

Table 2: The Tory vote under Major, Hague and Howard

1997 9,600,943 John Major
2001 8,357,615 William Hague
2005 8,772,598 Michael Howard

Under Cameron the Tories have drawn the conclusion that the only way to gain some of the support lost by Labour is by disciplining the still powerful right wing forces in the party (and the right wing impulses within their leaders’ minds), and to accept an overall approach virtually identical to that of New Labour.

This is an implicit recognition by them of a very important fact about politics, not only in Britain but also across Europe. The electoral swings against Conservatism in the late 1990s constituted a gut reaction against Thatcherism, not only by traditional sections of the working class based in manual industry, but also by newer sections based in white collar occupations and the public services. For instance, the 1997 election in Britain was the first in which a majority of teachers and nurses voted Labour. These sections, who over the previous three decades had slowly come to see themselves as part of the working class in trade union terms,1 for the first time began to do so in electoral terms. This process was misunderstood by New Labour, with its fixation on the votes of the middle class proper, and by those on the left who ascribed New Labour’s victory to it winning “Tory votes” through its Tory policies.

The gut reaction against Thatcherism has not gone away. People may have voted for parties that accept the neoliberal ideology, but they have done so for want of electorally credible alternatives, while showing increasing distaste for the measures promoted by that ideology. On economic and welfare issues the mood is still to the left, not to the right (despite the periodic moral panics and upsurges of hostility to immigrants whipped up by the media).

Cameron has felt compelled to take account of this mood in his own version of “triangulation”. Where New Labour has reached out to the intolerant right, assuming it could take left wing and working class votes for granted, Cameron has reached out to the liberal left, knowing the hard right will back him anyway. But this will present him with immense problems if he does indeed take office in two years time. As the Observer notes:

Mr Cameron has presented himself as a would-be benefactor to a wide constituency: the NHS, the army, people on low incomes, the City, charities, the police, married couples, working mothers, stay at home mothers. He thinks he can help some groups to help themselves, lifting the burden of state intervention. But some of his pledges would need to be met with cash.2

The Financial Times points out that, while presenting himself as a “soft liberal”, Cameron retains links to the hard right:

The Centre for Policy Studies, which spearheaded Thatcherite free market thinking in the 1970s, is less influential as Mr Cameron is trying to soften the party’s ideological edges. However, Jill Kirby, its director, says it is working closely with Mr Cameron on policies demonstrating the failure of Labour’s “big state”.3

The stance taken by the majority of Tory MPs (including Cameron) in voting to lower the time limit for abortion indicates how easily their pretence of being softer than Labour could translate into efforts to push through even harder policies once in office. So too does the enthusiasm of their welfare spokesman Chris Grayling for “boot camps” and of shadow chancellor George Osborne for more anti-strike laws.

But pursuing hard right economic policies in office would itself present them with problems of implementation. Angela Merkel in Germany and Sarkozy in France campaigned on such policies. Yet now they find themselves constrained by fear of unpopularity when it comes to putting into practice the counter-reforms that capital expects from them. Merkel’s coalition has even dismantled some of the attacks of the previous Social Democratic Party government. The situation for Britain’s Tories, who have not dared campaign on such policies, can be even more difficult.

Vacuum on the left, dangers on the right

If the Tories’ electoral success does not yet amount to a disaster for anything other than the New Labour project, it is still a warning to the rest of us. As we have repeatedly argued, so long as there is no substantial focus to the left of Labour, disillusionment can leave a vacuum which forces of the right will do their utmost to try to fill. Their task is made easier by the Labour leadership’s desperate attempt to prop up its voting base by joining in the witch-hunts against asylum seekers, the demonisation of working class youth and the promotion of Islamophobia.

The capture by the Nazi British National Party (BNP) of an additional ten council seats outside London and of one of the proportional representation “top-up” seats in the London Assembly is certainly a warning. They did not, fortunately, succeed in massively increasing their support. Their proportion of the vote for the assembly only increased by 0.6 percent—from 4.7 to 5.3 percent—and this happened at the same time as a massive shrinkage of the vote of the “not quite so far right” UK Independence Party from 8.2 to 1.9 percent.

