And now the British question

Issue: 147

Alex Callinicos

The British general election of 7 May 2015 represented a curious mixture of stasis and dramatic change. But its outcome—the election of the first majority Tory government for 20 years—underlines that what we are confronted with is a crisis of the British state.1 To put it more precisely, the fragmentation of the party system now threatens two of the historic linchpins of the British state—its membership of the European Union and the very basis of the United Kingdom in the union of England and Scotland. The radical left in Britain now faces an enormous challenge in addressing this crisis.

But first to the election itself, and the surprise Tory victory. Its constituent elements are admirably stated by three political scientists:

  • The SNP virtually wiped out its three opponents in Scotland;
  • The Conservatives and Labour together removed the great majority of Liberal Democrat MPs in England and Wales;
  • UKIP and the Greens both increased their vote shares threefold, with the former becoming the third largest UK party (in terms of votes but not seats); and
  • There was very little other change: Labour gained 10 seats from the Conservatives in England and Wales, but lost eight giving a net shift of just two.2
  • In analysing these elements, it’s worth starting with stasis. The Tory and Labour shares of the vote barely shifted at all—rising respectively by 0.8 percentage points (to 36.9 percent) and 1.5 (to 30.4 percent). The two big parties’ combined share rose to 67.3 percent, up from 65.1 percent in 2010, but still way below the 96.8 percent they took in 1951.3 The dynamism came in what happened to the smaller parties. The shifts in their votes, mediated by the first past the post electoral system, tilted the balance to allow the Tories to win a majority in the House of Commons.

    The biggest story, of course, is the storming advance of the Scottish National Party, which took 56 out of the 59 seats north of the border, destroying Labour’s long-standing dominance of urban Scotland. This advance has continued since the general election: in an astonishing poll in early June, 60 percent of those intending to vote in next May’s Scottish parliamentary elections said they would back the SNP in the constituency section, 15 points more than in the 2011 Holyrood poll, when the SNP first formed a majority government, and 10 points more than it won on 7 May.4

    So the political earthquake that began with the Scottish independence referendum last September continues. In the general election the SNP consolidated the breakthrough it made among working class Labour voters who voted Yes in the referendum. It’s worth emphasising that this wasn’t achieved on an ethnic nationalist basis: between 2006, the year before the SNP first took office in Scotland, and 2014, the year of the referendum, the proportion of the Scottish population defining themselves as exclusively Scottish fell from 32 to 26 percent, and those describing themselves as equally Scottish and British rose from 21 to 32 percent.5

    SNP leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon accomplished the destruction of Scottish Labour by campaigning against austerity throughout the UK. In other words, following the example of her predecessor Alex Salmond during the referendum campaign, she projected the SNP as a progressive party, more capable of defending the heritage of social democracy than Labour under Ed Miliband. (How just this image is, given the implementation of cuts by the Scottish executive and SNP-controlled local councils, is another matter.)

    It’s clear moreover that the broader process of politicisation in Scotland that developed during the referendum campaign continues. Overall UK voter turnout barely shifted, from 65.1 percent in 2010 to 66.1 percent in 2015. This reflected marginal increases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But in Scotland turnout jumped from 63.8 percent in 2010 (below the UK average) to 71.1 percent on 7 May this year. Indeed one can argue that whatever else the general election did, it burst the “anti-politics” bubble, a change symbolised by comedian Russell Brand’s decision to give up his celebrated opposition to voting and back Labour.

    More broadly, as Matthew Flinders of Sheffield University puts it,

    The 2015 General Election was not an anti-political election and the SNP, Greens and UKIP were not (and are not) anti-political parties. They
    are—rhetorically at least—anti the “actually-existing-model-of-politics”. They are pro-political but anti-Westminster majoritarianism. This is the crux of the issue. In this sense they all promised to “do politics differently” and it would appear that in Scotland and across the rest of the UK a large segment of the public supported them in this endeavour. What did not support them, however, was the electoral system. Or—more specifically—the electoral system “worked” for the SNP but “failed” for UKIP and the Greens. But what is important about the 2015 election is that it demonstrated that the UK is no longer a two or “two-and-a-half party system” but a multi-party system being crudely suppressed by a simple plurality electoral system.6

    Traditionally it has of course been the Liberal Democrats who have complained that the first past the post system denied them the seats their votes entitled them. But their problem was a bit more existential on 7 May. As Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics tweeted on election night, “if Exit poll is right, Tories have eaten Lib Dems”.7 Having sought to position his party as the Tories’ natural partner in a continuing centre-right coalition, Nick Clegg saw the Lib Dems’ share of the vote drop by 15.2 percentage points to 7.9 percent and his parliamentary delegation suffer near wipe-out, reduced from 57 to eight. This compares with the six MPs the Liberals won in 1970—before all the Sturm und Drang of the Social Democratic Party’s 1981 split from Labour and eventual merger with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems.

