It Was Nationalism Wot Won It

Image c/o Brad Hammonds on Flickr.

It’s taken me some time to process the outcome of last week’s election. A part of me has been in denial ever since waking up that Friday morning and discovering that not only had the Tories garnered more seats than Labour, but had also managed to garner a majority (albeit a fairly slim one). The one small bright spot for me? That UKIP failed to succeed in increasing their number of MPs in Kent, indeed, managing to lose their only MP in the county. Small comfort when their share of the vote massively increased of course.

Of course, in many respects, I shouldn’t be too disappointed. I’m not a Labour voter after all. However, I am “of the left” so whilst I wasn’t a supporter I would obviously have preferred a Labour government to a Tory one, no matter how far to the right the Labour party resides (for all the predictable blather from the right-wing press, they hardly stood on a socialist platform). But the sheer horror of the reality of a majority government is already starting to unfold with the attack on Human Rights legislation and proposed restrictions on freedom of speech (who said the Right doesn’t do authoritarianism?). Whilst I have my issues with the Labour party, and whilst they may have a dubious record on surveillance, I certainly feel like my civil liberties would have been afforded more protection under Miliband than Cameron (again, political rhetoric in general would suggest this runs against what the left and the right stand for).

What is clear to me is that nationalism was the winner in this election. Varying types of nationalism of course, but nationalism nonetheless. A more benign, civic nationalism in Scotland, and a resurgent English nationalism (perhaps fuelled in part by Tory propaganda about the impact of SNP influence in Westminster). I have my issues with nationalism in general, but I understand that, on the face of it at least, Scottish nationalism is at least benign in comparison to its English counterpart. Racism and xenophobia certainly play no part in the agenda of the SNP. The same cannot be said for the English variant of course.

And this is where the problem lies, I believe, for the Labour party if it is to have any hope of forming a government of any description in 2020 (whether in coalition or, seemingly unlikely, a majority government). The 2015 general election seems, to me anyway, to be a classic case of the Conservative approach to limiting the power and influence of the working class. As has always been the case, nationalism seeks to divide the working class, playing on fear as well as evoking a sense of patriotism. It has been a long-held tactic of the right to play on these fears and thus divide the working class, ensuring that any party that represents their interests has little chance of gaining traction.

Indeed, this is evidence of precisely this tactic being employed by the Conservatives and the Liberals between 1918-1922, as Selina Todd explains in her excellent The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class:

“After 1918 both Liberals and Conservatives worked hard to forge mutually beneficial alliances in English, Welsh and Scottish municipal politics. These alliances were, as the historian James Smyth points out, ‘always for one purpose – to keep Labour out of office’. They did so primarily by courting the vote of those electors who swelled the ranks of organisations like the Middle Class Union, and whose anxieties about taxation and working-class independence most Liberal and Conservative politicians shared. But these parties also offered a negative appeal to working-class voters, by promoting an anti-socialist message that stressed its links to ‘foreign’ Bolshevism, violence, tyranny and economic instability. Voting Conservative was, for some working-class men, a vote that marked them out as patriots…”

In this case, whilst there doesn’t as yet appear to be any data to corroborate it, it would appear that playing on the ‘fear’ of Scottish nationalism influencing Westminster led to some voters swinging behind the Tories.

Certainly the decline in the working class vote has been identified as a prime cause for Labour’s failure to turn their expected minority government into a reality. Initial voting analysis provided by the House of Commons Library indicates that the steady decline of the working class vote has continued in this election. According to Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth, the figures show that whilst the middle class Labour voter has remained steady, the working class has steadily declined:

2005 – 48% DE voters

2010 – 40%

2015 – 37%

For AB, C1 and C2 voters, Labour actually managed to make small increases on 2010.

As was expected, a Labour failure has brought out the Blairites who argue that a “return to the centre ground” is where electoral success lays. Of course, by “centre ground” they actually mean middle class voters, because that is the demographic New Labour acolytes are most interested in. “Aspiration” is already the keyword in the leadership campaign as the race to become The New Blair starts to take shape. Given Ed Miliband managed to marginally increase the middle class vote, it would appear that the “centre ground” should not be the prime concern for a party that was built to represent the interests of the working class.

For me it seems clear where the fault lines were in Labour’s election campaign. They made the grave error in 2010 of letting the Conservative party seize the narrative about the economic crisis. Whatever the reality of the situation (ie that Cameron and Osborne backed Labour spending and offered no alternative when the crash came), the image has stuck in the mind that Labour, once more, brought down the economy, like they always do (certainly that is a line that I often hear from my parents, both working class). That this was not effectively challenged was fatal and allowed the Tories to point the finger at Labour as a risky bet for a safe economy (of course, the Tories have pursued roughly similar policies since 2010, so not doubt there will be a further economic crash on their watch).

But they also failed to communicate a set of ideas that would alleviate the suffering of those at the bottom end of the income scale, those that have been hit hardest by five years of voodoo economics. The predatory capitalism analysis certainly rings true in terms of how our capitalist system operates in the United Kingdom, but what does it mean to someone being hammered by the bedroom tax, lower living standards, zero hour contracts and alike? It is the very people who the Labour party should represent that have been overlooked which has, as a result, hurt them greatly. It is not that Labour were too far left, nor even that they weren’t left enough, it’s simply that they didn’t manage to communicate effectively with those they were supposed to represent.

It would be, in my view, a fundamental mistake for the Labour party to further abandon the working class vote and chase after the middle class with talk of ‘aspiration’ and ‘wealth creators’. It is an extension of the same fundamental misunderstanding about the election in 1997 in which any Labour leader would have triumphed (I refuse to buy the narrative that Blair was somehow the man who rescued Labour, it was the Tories that rescued Labour). Of course, Labour may well choose this route in a desperate attempt to get to power by being ‘nice Tories’. I’m afraid that if they do, they will have already lost the election in 2020.

Published by

ijclark

Librarian and co-founder of a leading national library advocacy campaign, I have written articles on a range of professional issues for a number of publications including The Guardian, Information Today Europe, Library Journal and the Open Rights Group.