In the December 2019 general election, the Labour Party got its lowest number of seats in the House of Commons since 1935. The inquest into this fourth successive defeat continues, in the Labour Party and beyond. Some point to the suspicion towards party leader Corbyn, along with the publicity over anti-Semitism. Others acknowledged Labour’s confusing position over Brexit. On the sociological level, research showed that the Conservatives had greater support than Labour in all socio-economic groups including all the bourgeoisie’s categories for the working class. From the latter point of view Labour had lost support from those who had been “left behind”. The bottom line is that Labour has lost out again in a situation of electoral instability
In the 2015 general election UKIP got nearly 4 million votes. In 2017 Labour got 3.5 million votes more than it did in 2015. In 2019 Labour got 2.6 million less than 2017, losing votes to the Tories, Liberals and Scottish National Party. In these fluctuations it seems that 2017 was maybe just a blip in a longer term decline for the Labour Party.
There were specific aspects of the 2019 election which should be taken into account. The theme of the election was basically the Tory appeal to Get Brexit Done. But there had to be enough agreement from the other parties for Boris Johnson to be able to call an election. Labour effectively agreed to the election, despite the opinion polls correctly suggesting that they were in a poor position. The parliamentary paralysis was broken and the Conservatives have a comfortable majority of 80. Having noted this, it is necessary to look beyond the British specificities for an international and historical context.
Labour Party is no exception
In a report for the ICC’s 23rd Congress in early 2019 we saw that, internationally, “the past few years have been characterised by an irreversible trend towards the decline of the Socialist parties”. While left-wing parties played their role in the 1970s and 1980s against the waves of workers’ struggles (when a period of the left in power was generally succeeded by one of the left in opposition) they have also played other roles for capitalism. For example “in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, Socialist or social democratic parties were deployed in the front line to counter the first effects of decomposition on the bourgeoisie’s political apparatus (cf. Blair, Schröder, Zapatero, Hollande). As a consequence, they suffered not only from the disillusionment in the major democratic parties ... but they are also particularly identified with the failed political system. Thus the tendency towards decline seems irreversible: the Socialist Party has disappeared in Italy, is threatened with extinction in France, Holland and Greece and is in deep crisis in Germany, Spain or Belgium. Only the Labour Party in Britain seems to be escaping this trend at the present time”.
It would now appear that Labour is not escaping this trend after all. In the quoted report we wrote “It is possible that the Labour Party could profit from the Conservative Party’s difficulties in managing the populist groundswell around Brexit, when, should the Tory Party implode, the bourgeoisie will have to turn to it for help”. The Tory party expelled a number of MPs during the course of 2019, but it did not implode; in fact it gradually increased its support from the moment Johnson replaced May, going on to a convincing victory in the election. Tensions remain in Conservative ranks, but Labour is not currently in a position to benefit from this.
There have been various trends to the left of the social democratic parties that have emerged in recent years and have played their role for the bourgeoisie - Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, “La France Insoumise”, the Democratic Socialist current in the Democratic Party in the USA. Like these groups, some of which were a direct response to outbreaks of class struggle (Podemos in particular after the Indignados movement in Spain) Corbynism did offer something to soak up questioning of the status quo and divert discontent into the Labour Party. But a Corbyn-dominated Labour Party now seems to be offering even less protection from the general weakening of the social democratic parties – perhaps because despite its radical rhetoric, Corbynism was above all more an attempt to revive “Old Labour” than invent something new.
To understand the present situation of the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie it is important to see that, in contrast to the 1970s and 80s, when the bourgeoisie was able to marshal its political forces, with the decomposition of capitalism there is a tendency to lose control of the political apparatus.
The emergence of populism has had different impacts in different countries. In the UK we saw the growth of UKIP, the 2016 Referendum, the replacement of UKIP by the Brexit Party, and the Conservative Party more and more taking on populist ideas. With the government of Boris Johnson this has continued, not only in relation to Brexit, but also with big spending plans that are aimed at appealing to those who would otherwise be ‘natural Labour voters’. In this context the Tories have stolen some of Labour’s clothes, and it’s not obvious what function Labour is now going to have. It has been a central party of the bourgeoisie for more than a century, but it’s not clear how Labour can now best serve the political needs of the capitalist class. In the absence of another left-wing alternative in Britain, it will continue to produce the ritual denunciations appropriate to a party in opposition and pose as an unconvincing government-in-waiting.
Divisions in the Labour Party are likely to further undermine its ability to take on a coherent role for the bourgeoisie. There is no point in idle speculation, but the examples from other countries in Europe show what can happen to socialist/social democratic parties. In Scotland, Labour was the dominant party for decades, as recently as 2001 holding 56 out of 72 seats in parliament. In 2015 and 2019 it only had one.
Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, introducing a report on the 2019 election, gave an idea of what the bourgeoisie thinks of the weakening of the Labour Party. “The country needs a strong opposition... Moreover, at its best, the Labour Party has been a great force for decency, speaking up for people throughout the country and ensuring nobody is forgotten. We need it to reclaim that role.” The democratic apparatus is one of the most important weapons that the bourgeoisie has against the development of workers’ consciousness of the reality of capitalist exploitation. The British bourgeoisie has been one of the most experienced and effective in deploying that apparatus, with Labour playing a key part, whether in opposition or government. The diminished effectiveness of the Labour Party shows that, despite the end of the parliamentary paralysis, British capitalism still has difficulties in regaining control of its machinery of mass deception.