    Three quarters of the seats the Tories won were picked up from their hapless erstwhile partners. But Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck argues, on the basis of an analysis of the Tories’ over-performance compared to the predictions especially in Lord Ashcroft’s detailed constituency polling, that these gains were mainly a result of David Cameron’s success in containing UKIP by rallying English nationalists against the threat of a Labour government propped up by SNP votes:

    The phenomenon of the “shy” Tory is much commented upon, but pundits have failed to notice the ranks of hidden English nationalists from whence they spring. The more uprooted and radical of this stripe turned to UKIP, but the more traditional among them may be inclined to stick with the habits of their family or locale. UKIP voters tend to live in rural, less educated communities which pollsters find harder to reach. If there is a hidden mass of English nationalist voters who waver between the Tories, UKIP and staying home, Nicola and Ed spooked them in Dave’s direction. This explains why the Tories surged most in UKIP-friendly areas except high-profile battlegrounds such as Thanet South or Rochester where the mobilisation of English nationalists had reached saturation point.8

    Disappointed though UKIP may be by its failure to do more than hang onto one of the parliamentary seats delivered by a Tory defector, it can comfort itself with having won 12.6 percent of the vote, 9.5 points up on 2010. In terms of the popular vote it is now the third party in British politics. Moreover, Cameron’s mobilisation of conservative English voters to win a parliamentary majority guaranteed a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, offering UKIP, as Dunleavy puts it, “an immediate focus to bounce back—and one that could well boost their party’s organisational potential, as the Scottish referendum campaign so clearly did for the SNP”.9 UKIP came second in 120 seats, which with better organisation it can target for next time.

    If the Tories, SNP and UKIP were, to differing degrees, winners, there’s no doubt who, aside from the Lib Dems, were the losers. The failure of Labour and of Miliband personally was one of both tactics and strategy. Tactically he made the disastrous mistake of opposing devo-max as an option in the Scottish referendum and then campaigning against independence as part of a Unionist coalition with the Tories. Strategically he distanced Labour from Tony Blair sufficiently to irritate the party right and their media supporters, while increasingly embracing the coalition’s pro-austerity and anti-immigrant agenda. And so Labour lost Scotland and failed to counter the predictable tabloid-driven offensive in England with anything remotely resembling a persuasive alternative. Hence the haemorrhage of votes to the Greens, who campaigned less around their customary ecological critique than on the basis of a more traditional social-democratic opposition to austerity. In the process they raised their share of the vote from 1 to 3.8 percent.

    In the face of the Tory victory and Labour’s humiliation, it’s tempting to portray British society as moving to the right.10 And there’s no gainsaying the fact that the Tories, UKIP and the Lib Dems under Clegg’s centre-right leadership between them won 57.4 percent of the vote. But votes always register, often in highly distorted ways, more complex and contradictory underlying realities. Britain under the coalition experienced a severe squeeze in living standards. An academic study released just before the general election found that

    the living standards of the UK population have fallen, particularly since the April 2013 cuts in Social Security and other austerity measures took effect. More people in the UK are now in financial difficulties and increasing numbers are unable to afford both the necessities of life (such as two pairs of shoes) and minor luxuries, such as a one-week holiday away from home. Both fuel poverty and utility bill arrears have increased.11

    But the pressure on living standards wasn’t matched by a sustained rise in collective resistance. The movement that developed with the student revolt of 2010 and the pension strikes in 2011 was cut short when the trade union leaders backed away from further action in December 2011.

    In the absence of an alternative based on solidarity and collective action, it’s hardly surprising that hostility towards welfare claimants and migrants, which successive British Social Attitudes surveys show have been seeping more strongly into popular consciousness since the later years of the Blair government, have grown more widespread. Labour and trade union leaders who have effectively blocked the development of collective resistance must take their share of the responsibility for the election result.

