The comprehensive defeat of the Conservatives in the General Election must be a source of satisfaction, indeed jubilation, to the Left everywhere since the administrations of Thatcher and Major were global pioneers of the free market blight and particular foes of social progress in Europe. In the politics of the United Kingdom the Conservative rout constitutes a momentous watershed. With only 32 per cent of the vote it was the worst Tory result since 1832. But this time, rather than setting the seal on an epoch of reform, it signals the beginning of a crisis of regime. Of course Labour’s landslide majority in the House of Commons is quite misleading. While it has over 60 per cent of all MPs it won 44 per cent of the vote, only a whisker ahead of Margaret Thatcher’s best performance and on a lower turnout. But Thatcher’s 43.5 per cent represented the outer limit of support for her politics, with some voting Conservative from
On election night Robin Cook observed that it would be churlish to deny the role of the Conservatives in making Labour’s victory possible. Despite an economy which, in conventional terms, was performing well, the Conservative government failed to overcome the devastating blow to its credibility when the pound was ignominiously ejected from the erm on ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992. Numbers of their natural supporters had good reason to rue the Conservative record. About a million and a half home owners have found themselves squeezed by ‘negative equity’, as the value of their homes dipped below that of an increasingly onerous mortgage. At least another million have discovered that their privatized pension was a bad buy. Many others worry about their prospects in an increasingly casualized and part-time job market, or experience the decay of public health and education. The arrogance and corruption of Conservative parliamentarians, the self-indulgence of the bosses of newly privatized industries and, most importantly, deep divisions over European monetary union, further explain the haemorrhage of Conservative support.
Impressive though it was, the Conservative impulse to self-destruction does not explain everything. Adapting Robin Cook’s words it would be churlish to deny the contribution of Tony Blair and New Labour to the overall result. Their air of studied moderation, and their assiduous courting of the tabloid proprietors, helped them win some areas which never previously supported Labour. It also helped them to win back sizeable layers of the middling working class—the so-called C2 skilled manual workers and the C1 non-managerial office workers—who had deserted Labour in 1979. According to the nop exit poll, the proportion of C1s voting Labour rose from 32 per cent in 1992 to 47 per cent in 1997 while the proportion of C2s voting Labour rose from 35 per cent in 1992 to 54 per cent this year. The Conservatives won only 26 per cent of the C1 vote and 25 per cent of the C2 vote. That Labour won 57 per cent of the votes of trade unionists, compared with only 18 per cent for the Conservatives, is not remarkable. More noteworthy is that it won 46 per cent of the votes of those paying mortgages compared with 29 per cent supporting the Conservatives.footnote2
Labour’s caution on taxation is likely to have been a powerful factor in winning over wayward employees. Unlike the self-employed, the C1s and C2s mostly have tax deducted from their income under the paye system. And unlike many in the managerial and professional classes they have little scope to offset tax against expenses. Those who claim that a redistributive welfare and tax system requires heavy taxation of the working class are wrong both historically and mathematically. In the middle and late 1940s only half of all employees paid any income tax at all. And by definition a truly progressive tax and welfare regime does not make net deductions from those on or around average earnings. This reasoning would justify Labour’s pledge not to raise the general rate of income tax. But it certainly does not justify its pledge not to raise the tax rate levied on higher earners—say over £50,000 p.a. Labour’s tax promises have another unfortunate aspect. They deprive the government of a good way of averting inflationary pressures and leave the monetary authorities over-reliant on interest rates. But if a regime of high interest rates is resorted to—a possibility increased by the decision to hand over their determination to the Bank of England—this will exact a heavy cost, deterring investment and pushing up the value of the pound to the detriment of employment and earnings.
New Labour’s moderate demeanour has not successfully dampened expectations, if this was its intended effect. Firstly, the proclaimed goal of healing social rifts by constructing ‘one nation’ will not be compatible with acceptance of the Thatcherite inheritance. Secondly, the very scale of Labour’s parliamentary victory raises popular hopes that change must ensue. And thirdly Labour’s pre-election effort to distance itself from the trade unions could reduce the Labour government’s capacity to sweet-talk the unions out of pressing for a return to redistributive measures. More generally there are still a variety of dissident forces in British society, such as the Green activists who have blocked motorway and airport development, the Ploughshare movement whose members physically prevented the shipment of arms to Indonesia last year, and ‘ethical’ shareholders disturbed by the conduct of the companies in which they have invested. The Guardian and Independent newspapers made their own contribution to the defeat of Major and resent the often heavy-handed approach of New Labour spin doctors—consequently they feel freer to criticize the Labour leadership than did the Guardian of the 1970s and 1980s. Middle class dissidence has reached the point where even the Mail and Express recognized as folk heroes ‘Swampy’ and ‘Animal’, the youthful eco-activists who obstructed the Newbury Bypass. Green campaigning has altered road construction plans, and made Shell and bp fear a consumer backlash if they don’t demonstrate concern. The most vigorous signs of rebellion comes from layers of youth, notably in the ‘rave protests’ sponsored by Reclaim the Streets; on 12 April about fifteen thousand demonstrators took over Trafalgar Square, with banners flying and sound trucks blaring, in a demonstration held in support of the sacked Liverpool dockers. Anticipating Robin Cook by two weeks, a handful of anarchists jumped through an open window at the Foreign Office, seized documents and scattered them to the crowd below. The enjoyable micro-politics of the rave culture shows spirit but risks becoming an end in itself. Their disdain for macro-politics is not shared by most youth, large numbers of whom actually voted for Tony Blair (57 per cent of 18-29 year-olds voted Labour, a rise of 19 per cent since 1992).
Notwithstanding the spin doctors, the big trade unions have played a large part in the rise and rise of Tony Blair, with the union block vote doing his bidding at Party conferences when necessary. The unions contributed £11 million to Labour’s campaign fund this year and seconded no less that 10,000 campaign workers to staff telephone lines and stuff envelopes.footnote3 Membership is still well below its peak but trade unions do now have more confidence, with reduced unemployment giving them greater bargaining power and the Labour victory helping to revive spirits after previous cruel defeats. Despite a historically low level of official strike activity, unofficial and localized strikes, or votes for strike action, have become more common.
The new government’s first actions, and its announced intentions in the ‘Queen’s Speech’, reflect Tony Blair’s attempt to apply the balm of reform to the inflamed joints of the ancient uk state. Here we leave behind the injuries of class relations in the real world and enter the potent and difficult realm of imagined communities. There are already signs that the distinct political cultures of the Celtic fringe pose a problem for New Labour’s ‘one nation’ rhetoric, and that what goes down well with the lobby correspondents at Westminster can strike the wrong note in Edinburgh or Glasgow.