At first glance, little has changed over the two weeks that have passed since the 2015 general elections in the United Kingdom. Worldwide, news outlets, bloggers, analysts, commentators and spectators alike read the election as a seismic shift in the politics of the UK: the two giant political parties appeared to be so anemic and so unpopular that small parties were able to gain a considerable following in the political vacuum they left behind.
After the dust settled, the Conservative Party emerged victorious. Often called the “Tories,” the Conservative Party makes up the “mainstream” right wing of the British political establishment, although it has historically represented far-right agendas such as militarily suppressing Irish independence during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). David Cameron—the newly-reelected Prime Minister of the UK—joins the historical ranks of Arthur Balfour , infamous xenophobe Enoch Powell and a long line of other bigoted imperialist politicians. The Conservative Party has historically advocated for the most reactionary policies in the British mainstream, from drowning independence movements in blood, to slashing social services, to outlawing homosexuality, to a foreign policy considered aggressive even in the heyday of the British Empire.
Unfortunately, the electoral alternative to the Conservative Party has historically been the Labor Party—a party whose name is as spurious and dishonest as it is tragic. Nominally a “socialist” party, the Labor Party has represented the center-left on issues which are non-threatening to the social hierarchy, but has locked step with other bourgeois politicians on more substantial matters. For example, Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair is probably best remembered in the United States as George Bush’s friend, political ally and co-conspirator in the “War on Terror.” While genuinely socialist groups were in the streets demanding there be no war in Iraq or Afghanistan, multi-millionaire Blair was busy attending posh meetings with George Bush to initiate a round of decade-long wars.
In other words, the choices have historically been between two capitalist parties—and workers have been pushed to choose the “lesser evil,” just as they have been in the United States and elsewhere where bankers and CEO’s have the last say in the political process.
Some understand this reality to mean that there could never have been any meaningful differences following elections. Such a jaded outlook glosses over the dynamic changes that can happen following bourgeois elections, often as unintended consequences of inter-capitalist disputes. It would be naïve, however, to say that these shifts, whatever their scale, signal the possibility of building socialism by “taking over” the Labor Party, by miraculously winning elections for socialist parties or by building a new electoral party.
However, several key developments did come out of the last electoral cycle, signaling a unique situation for the British political system and for people living in the United Kingdom.
Bourgeois parties lose touch with the masses
Notably, the recent elections show that neither major party in the UK can genuinely say it represents popular will, as neither party was able to muster more than 37 percent of the vote. Voter turnout has declined over the past 20 years in the UK, and this year only 66.1 percent of voters actually cast votes, compared with 71.4 percent in 1997. While 5 percent may not seem like a major change, turnout rates remained relatively stable up until the 2000s, when the steady figures of 70+ percent turnout fell to the mid 60s.
Voter turnout generally signals interest and faith in the existing system: people usually only vote if they believe their votes meaningfully impact their lives. Low turnout therefore spells either mass discontent with the choices, the system presenting those choices, or both.
The growing significance of smaller parties—notably, the Scottish National Party (SNP)—shows a political situation of mass dissatisfaction with both “Labor” and Conservative politics. A key factor in that shift was undoubtedly both parties’ callous anti-people solutions to the failing economy. While Conservative politicians predictably called for austerity—reducing spending by cutting social welfare, pensions, public projects, etc.—Labor ferociously betrayed the workers they claim to represent by joining the Conservative Party’s mobilization to push austerity. Rachel Reeves, a high-profile Labor politician, indignantly defended the party’s double-cross by declaring, “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those out of work.”
Plainly, the masses of the United Kingdom saw both in parties’ platforms their true colors.
Austerity in UK
Despite the obvious signs of mass discontent with the status quo, the Conservatives emerged victorious, despite their vigorously anti-working class politics. Moreover, it appears that the Conservatives will be able to assemble a governing coalition independent of progressive elements of the Labor Party and without the progressive SNP.
The stand-alone rightwing government in other words will essentially be free to assemble an austerity program as far-reaching as it likes. If the Labor Party at least made pretenses to represent the working class, the Conservative Party bluntly represents bankers, CEOs and the remnants of the aristocracy and consequently represents a profound danger to poor, working and oppressed people living in the UK.
Already—thanks in large part to the “Labor” Party’s betrayal—austerity has begun. Social spending, support for the unemployed, healthcare and other public services are under attack. The charity Oxfam describes the “unprecedented rise in the need for emergency food aid, with at least half a million people using food banks each year.” Oxfam concluded that the poorest 20 percent of people in the UK have to shoulder the effects of the government’s efforts to cut the deficit and appease potential foreign investors.
This disproportionate effect on poor, working and oppressed people is rooted in economic conditions familiar to many around the world: amid a rising cost of living, wages have essentially stagnated due to inflation. Part-time work is phasing out full-time work as the mainstay of the labor market. Job shortages have become so profound that self-employment, where workers enjoy far fewer jobsite protections, has sharply increased.
Although the government is claiming to match cuts with tax increases, those taxes are, in the final analysis, regressive, meaning they fall on workers, rather than a progressive tax, which gathers income from the wealthy.
Because women disproportionately handle childcare responsibilities, cuts to public services make women especially vulnerable to suffer from the cuts. Women are also strongly represented in the public sector and so are particularly hard-hit as public sector jobs are cut. As a result unemployment among women in the UK has roughly doubled since 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession.
The victory of the Conservatives is the victory for the political nucleus of this austerity program. Only determined and vigorous organizing, protest, strikes, slow-downs and other weapons exclusively in the arsenal of exploited and oppressed people can check austerity and other anti-people measures.
High hopes for Scottish independence
It was through organization and determination that one of the few people’s victories came out of the 2015 elections. Despite the victory of the Conservatives overall, the Scottish National Party was able to practically sweep the entire Scottish vote, winning all but three counties in Scotland. As a result, the SNP was able to gain 56 of the 59 seats representing Scotland in parliament—up from 6 in 2010.
The SNP, a progressive, social-democratic party focused primarily around Scottish independence from the UK, was able to build this stunning achievement by leveraging the primary strategic resource available to progressive movements—the numbers of poor, working and oppressed people. By mobilizing the masses of Scots, the SNP was able to inspire a mass mobilization for Scottish self-determination—an unequivocally progressive issue.
By organizing, SNP membership reached over 90,000 last year—compared with 25,200 in 2013. As a result, roughly 80 percent of Scots turned out to vote, up 16 percent from 64 percent turnout in 2010.
The issue is far from settled: this is only the beginning of the SNP’s time with serious representation in parliament, and the issue is so far-reaching that it represents a fundamental reorganization of the UK itself. But the gains of the SNP represent not only one of the few major progressive victories in the 2015 elections, but also a two-fold lesson for progressives in general. Elections can only do so much to change the status quo, and ultimately a revolution is necessary to end, rather than blunt, oppression and exploitation. But organizing around elections can play a significant role in galvanizing the movement, especially if leaders are honest with the masses about the limited gains available though electoral organizing.
More generally, the SNP’s gains show the only option available to the masses of people is to independently organize ourselves. We cannot depend on the slickly-polished presentation of millionaire “socialists.” Only by self-reliance, organization and confrontation—only by struggle—can our will be expressed politically. Whether major victories like the Russian or Chinese revolutions, or comparatively small ones like Seattle’s raising of the minimum wage or the SNP victory this month, the theme is the same: we have no choice but to organize, but if we organize, we can win.