    The fact remains that racist and reactionary attitudes have spread. The rise of UKIP is an expression of this phenomenon, but the party’s increasingly entrenched position means that open avowal of racism and xenophobia has become more legitimate. We only have to look to the increasingly powerful position of the Front National in France or the Danish People’s Party to see how far-right parties can use this kind of bridgehead to become key players in mainstream politics. (The DPP almost doubled its share of the vote to 21.1 percent in the Danish general election of 18 June, helping to force the Social Democrats out of office.)

    We can already see the impact of UKIP’s rise in the enthusiasm with which Tories and Labour alike competed to attack migrants during the general election. Continuing to build active mass resistance to racism and fascism through united fronts such as Unite against Fascism, Stand Up to Racism, and Stand Up to UKIP is going to be very important in the next few years.

    But there are cross-cutting trends. John Curtice pointed out straight after the election: “The one bright spot for Labour was in seats with relatively diverse ethnic populations in which the party’s support increased on average by as much as seven points. As a result the party’s vote increased more in London than in any other part of the UK”.12 This may support the predictions of those who argue that ethnic minorities, who might rise by mid-century from 14 percent to anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of the population, and who are likely to continue to be concentrated in the cities and their suburbs, will carry on voting Labour in large numbers.13

    The impact can be seen particularly in the more mixed inner London boroughs, which show a significantly lower propensity to vote UKIP among white voters. But this trend is unlikely to be of much comfort to Labour in the short term, as the Tories use their majority to redraw parliamentary boundaries to their advantage.

    The aftermath has been like a caricature of the reaction to previous great Labour defeats (1959, 1983, 1992)—as was well captured by the title of an article by the Oxford political sociologist Ross McKibbin: “Labour Dies Again”.14 Initially, the candidates to succeed Miliband (portrayed by vengeful Blairites as an infantile leftist) seemed to be competing mainly to prove how close to the Tories they can get, though Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise success in obtaining enough MPs’ nominations to get onto the ballot means there will be the most left wing challenge since Tony Benn stood in 1988.

    Talk of Labour going the way of its Greek counterpart Pasok is premature. Pasok was more or less destroyed by the impact of its role in enforcing austerity on Greek society and by an earthquake of popular resistance in 2010-12—a combination that opened the door to Syriza. For better or worse, these conditions don’t exist here. The fact that Labour managed to increase its share of the vote, despite the Scottish catastrophe and the ineptitude of its leadership, is evidence of a defensive clustering around the party by working class people, who continue to cling to Labour for fear of something worse.

    I wrote more than 10 years ago:

    The Labour Party is like a huge iceberg that is gradually shrinking thanks to global warming. The membership, social roots, and voting base are in pretty continuous decline. Tony Blair won a huge parliamentary majority in the 2001 general election with fewer votes than those with which Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election. But the iceberg itself, though shrinking, remains pretty cohesive. Labourism hangs together thanks to the enduring strength of the trade unions, which remain the core of its social base, the capacity of the leadership to buy off the activists through a mixture of rhetoric, patronage and very limited social reforms, and the hope against hope of MPs, party activists, and trade union officials that somehow things really will get better. Decline takes place gradually, through a process of attrition, a series of individual decisions through which demoralised activists drop out and disillusioned voters stay at home.

    Of course, chaos theory teaches us that a series of gradual alterations such as this may suddenly switch to a catastrophic step-change. One day global warming may cause icebergs to start splitting up, their fragments floating into the open seas and accelerating climate change.15

    This step-change has taken place in Scotland—probably irreversibly. The SNP’s trade union group now has more members then the entire Labour Party north of the border. In England the iceberg continues slowly to melt, but is far from disappearing.

    We’ll consider the implications of all this for the radical left below. But, first, what are the prospects for the Cameron government, now enjoying what may prove to be the dubious merits of a House of Commons majority? Of course, we can expect plenty more austerity. Chancellor George Osborne—more or less designated Cameron’s preferred successor thanks to his appointment as first secretary of state—has nailed his colours to the mast by announcing a new bill making budget surpluses mandatory for governments in “normal times”. He has underlined his commitment (rhetorically) to Gladstonian cheese-paring by reviving the Committee of Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt first established by William Pitt the Younger in the 1780s. It last met in 1860.16

    These steps are the characteristically faux-antique British version of a more general trend in the European Union. The 2012 Fiscal Pact commits signatory states to writing a similar commitment to a balanced budget into their constitutions. It will be easier said than done. Osborne has yet to explain how he will achieve the planned £12 billion cut to the welfare budget.

