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Lindsey German

The crisis of British politics

(October 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The victory of the fascists in a council by-election in London’s Docklands sent shock waves through the left. The vote represents the polarisation of politics today and the contempt for the main parties. Lindsey German looks at why it happened and what the alternatives are

Wherever you look in Britain today, the air of crisis, decay and despair is greater than it has been for many years.

Contempt for mainstream politicians (a recent poll showed over 90 percent of people distrust them), erosion of support for institutions such as the police or monarchy, and the feeling that every area of British life is in decline have never been greater.

When nearly 1,500 people voted for the fascist British National Party in Millwall last month, giving them their first local councillor, the grim reality of the crisis of British politics hit home. The decay, the closure of industry, the rundown of public services, the feeling of paralysis about any political change, have become the dominant features in a society where only five years ago we were being told we had escaped economic crisis forever.

The magic of the market, the trickle down of wealth from the rich to the poor, the enterprise culture, have been exposed as a sham. Nowhere in Britain is this more the case than in the Isle of Dogs, site of the BNP victory, where the grotesque monolith of Canary Wharf stands as a monument to the values which are so detested by most people today.

All the evidence suggests that institutions which have traditionally been central to holding British society together and winning the adherence of the majority of the population – including a sizeable chunk of the working class – have been dramatically weakened in recent years. Even the police themselves now declare that they have no confidence in the criminal justice system. What hope can there be for the rest of us?

At the centre of so much of the contempt and unpopularity are the politicians from the main parties themselves. The Tories are of course the main recipients of this feeling. Partly, they have fallen out among themselves. John Major has, after all, been quoted by the press in recent months referring to other cabinet ministers as ‘bastards’ and Tory backbench critics as ‘barmy’.

Local Tory activists are at their most demoralised for years. For example, the membership officer for the Western region, Dr Adrian Rogers, said on John Major’s recent visit to his area:

‘I wanted to know if he really appreciated how hard it was being a Conservative and I think he did. It’s a very loyal party but it’s had the worst year ever and I think that’s got through to him.’

Another loyal activist, the leader of the Tory opposition on Taunton Deane council, John Meikle, said: ‘People are concerned about a number of things, including VAT on fuel and a whole lot of unpopular issues. I feel that probably the party has unnecessarily inflicted on people things to grumble about’.

But rows between Tory politicians are only one sign of more widespread contempt. There is a universal feeling that politicians are all liars.

And the ideological crisis goes much deeper than merely superficial discontent with politicians. It has its roots in the complete failure of Thatcherism to deliver what was required for the British ruling class.

A recent opinion poll shows that 46 percent of people, including 24 percent of Tory voters, agree that ‘more socialist planning would be the best way to solve Britain’s economic problems’. This demonstrates how far the mood has swung against the ‘free market’ and its supposed benefits.

Recent surveys on taxation show a similar change in attitudes. Fifty nine percent were in favour, in a recent ICM poll for the Guardian, of raising the higher rate of tax. Only 14 percent were in favour of higher VAT. In response to the question of what public spending should be cut if it is necessary, 93 percent and 90 percent were against cutting health and education spending respectively. The only area where there was a clear majority for spending cuts was in defence, where 64 percent favoured cuts.

The imposition of VAT on fuel has led to further erosions in its already low popularity. Privatisation of rail, the closure of more and more mines despite popular opposition, the drying up of funds for NHS hospitals, have combined with uncertainty about jobs and low wages to increase the level of bitterness.

However; contempt for Tory politics also spreads to the other parties. Despite some success by the Liberal Democrats in winning disaffected Tory voters in rural constituencies, their policies are unlikely to provide any alternative to Tory cuts or unemployment, and they are now quite correctly tarred with the brush of right wing populism and racism, a tactic they have employed for years far wider than just in Tower Hamlets.

Labour is increasingly seen as the main alternative by the majority of working class people, with its poll ratings suggesting a majority government if there were an election. But there is little enthusiasm for – and much disillusion with – Labour.

There are two main reasons for this. One is the total failure of Labour to address the problems facing ordinary working people. On taxation, on social security, on education, it trails after the Tories, wanting to ameliorate the worst of their excesses, but accepting the ground on which they stand. Labour, backed up by its allies, the trade union leaders, has opposed or downplayed any idea of direct action by people themselves to prevent attacks.

The second reason for Labour’s unpopularity is its own record in local government. Acceptance of government cuts, a refusal to fight for better provision, the erosion of council services and a tendency to do deals with businessmen and property developers at the expense of local people have increased. Disillusion with Labour is at its greatest on many of the declining council estates, with their non-existent services, which are often little better than prisons for many of their residents.

Attacks on council workforces through the cuts and areas such as competitive tendering have eroded much of the Labour councils’ traditional support.

So any positive endorsement of Labour almost always now hangs on what they would not do – they would not privatise rail, cut public spending as far as the Tories have or extend VAT. This lack of support and identification does not mean that Labour cannot grow or cannot win elections.

But it does mean that a polarisation has developed. The old consensus politics, which was the bedrock of postwar society, has disappeared. In its place have appeared apathy and cynicism, punctuated by huge explosions of anger, such as over the poll tax or the miners. The economic crisis has greatly increased this mood, which is why the fascists were able to win their vote in Millwall. But disillusion with the system also gives a new audience for socialist ideas as an alternative to the dead end of parliamentary politics.

The polarisation in politics, the vacuum created by Labour’s decline and the inertia of the unions, and the terrible effects of the crisis on ordinary working people, all combine to create an atmosphere in which the fascists can gain some support. Why is this, when the BNP represents race hatred, forced deportation of immigrants, destruction of any form of democracy, the smashing of trade unions and democratic political parties and the silencing of any voice of protest?

