The minority of English voters who bothered to turn out last week gave no more than 21 per cent of the vote to Labour in the local authority elections — the lowest result it has had since it became an independent party in 1918. Not a Labour-controlled council left standing. Even the Liberal Democrats fared better, decisively relegating Labour to third place among the English parties.
In the European Parliament elections which took place on the same day, Britain gave a mere 15.8 per cent to the red rose of the socialist grouping. Did voters mean to do what they did, by staying away or putting the boot in? Were British voters merely fed up with Labour’s involvement in the MPs’ expenses scandal, which touched all major parties, or was this decimation something more permanent, likely to last well beyond the next year’s general election? In other words, is British Labour finished as a major party?
Labour once had a commanding opportunity to modernise Britain, to engineer a Cool Britannia, lead ambitiously in Europe, even to bring in an elected House of Lords, and turn Britain left, away from the selfishness of Thatcherism. During Tony Blair’s time as prime minister, however, Labour lost millions of votes, membership halved, and Britain went to war with Iraq; its reasons for being in office became as confused as the military objectives in Afghanistan.
Blair’s successor Gordon Brown has not led New Labour back to any imagined Old Labour golden age. His tenure seems to have trapped itself in a strong but incoherent message; it’s been darkened by job losses, made worse by the global financial crisis with the bipartisan MPs expenses outrage as a difficult counterpoint.
Clearly something needs to be done, but apparently it won’t be done by Labour. Several voices spoke against Gordon Brown’s premiership in the packed party room as the votes were tallied, but, either from shared delusion or mass indecision, the party stood paralysed behind their leader, loyal sailors on the Titanic, ignoring the shining iceberg ahead.
To see how bad things are for Labour, tour the ruins of its one-time strongholds. The Scottish National Party trounced Labour, and Labour surrendered Wales for the first time since 1918, giving the Tories a previously unthinkable first place while only just staying ahead of liberal-Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru. So bad was the Euro vote that Labour failed to pick up a single seat in the South West — in Cornwall the Cornish liberal nationalist party Mebyon Kernow scored better.
So what’s happening? Is this UK Labour’s problem, or is it symptomatic of our troubled time, where the failures of capitalism reveal the shortcomings of greed, without many clues about the alternatives? Is it rebranded socialism? Is it a more smoothly packaged conservatism?
The Conservatives certainly didn’t gain much advantage from the expenses scandal, or the tsunami of resignations from Government cabinet ministers. Nor did the Liberal Democrats — although their positive approach to Europe helped them to pick up an extra seat. The real winners were the Eurosceptic choice, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Despite sending a fraudster to the European Parliament last time around, UKIP has managed to become Great Britain’s second party.
Some respite from the horrors of what has happened to the British electorate can be found in the details. Edging its national vote to only 6.2 per cent, the far right British National Party (BNP) has actually not increased its raw vote up north, but benefited from lower overall voter turnout, combined with an appalling slump in Labour’s party base support, sending quotas to new places.
It is a lack of enthusiasm for Labour that has driven the BNP to office. However small the increase, however, the BNP now has two representatives in the European Parliament: Andrew Brons, elected by Yorkshire and Humberside, and BNP chairman Nick Griffin, who now represents North West England in Strasbourg and Brussels.
Their election is no small matter, considering that 20 years ago Brons was a strident National Front member leading a group in Leeds whose favourite catchcries were "death to Jews" and "white power". Griffin has a more recent history of racism — in 1998, he was convicted of incitement to racial hatred for denying the Holocaust (which makes his praise of the wartime Waffen SS seem less remarkable).
The BNP’s attitude these days is perhaps best summarised in the words of one of its own press releases: "The real enemies of the British people are home-grown Anglo-Saxon Celtic liberal-leftists who seek to destroy the family as the building blocks of society and impose multiculturalism on a reluctant indigenous population and the Crescent Horde — the endless wave of Islamics who are flocking to our shores to bring our island nations into the embrace of their barbaric desert religion."
With Britain now represented by people who express these opinions, there will be nervousness on some council estates, and along some high
streets. A few people could become very cocky — and many others very
For Britain, it could be akin to the period before World War I when just as Liberal rule looked set to last for decades, the upstart socialists drew their votes rapidly away until it seemed the LibDems were taking their last gasps. This time around, it’s too early to say who’ll pick up that support: it could be one of the far right parties on the rise, or it could be the liberal nationalists, or the Greens. What we do know is it won’t be one of the major parties.
From triumph over a decade ago, Labour has catapulted itself into baffling irrelevancy today. Labour has become effectively the largest of the minority parties in the House of Commons. Proportional representation at the next general election suddenly seems not just a realistic option, but one that would be helpful for Labour’s very survival.
The tendency to emerge from this vacuum — either progressive or fundamentalist — will set the agenda for the next decade in British politics. Shaping this project is certainly not for the no-shows who let the BNP walk into office. It is for the courageous and determined: those who dare to imagine something beyond the quagmire of 20th-century politics.
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