    And it’s clear the world economy is entering choppier waters as bodies such as the OECD cut their growth projects and the “emerging market” economies—the post-crash good news story—become a drag on global growth.17 As Greece has discovered at terrible social cost, the slower economic growth, the harder it is to reduce government borrowing.

    Moreover, as we have noted before, the other side the fiscal stringency beloved of Osborne and the eurozone is intense “monetary activism” by central banks pumping money into the financial system and keeping nominal interest rates at rock-bottom levels.18 Choi Kyung-hwan, South Korea’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, had the honesty recently to admit his puzzlement about the failure of these measures to restore the world economy to its pre-crash growth path to the Financial Times, which reported:

    Regarding the global economy, Mr Choi said the biggest conundrum for central bankers and economists was why growth was slowing in spite of the “unprecedented” laxity of monetary policy worldwide.

    “Everyone is trying to find their way—it is a situation in which nobody really has a clear answer as to what should be done,” Mr Choi said, noting the recent thinking on “secular stagnation” put forward by Lawrence Summers, the Harvard academic and former US Treasury secretary.19

    So Cameron and Osborne will have to pick their way through an economic landscape that continues, as Michael Roberts argues elsewhere in this issue, to be one of global depression. But it is likely to be constitutional politics that dominate their political agenda. This is, as we have already noted, because of two interconnected issues—the referendum on EU membership that may come as early as 2016 and the advance of the SNP. Together these amount to what we should probably call the British question.20

    The two issues are connected because the SNP is demanding concurrent majorities in all four UK “nations”—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—for the EU referendum to lead to Brexit. It won’t get this, but if the referendum did deliver a UK-wide majority for leaving the EU, it would provide Sturgeon and Salmond (now the foreign affairs spokesperson for the SNP’s swollen Westminster caucus) with the pretext to call a second vote on independence, which they might well win this time.

    Indeed, according to the Financial Times, “despite having promised that last year’s referendum would be a ‘once in a generation’ vote, SNP ministers and MPs are now increasingly talking about the more immediate scenarios under which a second vote could be called”—for example, if Cameron were to betray the promises of further devolution made last September or around the renewal of Trident.21

    In his policy towards both the EU and Scotland, Cameron seems to be driven entirely by the pursuit of the narrowest personal and political advantage. The EU referendum is designed to quieten the Tory right and contain the loss of voters to UKIP. Introducing “English votes for English laws” in the House of Commons supports the rallying of conservative England behind the Tories. But both involve taking enormous risks with the future of the British state. George Friedman of the strategic intelligence website Stratfor underlines the importance of the union with Scotland to the long-term security of the British state:

    British strategy derives from English strategy. The primary English strategic imperative was to maintain the unity of the British Isles, or at least prevent foreign powers from developing a base for operations against England. This means the domination of an amalgamation of England with Scotland and Wales. The loss of either Scotland or Wales opens the door eventually to the development of a hostile power to the north or west.

    The second imperative was to prevent hostile naval forces from finding safe harbour near England. This led to English domination of Ireland and of the southern English Channel coast, along with the Norwegian coast.

    Its third imperative was to dominate the seas to the extent that it could construct an empire that would provide it security without becoming dependent on the European Peninsula for economic development.

    Until World War II, Britain had achieved its imperatives. It has lost the third, of course, as well as the second. The threat of Scottish secession, however remote it actually is and however benign its consequences might be, creates a primordial danger to Britain.22

    This may sound melodramatic, although the implications of losing Scottish military assets were one of the issues in last year’s referendum campaign.23 But the break-up of the UK state threatens at a moment when one of the lynchpins of British strategy for the past 60 years might also fracture. In the aftermath of the 1956 Suez debacle, which shattered any surviving illusion that Britain could remain the “third world power”, alongside the United States and the Soviet Union, membership of what was then still the European Economic Community became (together with maintaining the “special relationship” with Washington) key to British imperialism continuing to play a global role.24

    The New Labour era (1997-2010) was the last time this dual orientation seemed to work, with the City of London acting as the offshore financial capital of the eurozone and Tony Blair swaggering alongside George Bush as they waged the “war on terror”. Nemesis came soon enough with the financial crash and abject British military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Cameron as an identikit representative of the British ruling class remains fundamentally loyal to this strategic positioning simultaneously within the EU and the US-dominated “Anglosphere”. But the tensions it involves have become starkly visible on his watch. Defence cutbacks and the continuing political backwash from the Iraq disaster (most visible in the House of Commons vote in August 2013 to stay out of any military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria) have led to repeated questioning by senior US officials of Britain’s appetite and ability to continue to play a global role.