The total BNP vote of 130,000 across London might match that achieved by the National Front in 1977, but it is a softer vote. The BNP’s current strategy, often referred to as “Eurofascist”, relies on disguising their thuggish Nazi principles as much as possible. They are not marching in the streets, as they did in the late 1970s, for fear of alienating their electoral support. This necessarily creates problems for them, since control of the streets is a precondition for them building the sort of mass paramilitary organisation that is the essence of Nazi-style politics. This should not, however, be grounds for complacency. As the platform from which they can propagate their poison gets bigger, so the possibility of them finding opportunities to use it to effect grows. It is worth remembering that the “respectable” electoral veneer of the Italian far right prepared the ground for the wave of xenophobia that has seen mass police deportations of immigrants and the torching of immigrant homes since its gains in April’s general election.

For the left, there is a heavy responsibility to ensure the BNP do not have any leeway to move in that direction. That is why the 100,000-strong Love Music Hate Racism carnival a week before the election was so important. That is why it is important that Unite Against Fascism has been circulating material through union branches and shop stewards networks, explaining the danger the BNP represent towards ethnic minorities and the wider working class movement. That is also why it is very important to mobilise should the Nazis exploit their limited electoral successes to take to the streets.

But there is a risk that anti-Nazi mobilisations will not in themselves be enough to prevent the spread of their influence as recession and inflation combine to make people feel their lives are getting worse. Again what is needed is an alternative focus for the bitterness and disillusion the BNP try to feed on. This was brought out very clearly in a recent Guardian feature on Stoke-on-Trent, where the BNP now have nine councillors. It described how the local BNP leader exploits working class discontent with New Labour and then mixes racism in with it:

[He] talks about care homes, schools and regeneration. He also offers a pungent mix of nostalgia and conspiratorial claims about immigrants and Islam, from the apocryphal Muslim taxi drivers who “piss in bottles and throw them out of cabs” to the council giving housing priority to immigrants.4

One new BNP voter explained why he had switched from Labour:

They haven’t just let me down. They’ve broken my heart. Stoke-on-Trent has been Labour for 60-odd years and they’ve taken everything for granted. Labour are just turning into Conservatives. We’ve got a local BNP lad who lives on the estate and he came and had a word.

A Labour MP from a nearby constituency said:

What we are seeing is epidemic disaffection in our heartlands. Many this year voted for the candidate best placed to beat the Labour incumbent. The same happened in the by-election in Crewe.

One Stoke trade unionist summed up the real problem:

If there was a serious, union-based alternative to Labour with roots in the community that would see BNP support fall away quite dramatically.

Why is there not already an alternative? Here a very heavy responsibility lies with the diminishing forces of the Labour left and the much more powerful forces of the trade union bureaucracy. They have, with a very few honourable exceptions, followed a policy of sticking to the government, come what may, while moaning under their breath about its direction. Witness, for instance, the spectacle of Tony Woodley of the Transport and General Workers Union section of Unite complaining about Gordon Brown at the TUC last year and then two weeks later, at the Labour conference, saying how wonderful he was.

The excuse is always that “we must not let the Tories in”. But not only does that mean giving a free hand to a government whose policies are nearly identical to those of the Tories—and on some particular issues, like identity cards, to the right of them—it is also leaving a vacuum of disillusion that both the Tories and now the Nazis will seek to fill.

The most recent example of such an approach—and of its dangers—was in the London elections. Ken Livingstone sought to bolster his position by boasting of his friends at the top of the biggest financial firms in the City and by embracing Gordon Brown (see Charlie Kimber’s piece in this journal), while the great bulk of the left embraced Livingstone. The result was that the left was swamped by the tide of disillusion with Labour in London as elsewhere in the country.

Those of us who tried to pose an alternative in London through the Left List—and did so with some impact when it came to arguments with individual disillusioned former Labour supporters and at local hustings—found ourselves squeezed from two sides. On the one hand, there was a stampede to support Ken Livingstone in an alliance stretching all the way from Financial Times editorialists, through the new Labour front bench, to the Green Party and George Galloway’s split from Respect. On the other hand, there were a good few former Livingstone supporters whose level of disillusion led them to opt for the Tory candidate, Boris Johnson.

The direction for the left

Fortunately, neither the attitude of the Labour and trade union left nor the small vote for Left List in London is the end of the matter. The week before the election saw a joint one-day strike by three public sector unions—the teachers’ NUT, the lecturers’ UCU and the civil service workers’ PCS. Not only was this the first time we had seen such joint action for many, many years, but the demonstrations and rallies also showed a level of enthusiasm, especially among young teachers, reminiscent of the huge anti-war demonstrations of five years ago.

