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We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed? What now that neither the ‘Edstone’, nor ‘Milibae’, nor pink buses for women, nor condescending to Scottish voters has been enough to deliver victory?
For Labour, the result is just marginally better than in 2010, when it incurred its worst election defeat since 1918. This was not inevitable. In 2012–3, during which period Labour flirted with opposition to austerity, it consistently led with over 40 percent of the vote. In this election, it gained just over 30 percent, compared to 29 percent in 2010. The only major Tory slayed was the despised Esther McVey in the marginal constituency of Wirral West. In other marginals, such as Nuneaton, the swing to Labour was pitiful. In North Swindon, a safe Tory seat since boundary changes in 2010, the Tories actually gained. Worse still for Labour, Ed Balls supplied the Tories with their ‘Portillo moment’, losing his seat in Morley and Outwood, not from incumbency but from opposition.
Why is Labour’s result so poor? It is not because of the overweening strength of Conservatism. Overall, the Tory vote has barely shifted from 36.1 percent in 2010 to (as of writing) 36.8 percent. The Tories have been in a crisis since 1992, since which time their vote has oscillated between the low to mid-thirties. In previous elections, a vote share of this scale would have left the Tories on the opposition benches. This is not, chiefly, a Tory surge, but the confirmation of a Labour collapse. Labour’s total enervation is also reflected in the turnout, which at 66.1 percent was barely a point above what it was in 2010. And while relatively affluent voters turned out to support Cameron – with a 75 percent turnout in Thornbury and Yate, where the Tories overturned a 7,000 Liberal majority – working-class constituencies had some of the lowest turnouts in the country. In Manchester Central, turnout was 52.9 percent. The exceptions to this pattern are where there was some sort of alternative. Across Scotland, turnout was 71.1 percent. In Bristol West, where the Greens came second, turnout was projected to be approximately 85 percent.
So, Miliband’s failure is a confirmation of Labour’s degeneration, its crisis, not of Tory strength. In fact, both Labour and the Conservatives are in the middle of a long-term crisis, which neither has done anything to reverse: the question in this election was, whose crisis is worse?
Unsurprisingly, and highly satisfactorily, the Liberals have been crushed, their share of the vote falling from 23 percent to 7.7 percent. Indeed, this is the big shift in the 2015 election: the collapse of the Liberals and the rise of the smaller parties. I want to point out something of great importance regarding the Liberals. I said previously that the reason their leadership didn’t care about getting mauled in the elections was because they were preparing themselves to act as kingmakers in future coalitions, as exercisers of ‘responsible’ political authority, detached from their base but integrated into the machinery of government. This, let us be honest, is where they’d rather be. And in the last few days, we’ve had Nick Clegg saying that a government without the Liberal Democrats involved would lack legitimacy: even knowing that his party would be hammered into fourth place, he still saw a central role for his wheelers and dealers. In effect, the Liberal apparatchiks chose, with the Orange Book coup against the centre-left Kennedy leadership, to turn their party into a mandarin, de facto apparatus of an increasingly post-democratic state.
The obverse of the Liberals in this election is the SNP. Every tendency in advanced post-democracy is being reversed in Scotland, where working-class electoral participation and party membership is rising, not falling. The SNP took fifty-eight seats, up from six in 2010. The tsunami-like proportions of this wipe-out may be exaggerated by the electoral system, but the swing is huge and signifies something far deeper than a shift in voter identifications or, God help us, a ‘protest vote’. Old right-wing Labour stalwarts like Tom Harris, interviewed on STV last night, demonstrate some vague comprehension that since the Independence referendum, something at the deepest strata of Scottish working class consciousness shifted. But neither he nor his political confederates get what shifted, or why.
The referendum ‘No’ coalition signified everything that was wrong with Westminster politics: all the main parties in it together, on the side of militarism and the multinationals. Despite Gordon Brown’s absurd ‘big beast’ posturing, despite all the talk of the ‘UK pension’ and the ‘UK NHS’, Labour attacked independence from the right, from a position of loyalty to the state, to the war machine, and to the neoliberal doctrines of the civil service. Miliband, during the election campaign, tried to reassure middle-class voters that Labour utterly ruled out any SNP influence on policies like austerity or Trident. And while the Labour Party tailed the Tories on austerity, mimicked Tory language on welfare, and practically grovelled on immigration, the SNP defended a simple, civilised position: no austerity, and no demonising the poor or immigrants. In England, Labour aping the Right led to the base staying at home, as they have done in growing numbers since 2001. In Scotland, working-class voters had a tried-and-tested reformist alternative, with an optimistic political identity linked to a profound socio-demographic shift, and were able to rally to it. And now, with England cleaving broadly to the right and Scotland shifting left, it’s hard to see how they current constitutional arrangements are sustainable. Scotland will simply not assent to being governed by the Tories, and Sturgeon will be under huge pressure to deliver another referendum.
There will be more to say, on the other side of the political spectrum, about the farraginous hordes that are banging at Cameron’s door, but for now it’s worth pointing out how many of them there are: almost four million in this election. UKIP is England’s terrified, resentful answer to the SNP. While the SNP were able to capitalise on the sheer detachment of the Westminster centre parties with a centre-left nationalism, UKIP linked Britain’s growing crisis of democracy to European domination and a series of reactionary gripes about immigration, political correctness and uppity Jocks. Only the perversities of the electoral system prevented UKIP from gaining the fifty or sixty seats they would have gained on this basis, if their vote were more geographically concentrated. As it is, Douglas Carswell, the least UKIP of UKIPers, is the only one to have held onto a seat. What is particularly absurd about this is that the distribution of UKIP’s votes points to its political strength: UKIP managed to eat into Labour heartlands almost as much as Tory seats, making UKIP possibly Britain’s first truly successful, cross-class, populist formation. In Sunderland, for example, it drew tens of thousands of voters, a surge first noticed during the city council elections last year when it took almost a quarter of the vote. Of course, the party is still very fragile and schismatic: its momentum may now dissipate, and it will be much weaker now that Farage has resigned the leadership. But the basis upon which they won these votes was ideologically hardcore, with Farage using the televised debates not to broaden his support but to consolidate his base. If the dominant parties are forced to accept PR, as seems increasingly likely, this signifies a major realignment on the Right.
Finally, there is the Left. The results for TUSC and Left Unity were predictably nanoscopic. The major left tributary of disaffected Labour voters in England was the Greens, who did well to get 3.7 percent of the vote, a four-fold increase on 2010. In addition to keeping Brighton Pavilion, with a 10 percent swing in their favour, they also came second with a swing of 23 percent in Bristol West, where the sitting Liberal was overturned. And they came a good third in a number of constituencies, such as Norwich South, or Holborn and St Pancras where Natalie Bennett got over 7,000 votes. I think this represents something more than a protest vote. Once more, if we get anything like proportional representation, the game is up: in those circumstances, the Green vote will easily surge past 5 percent toward the double figures, and the Pasokification of Labour will take another lurch forward.
This election has been about the collapse of the Labour Party, of labour-movement politics and more generally of representative politics: precisely as I warned. The hope we were exhorted to embrace has been hugely devalued by overuse and by misapplication. There is no hope in the Labour Party. It has neither the political will nor the resources to reconstitute itself, nor would it have a clue how to do so if it did. The Left has to accept reality, and move on. Rebuilding is a slow, difficult, thankless task. In the meantime, hope is precious: it must be rationed.
Richard Seymour is a founding editor of Salvage, an author and a broadcaster. He is the author of The Twittering Machine (2019), Corbyn(2016, 2017) and others. His writing appears, among many others, in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and Al Jazeera.