    Meanwhile, on the EU Cameron finds himself caught between the Europhobic right heavily represented among his own MPs and voters and a eurozone that has reacted to its implosion by imposing increasingly tight fiscal surveillance and financial regulation on member states. Britain’s semi-detached position in the EU is becoming more difficult to sustain at exactly the moment it is finding it harder to come up with the resources needed to prove its continuing usefulness to Washington.

    So how will Cameron fare in keeping the UK together and within the EU? McKibbin offers this bracing appraisal of his likely Scottish policy:

    The semi-destruction of Labour in Scotland is not good for Britain. Labour was the only real party of the Union; the only party that could and did win a majority in Britain’s three constituent parts; the only party that really believes it should be preserved. Within the Conservative Party there has always been tension between the party of the Union and the party of England. Its conception of the Union always was Anglocentric and it has become even more so. Many Conservatives would be happy to give Scotland its independence. That, however, would be fearsomely difficult, and the SNP probably doesn’t want it. Independence would mean the return of conventional party politics to Scotland, to its likely detriment. The Tories and the SNP have a mutual interest in keeping Labour down and out in Scotland. What could emerge is some fudged agreement on fiscal autonomy well short of independence, which leaves the SNP with a useful source of complaint. Those negotiations could be nightmarish too.25

    This cynical assessment leaves out the wild card of Cameron’s negotiations with the rest of the EU (hence the “too” in the quoted passage). If he fails, he threatens to break up the Union, and also seriously to undermine the viability of British capitalism. Of course the advocates of Brexit can drum up the odd CEO and plenty of the more venal hedge fund denizens in their support, but these are not representative of big business in Britain.

    After the holocaust of manufacturing industry in the early 1980s, British capitalism rebuilt itself as a business-friendly base of operations for multinational banks and corporations in the EU. Exclusion from an ever more integrated EU will inevitably lead many of these companies to think again. This doesn’t mean that a viable economic strategy couldn’t be developed after Brexit, but this is not an option that the bulk of big business wants to have to contemplate.

    So Cameron has to deliver a victory for the Yes camp in the referendum. But to keep the bulk of his own party (and cabinet) behind him, he must have something to show from the negotiations he’s started with Angela Merkel, François Hollande and other EU leaders that’s more than the purely cosmetic concessions that Labour prime minister Harold Wilson brandished in the 1975 referendum on EEC membership.

    There’s a hard core of sovereignists on the Tory back benches who will prove impossible to please, but for the rest of the party and for Kaufmann’s shy English nationalist voters Cameron will have to achieve some movement in the three key areas of deregulation, decentralisation and limiting access to welfare benefits by migrants from the rest of the EU. It’s not clear how much Merkel, Hollande & Co are prepared to give him—partly because they’re preoccupied with managing the endless eurozone crisis, partly because, after the enormous difficulties around what eventually became the Lisbon Treaty, they will be very reluctant to contemplate another treaty negotiation and ratification.

    Westminster politics in any case is likely to be dominated by the EU. The last time this happened under a Tory government with a small majority—during John Major’s administration in the 1990s—the result was self-destructive factional implosion. Tories in all camps say that, having been through that once, they won’t let it happen again. If they are proved to be right about this, it may be because of the speed with which Cameron caves in to his right wing. His threat in early June to sack ministers who didn’t support his line in the referendum campaign lasted barely a day. Major may come to seem a strong prime minister by comparison.

    The primacy of constitutional politics poses a challenge to the radical left in Britain. For decades Tom Nairn (formerly of New Left Review) has excoriated British socialists for myopically focusing on socio-economic issues and failing to address the peculiar constitutional form of the UK state—a monarchy presiding over a multi-national polity soldered together with a highly ambiguous “Anglo-British” identity, its huge powers exercised by one-party governments whose legitimacy derives from the fiction of parliamentary sovereignty.26 One doesn’t have to endorse Nairn’s interpretation of the British state as “pre-modern” or even “semi-feudal”, or his identification of nationalism in Scotland and elsewhere as the main vehicle of progressive politics today, to recognise that, in a certain sense, his hour has come.