The government is attempting to hold public sector pay at 2 percent for at least another 18 months in the face of escalating food, energy and fuel prices. Its latest embarrassment is that the consumer price index (the measure of inflation it prefers, since it underestimates the effect of price rises on ordinary people) shot up to 3 percent in May, while the more accurate retail price index is at 4.2 percent and a basket of typical food essentials costs 19 percent more than a year ago. It is difficult to see how the government can avoid an upsurge of action against its attempt to cut real wages—particularly as recent strikes by groups such as the oil refinery workers at Grangemouth, Scotland, have shown that strikes can indeed win.

The government has got away with a below inflation three-year deal in the health service. But millions of local government workers were balloting over strike action with a yes recommendation as we went to press. The teachers’ NUT union is to ballot over more strike action after the summer break. The civil service workers’ PCS conference agreed to further action, while the postal workers are debating a strike over pensions. There has been a concerted campaign by activists within some of these unions for coordinated public sector action. Were it to take place, it would act as a focus for the much wider resentment about the way the government has treated the different groups of workers who brought it to office in 1997.

Sections of the trade union leadership are still justifying resistance to such an approach on the grounds that it will weaken the government and “let the Tories in”. It was such an approach that allowed the health pay deal to go through. The leadership of the big public sector union Unison ensured acceptance of the pay deal by its members by refusing to argue for rejection, while in other NHS unions, such as the GMB and the midwives’ RCM, the leaderships ensured massive votes to accept the offer.

Inaction in such cases is leaving the field open to forces on the right—papers like the Sun, the Express and the Mail, and further to the right the BNP—to give the impression that it is they who care about working class living standards. The message has to be hammered home: left passivity opens the door to hard right wing populism. It is a message that can only be successful if activists see the need to challenge politically the trade union bureaucracies’ continued ties to New Labour.

Here there is a lesson to learn from the experiences during the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s. Both governments were faced in their final months with an upsurge of strikes against what they had done to workers’ living standards. But the outcomes were very different in the two cases. The 1969-70 strikes began to rebuild a sense of political unity of purpose among union activists, which laid the basis for the biggest upsurge of working class struggle since the early 1920s and for the defeat this inflicted on Edward Heath’s Tory government of 1970-4. By contrast, the strikes of 1978-9, the so-called winter of discontent, were marked by fragmentation and the lack of such political unity of purpose, leaving the ground open for Thatcher to take on sections of the working class one at a time in the 1980s and to inflict very heavy defeats on the best organised sections—the miners, the print workers and the dockers.

The difference between the two outcomes had political roots. In the late 1960s the old broad left influenced by the Communist Party was still following policies that distinguished it from Labour in government, while the new revolutionaries from 1968 and the movement against the Vietnam War added a zest to the struggle. If there was very little in the way of a visible parliamentary focus to the left of Labour, there was an increasingly visible extra-parliamentary one. By contrast, in the late 1970s the Labour left stayed in the government, union leaders elected on broad left lists helped it impose its wage controls and some left activists had ended up opposing important strikes—and ensuring their defeat—out of loyalty to Labour. When the winter of discontent finally took place, it did so against a background of recent defeat and demoralisation, with neither a parliamentary nor a big extra-parliamentary focus to draw it to the left.

We are only just witnessing the first stirrings of resistance to the government wage controls, and we cannot say with absolute certainty which trajectory they will follow. But the signs look closer to the late 1960s than the late 1970s. It is now two full decades since the defeats of the Thatcher years that served to cow resistance through the 1990s and even into the new millennium. There are young workers in factories, offices and public services who were not even born when those defeats took place. And the anti-capitalist movement and the huge demonstrations against the war did begin to create the sense of new forces to left of Labour. There is every possibility of providing a political input into a deepening discontent that finds an expression in the workplaces and on the streets. That can give Brown and Cameron alike something to worry over—and begin to pull the rug from under the Nazis before they have a chance to grow.


1: In 1968 a ballot of National Union of Teachers members could still reject affiliation to the Trades Union Congress.

2: “Cameron Is Closer To Power. How Would He Use It?”, Observer, 25 May 2008.

3: “Policy Exchange Powers Party’s ‘Liberal Revolution’”, Financial Times, 21 May 2008.

4: “Labour’s Lost Ground”, Guardian, 28 May 2008.