Their appeal is not, of course, based on propagating these views. If they were to campaign on such a platform their support would never get any bigger than the tiny number of boneheads and fanatics who comprise their inner core. That is why it is so important for them to gain respectability – something the fascists have been so far unable to do – and why they base their campaigning on identifying with some of the key areas of discontent which so worry working class people today.

The Isle of Dogs was fertile ground in this respect. The contrast between wealth and poverty is vast and dramatic. Promises of jobs and houses for local people with docklands redevelopment have not materialised. There is a justifiable feeling that these people have been left to rot by national government and by the local council as well – both Liberal and Labour.

The BNP has a completely false yet superficially plausible argument: the neglect of local people and the lack of concern by big business mean that Asians and other ‘foreigners’ are taking the houses, jobs and schools which should by rights go to locals – i.e. whites. This argument alone would perhaps not be persuasive – after all, it has had little resonance in many other equally deprived parts of the country – were it not for the fanning of racism by the local Liberals, which has given these arguments wider purchase and a respectable face.

The fascists will use these and other populist arguments to try to tap into the mood of bitterness and anger which the mainstream politicians are shocked by but have no answer to.

At the same time, we should put into perspective what has actually happened in the Isle of Dogs and how weak the far right’s prospects still are. They have one councillor elected on just over a third of the vote in the area. They will obviously try to use the result to build in other inner city areas with bad housing and services. But the scale of opposition to the BNP, and the horror felt by millions at the result show that they will not get it all their own way.

It is still very easy to smash what little influence they have built. Compare their one seat with the 1000 local government seats held by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. Or compare the support the British National Front gained in the mid-1970s. Not only are the fascists much weaker today, there are far more people who understand the need to oppose the Nazis.

This would seem to be a universal feeling. Everyone from John Major to the editorials of the posh papers has condemned the election result. But although these people will recoil in liberal horror – they will do nothing to stop the Nazis. Indeed, they are already accepting the need to work with the fascist councillor, on the grounds of ‘democracy’, and condemn mobilisations against the fascists. As in the past, in the 1930s and 1970s, beating the Nazis will lie with rank and file activists on the ground who directly confront them.

Already there are many signs that this is happening, from the magnificent walkout of Isle of Dogs council workers who struck in protest at having to work with a fascist councillor, to the mobilisations in Brick Lane to drive off the Nazis and the demonstration this month to close down the BNP headquarters in Bexley.

The success of the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s means that even now it is much harder for the fascists to gain a foothold or a respectable veneer. The mobilisations have to ensure that it stays that way.

However, mobilising against the Nazis alone will not destroy the threat. The scapegoating of blacks for bad housing and unemployment will continue unless there is an alternative put forward. That means fighting on the social issues whose failings give the fascists their chance. If this fight were taken up by the whole of the labour and trade union movement it would soon be victorious. Unfortunately, the Labour and union leaders are apathetic or indifferent – sometimes even hostile – to these struggles. Labour councils are often in the forefront of implementing policies which result in at best a sharing of the crumbs from the Tories’ table.

In every locality there has to be a fight over these issues – squatting empty luxury homes in Docklands, keeping hospitals open, opposing cuts in schools. Most Labour and trade union members will back such campaigns enthusiastically – and their leaders can be pushed into doing so. Success in these issues will undercut any potential base for the fascists, by providing real improvements in people’s lives.

However, the crisis of politics in Britain today requires more than these small scale reforms, important though they are in building confidence rather than despair. It requires trying to build an alternative to a system increasingly in decay.

The ruling class crisis means that there are more and more attacks on workers coming from both employers and government. The Tory declaration of a wage freeze is one example, which has already led to a greater degree of generalisation among many public sector workers than had previously been the case.

The main recipient of the anger and bitterness at these attacks is not at present black people but the government itself. The wage freeze is likely to increase the fury already growing from worsening living standards and increased VAT on fuel.

Unfortunately there has not yet been a significant fight by large groups of workers against the government. The public anger over pit closures was not turned into industrial action, and the attitude of the trade union leaders can be summed up by the new head of the TUC:

‘The job of unions is to avoid strikes, particularly ones of any duration. There is often an initial enthusiasm among workers when they embark on industrial action. But during strikes income is lost, job security threatened and people are vulnerable to victimisation. Strikes ... are a weapon of last resort.’

Yet the more the union leaders counsel caution, the more they are likely to disillusion at least a section of their membership who look for more militant action. And the more likely it is that those who want to fight – and the scale of the crisis is leading tens of thousands in that direction – will look to socialist organisation to link up and give expression to a whole range of different struggles.

It is commonplace for most media commentators to believe that the crisis in politics today will easily be resolved. Maybe a new prime minster will do the trick, or maybe economic recovery will solve the political problems. It is not going to be like that. We have higher taxes or further spending cuts in store, whatever happens and whoever is in government. The 1980s, when many believed that everyone could just get better off, have now been revealed as a cruel joke.

Despite all the hype during that decade, there are no clear answers to economic crisis, to how schools can be improved, how we can house the homeless, how we can end unemployment. Even capitalism’s most optimistic forecasts allow for millions on the dole and a huge ‘underclass’ in all the major capitalist countries.

In such a situation the political crisis may have its ups and downs, but it is here to stay. The best that most people can hope for is that their personal situation will not get worse, but few believe it. Most people accept that their children’s lives will be worse than their own.

The polarisation which has opened up in politics will continue, and is already posing the urgent question about how society goes forward. In such circumstances, a revolutionary socialist organisation like the SWP can grow – if it understands it has to provide an answer to those tens of thousands looking to an alternative to this rotten system.

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