    The art of revolutionary politics depends on grasping the specific torsion point at which at any given time the contradictions of capitalist society are concentrated. This point shifts (which is one reason why Nairn is wrong to argue that the left should always have focused on questions of constitutional form). But it looks as if constitutional issues will continue to act as the lightning conductor of British politics for the immediate future. So, of course, we have to build the struggle against austerity—which has been enlivened by a wave of spontaneous protests against the unexpected Tory victory, followed by the huge People’s Assembly demonstration on 20 June. The scale of these protests should increase people’s confidence to develop struggles and movements around specific issues. But we must also take a stand on the two unions—Britain and Europe.

    The first is easier to address than the second. As we argued at the time of the Scottish referendum, the main enemy is the British imperialist state.27 Scottish independence wouldn’t produce nirvana, but it would weaken that state and the struggle for it has already produced a shift to the left in Scotland. Similarly the unilateral Tory attempt to restrict voting rights of Scottish MPs outside some broader constitutional settlement is thoroughly undemocratic and should be opposed.

    The EU referendum is a lot trickier. This isn’t so much because of the character of the EU—one of the main centres of neoliberal imperialism that is busily pauperising southern Europe and drowning migrants in the Mediterranean. The problem lies in the alignment of forces in the referendum campaign, which is likely to see the bulk of the ruling class alongside the Tory and Labour front benches and the liberal left supporting the EU against an opposition dominated by the Europhobic, chauvinist and racist right. Amid this din, it will be hard for an internationalist and anticapitalist critique of the EU to make itself heard.

    It wasn’t particularly easy in 1975, but then a much more powerful reformist left, represented by figures such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn in the Labour Party and by a Communist Party that still had a formidable industrial base, campaigned for a No vote. Their arguments were couched partly in nationalist terms, but they did identify accurately the way in which the Treaty of Rome limited the ability of member states to pursue progressive economic policies. It was relatively easy for the International Socialists (predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party) to campaign for a No vote on an internationalist and class basis. But left reformism is hugely diminished today, and the trade unions are likely mostly to line up in the Yes camp.

    The case for principled internationalist opposition to the EU nevertheless remains very strong. The crucifixion of Greece vindicates the old critique of how European integration functions to exclude alternative economic policies, a tendency that has been enormously reinforced by the entrenchment of neoliberalism via monetary union. But what stand to take in the referendum plainly divides the revolutionary and radical left. More discussion is required, and we will have it in our next issue.

    Developing the right stance on Europe or anything else is one thing. Winning support for it is another. The radical left was barely visible in the general election. Across Britain, the candidates of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (sometimes standing jointly with Left Unity) received 36,368 votes, 0.1 percent of the overall vote. In Bradford West, George Galloway, the radical left’s sole MP, was humiliated by Labour. This doesn’t mean that there is no audience for alternatives to the left of Labour. The SNP’s performance shows this on a big scale, but much of the increase in the Green vote was probably a consequence of disillusionment with Labour and the lack of visibility and/or credibility of the genuine radical left.

    The disappointing overall score for TUSC masks some much better local performances—for example, by Jenny Sutton in Tottenham, where consistent intervention in electoral politics over a number of years has created a base strong enough to resist the pressure to vote Labour when the Tories are in office. But strategically there are two interconnected problems. The first is how to achieve the critical mass that allows a party or coalition to present itself as a credible repository for votes.

    Syriza’s spectacular advances in the 2012 Greek elections, which laid the basis for its victory in 2015, came against the background of nearly two decades when its core component, Synaspismos, received a vote fluctuating around the 3 percent level required for parliamentary representation. The problem we face in Britain is how to achieve this threshold. (The example of Podemos in the Spanish state suggests that it might be possible to overleap this stage, but this depended on conditions—meltdown of the main parties, huge social movements, skilful political entrepreneurship—that are hard to replicate.)

    The main obstacle to achieving critical mass is the continuing hold of Labour, particularly in the conditions imposed by the first past the post electoral system. The most promising radical left project that England has seen for many decades, Respect in the mid-2000s, was stymied by the (extraordinary) fact that Blair’s Iraq adventure precipitated no significant split in Labour, with Galloway breaking away almost alone. The result is a vicious circle, in which the inertial mass of Labour remains too strong for radical left alternatives to emerge, and their failure helps bind that mass together.

    There have been breaks at the local level. Of these the most important example is provided by Tower Hamlets, the east London borough where Respect had the biggest impact in the mid-2000s. The resulting loosening of the links tying the large, mostly poor working class Bangladeshi community to Labour has developed on a much larger scale recently—first with the elected mayor Lutfur Rahman’s break with the party and then, after his removal in April by the quasi-colonial intervention of an election judge, with Rabina Khan’s campaign to succeed him, which ran the Labour candidate a close second on a platform of opposition to austerity, racism and Islamophobia.

    This highlights the other side to the trend noted above for Labour to be sustained electorally by a growing urban ethnic minority population. In Tower Hamlets and Bradford we have seen how the issues of racism, war and austerity—alongside the tensions created by Labour’s arrogance towards minority communities it is used to treating as vote banks—can create openings to the left on a much greater scale than the more conventional electoral initiatives mounted by the Socialist Alliance in the early 2000s and by TUSC today. Of course, widening these cracks and building a broader-based and durable radical left challenge to Labour is a tricky business, as the Respect debacle in 2007-8 shows.

    Nevertheless, the radical left’s efforts to develop an electoral alternative are going to have to run along two tracks. The first involves sustaining and trying to widen existing electoral coalitions. What happens in Scotland in the run-up to next year’s Holyrood elections will be particularly important: will the SNP continue to be the main beneficiary from the political radicalisation north of the border or will the different fragments of the Scottish left manage to coalesce into something resembling a credible and principled opposition to neoliberalism, racism and imperialism?

    The second involves being open to the sudden fissures that the crisis of the British state can suddenly and expectedly open up, perhaps making possible a qualitative advance. David Cameron is steering British capitalism into stormy waters and we need to be ready to seize the opportunities this may create.


    1: Callinicos, 2015.

    2: Johnston, Pattie, and Manley, 2015.

    3: Election figures from and

    4: Dickie, 2015.

    5: Eichhorn, 2015. On the impact of the referendum on Scottish Labour, see McKechnie, 2014.

    6: Flinders, 2015.

    7: @PJDunleavy, 8 May 2015.

    8: Kaufmann, 2015.

    9: Dunleavy, 2015.

    10: For example, Richards and Smith.

    11: Go to

    12: Curtice, 2015.

    13: For example, Phillips and Webber, 2014.

    14: McKibbin, 2015. The defeats in 1979 and 2010 were different, coming as they did after right-wing Labour governments.

    15: Callinicos, 2004.

    16: See Roberts, 2015, for a critique of Osborne and his Keynesian opponents.

    17: Wheatley and Kynge, 2015.

    18: Callinicos, 2015, pp8-10.

    19: Kynge and Wheatley, 2015.

    20: The Financial Times equates the “British question” with the question of EU membership, but-for reasons outlined in the text-this seems too narrow: Parker and Barker, 2015.

    21: Stacey, 2015.

    22: Friedman, 2015.

    23: Callinicos, 2014, pp20-21.

    24: See, for example, Darwin, 2009, chapters 12-14.

    25: McKibbin, 2015, p12.

    26: For example, Nairn, 1990, chapter 4. For a critique of the interpretation of British history that Nairn’s argument presupposes, see Callinicos, 1988.

    27: Callinicos, 2014.


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    Callinicos, Alex, 2004, “The European Radical Left Tested Electorally”, International Socialist Tendency International Discussion Bulletin, Number 5 (July).

    Callinicos, Alex, 2014, “Towards the Break-Up of Britain?”, International Socialism 143 (summer),

    Callinicos, Alex, 2015, “Britain and the Crisis of the Neoliberal State”, International Socialism 145 (winter),

    Curtice, John, 2015, “Election results: What Went So Wrong for the Pollsters—and How Did the Exit Poll Get It Right?”, Independent (8 May),

    Darwin, John, 2009, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge University Press).

    Dickie, Mure, 2015, “SNP Sees Support Strengthen Beyond May’s Election Landslide”, Financial Times (9 June),

    Dunleavy, Patrick, 2015, “Britain’s Election Highlights the Instability of Its Political System” Washington Post (9 May),

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